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18 September 2014
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Westminster: A New Palace for a New Age

By Christine Riding
The Constitution

Image of the Black Rod ceremony during the State Opening of Parliament
Black Rod ceremony, during State Opening of Parliament 
As the 19th century progressed, the image of the British Constitution, as represented by the Palace of Westminster, became increasingly anachronistic.

When the palace was designed and constructed from the 1830s and 1840s, broadly speaking the balance of political power between the three parts of the Constitution were, from top to bottom, the Monarchy, the House of Lords and then the House of Commons. By the end of the century the balance had largely reversed.

The journalist Walter Bagehot, in his treatise The English Constitution, published in 1867, noted this process of political change. He argued that the Constitution could now be divided into two parts. First

‘the dignified parts... which excite and preserve the reverence of the population’, that is the Monarchy and the House of Lords ...'

and second,

'... the efficient parts ... those by which it, in fact, works and rules, that is the House of Commons.'

In Bagehot’s opinion the monarchy was a national figurehead, no longer primarily about the business of ruling but about state ceremony and theatre, the 'timelessness' of which would act as a disguise to political and social change. Of course, the Palace of Westminster itself played a part in this disguise, simply because of the way in which it was constructed and decorated.

'... their areas of the building were sumptuous and ornate ...'

The monarchy and Lords in some ways appeared to hold power because their areas of the building were sumptuous and ornate, but the House of Commons’ plain, workaday environment was where the real business of Parliament was now conducted. This equation of plainness with actual political power is even more exaggerated in the present Commons Chamber, which was rebuilt after the bombing of Barry and Pugin’s chamber in World War Two.

The architect Giles Gilbert Scott designed the chamber in an even simpler form of Gothic than its 19th-century predecessor. By the time the chamber opened in October 1950, the House of Commons was beyond doubt the driving force of British politics.

About the author

Christine Riding is currently a curator at Tate Britain. She has previously worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of London, the Wallace Collection, and was a consultant curator at the Palace of Westminster. Her recent publications include Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture, Merrell 2000.


Published: 2005-02-07

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