In 1943, during a debate over whether to rebuild the House of Commons chamber, the cradle of British democracy, after it had been destroyed during the Blitz, Winston Churchill observed, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Seventy-five years later, if the state of Westminster is any indication, there is a rot at the core of British politics. The Houses of Parliament are again in a desperate state of disrepair. But that’s not all. Members of Parliament are being warned about rules of decorum after vomit and used condoms were found by cleaners tasked with tidying up Westminster offices, according to a report in the Sunday Times.
The national newspaper revealed that cleaners have grown so exasperated with raucous parliamentarians and their staffs that they have complained to the Commons clerk.
“The House of Commons provides offices to MPs and their staff to enable them to carry out their parliamentary duties,” a spokesman for the chamber said in a statement provided to The Washington Post. “Any use of such facilities must be in support of those duties, as specified in the Members’ Handbook and Code of Conduct. Any reported misuse of facilities will be taken seriously and investigated.”
Commons authorities are weighing a new “service agreement” enforcing standards for the use of professional space, and applying penalties for the “worst culprits,” the Times reported.
“It’s the type of behavior you would expect from students enjoying freshers’ week, not MPs and their staff,” a senior individual told the newspaper, referring to the week-long, alcohol-fueled rite of passage for new students at British universities. “But cleaners are being confronted with vomit and used condoms in offices used by MPs and their staff. The cleaners are not there to clear up after their debauchery, and this is not an appropriate use of office space.”
As the #MeToo movement shines a light on the dark corners where sex and power mingle, the U.K. Parliament has been one among many case studies in how highbrow politics has been conducted alongside disreputable misbehavior.
The mess that lawmakers have made of their work spaces has additional significance because of the sex scandal that gripped Westminster last year. Perhaps the most notable case was that of Michael Fallon, the defense secretary and member of the Conservative Party who resigned in November following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, including placing his hand on a female journalist’s knee at a 2002 dinner.
As accusations cascaded, Theresa May, the Conservative prime minister, called for new grievance procedures last fall, saying the existing system lacked “teeth.” Reforms also included a crackdown on free-flowing, subsidized alcohol in the Houses of Parliament — the cost of which has been a subject of petitions and freedom of information requests.
According to the Times, a total of 11 bars, restaurants and cafeterias in the Commons sell alcohol. A pint of beer goes for as little as £3.40, about $4.50.
Scrutiny of the drinking culture escalated when the former manager of the infamous Sports and Social bar said last November that she had been repeatedly propositioned for sex by members of Parliament. One had allegedly groped her and tried to follow her home, according to British media.
A plaque that once hung on the wall of the drab haunt of parliamentarians read: “The Code of the Man Cave.”
“What happens here stays here!” it added. “Violators will be shot — survivors will be shot again.”
The Sports and Social bar closed in December following a fight between two members of staff. A member of Parliament, who had previously resigned from the Labour Party after head-butting Conservative rivals in 2012, was again arrested after a brawl at the watering hole in 2013.
The bar reopened last month under a new name, The Woolsack, with reduced hours.
The House of Commons, while austere, is hardly a placid place. Vigorous debate, often marked by shouting and name-calling, erupts in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions, or PMQs, a session every Wednesday in which the prime minister stands and fields inquiries from other members.
The format lends itself to the sort of direct, bare-knuckled exchange absent from American legislative debate, where members of Congress have an easier time evading questions from one another. But it has its downsides. In 2014, John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, said the “histrionics and cacophony of noise” dissuaded some lawmakers from participating.
Still, these debates unfold against the backdrop of frescoed walls and gold sculptures adorning the Houses of Parliament. This grandeur appears at odds with the degraded behavior that has leaked into public view over the last year.
Some see matters differently. Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian’s chief culture writer, observed that the architectural features — “our buildings,” as Churchill put it — have reinforced the bad behavior, helping to make sense of why vomit and male contraception could collect in Westminster offices.
As she documented the hazardous conditions plaguing Parliament, from asbestos to sewage leaks, she argued that the space is “all too obviously a remnant of a predemocratic age.”
“It was designed when women were, at best, crinoline-wearing spectators of parliamentary life, consigned to the public gallery,” Higgins wrote. “With its chilly colonnades of sculptures of male politicians, its heavy, ecclesiastical furnishings and gentlemen’s-club atmosphere, it provides the perfect stage-set for Britain’s ‘very aggressive, very masculine, very power-hoarding democracy,’ as political scientist Matthew Flinders put it.”
A record 208 women members of Parliament were elected to the House of Commons in the 2017 general election, accounting for 32 percent of the chamber.
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