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How Westminster Works: The Brutal Secrets Of Parliament's Ancient Hall

7 min read

How Westminster Works is a new limited podcast series from PoliticsHome, that takes a deep dive into the history, quirks and peculiar practices of UK politics.

To listen subscribe to the PoliticsHome podcast feed here and get a new episode every Thursday.

Welcome to one of Parliament’s – if not one of the country’s – most incredible buildings: Westminster Hall, with historians describing the incredible and brutal secrets held within its walls over the past 1,000 years of British politics, while MPs describe how it is still used by politicians for their work today.

If asked to think of the buildings of Westminster, the first to come to mind would probably be the House of Commons or Big Ben, but standing tall on the parliamentary estate is a building with an embarrassment of stories to tell.

Completed in 1099 it was built by King William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror, a few decades after his dad had led the Norman invasion of England.

At nearly 100 feet tall and 240 feet in length, the palace was the largest hall in England at the time, and probably the biggest in Europe, too.

It was designed to impress and in the early days played host to lavish feasts. Since then, it has had all sorts of functions, from the weekend markets Samuel Pepys wrote about in his famous diaries, to 16th century tennis matches.

For historian Mark Collins, who sat down with PoliticsHome in Westminster Hall, 1265 is the first key date in this building’s remarkable tale, when barons, knights, and officials from major towns came together for meetings which became known as the House of Commons.

“From Magna Carta in 1215 under King John, there was a reestablishment of the relationship between the King and the Barons.” he explained.

“And then from that his son Henry III was also pressured by the Barons to relinquish some of the power by arranging these Parliaments, and into Edward I’s reign as well. So through the 13th century, that’s when Parliament really begins.”

Westminster Hall has also been central to the country’s legal history, having been the location of some of the most high-profile state trials.

William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter immortalised by Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, was tried there, and then hung’ drawn and quartered, as was the November 5th gunpowder plotter, Guy Fawkes.

But perhaps the most famous trial to take place in Westminster Hall was that of Charles I, the 17th century king who was put to death after a parliamentary coup against him.

One of the most extraordinary moments in British history, after parliamentarians set up their own court and put a monarch on trial, up to 2,000 spectators are thought to have packed into the hall, some perched in the window reveals, while thousands more gathered in the courtyard outside.

“So after the civil wars, the king was captured and brought to the hall by the House of Commons who set up a high court to judge him,” Collins explains.

"Charles didn't recognise the court, he thought that the king just couldn't be tried but they condemned him to death and he was executed nearby outside the Palace of Whitehall.”

Westminster Hall, at the very heart of British democracy, has also come under attack.

Lord Lexden, Conservative life peer and historian of British politics, describes how the building has twice been targeted by Irish Republican terrorists – the first occasion in 1885.

“Known as ‘dynamite Saturday’, at about 2pm simultaneous explosions occurred at the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London.,” he said.

A suspicious package was observed in the crypt under the hall, but as the police went to remove it “a terrific explosion followed, blowing a six-foot hole in the pavement”, Lexden explained making another hole in the roof, shattering the glass throughout the hall.

He added: “The Home Secretary at the time was walking down St James Street near Pall Mall not far away.

“And his son records in his diary that a man came rushing up and said Westminster Hall is blown up, at the same time showing us his hat, which was full of small pieces of glass.” 

Fast forward nearly 100 years to 17th June, 1974 when the Irish Republican Army, more commonly known as the IRA, bombed Westminster Hall. It would be the start of an intense campaign of attacks on the British mainland.

More recently, Westminster Hall has probably been best known as the location for lying in state, when the coffin of a deceased monarch or former prime minister is placed on view so that members of the public can pay their respects.

This last happened when the Queen Mother died in 2002. Around a quarter of a million people lined up along Westminster Bridge to visit Westminster Hall and view her coffin.

In true British fashion, it’s first come, first served, for those who want to pay their respects.

Around 320,000 people queued along Millbank and Lambeth Bridge to bid farewell to Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister, in January 1965.

It begun with William Gladstone the former Prime Minister in 1898, and then he was followed later by Edward VII, the first sovereign to do so in 1910.

Since the mid-20th century, Westminster Hall has also hosted a handful of foreign speakers starting with French President Charles De Gaulle in 1960.

Nelson Mandela was the next to do so in 1996, with Pope Benedict the 16th and Barack Obama speaking in 2010 and 2011.

Unlike British monarchs, who address Westminster Hall from the top of the hall’s steps, foreign guests speak from half-way up – symbolising their status in relation to the king or queen.

But what Westminster Hall is most used for now is a particular type of Parliamentary debate, in a committee room tucked off to one side above the gift shop.

Labour MP Angela Eagle, a veteran of parliamentary process, explains what goes on in Westminster Hall debates: “There are no votes, that's one of the biggest differences between the Commons and Westminster Hall, so there can't be any decision making.

“The debates were created to enable backbench MPs to raise issues which they want ministerial sight of, and hopefully on the record answers about, but which they couldn't force a vote about.”

Eagle said it creates a chamber which is different to the floor of the House of Commons, not least because of its horseshoe shape, which makes proceedings less adversarial than in the Commons where MPs sit directly opposite each other.

MPs apply to the House of Commons Speaker for Westminster Hall debates, which cover a wide variety of subjects.

Some focus on regional issues affecting a small group of MPs, like flooding in their part of the country, while others tackle issues that a number of MPs are particularly passionate about, such as the recent Post Office Horizon scandal.

Westminster Hall also hosts debates about select committee reports, and debates triggered by 100,000 people or more signing a petition. 

Eagle says Westminster Hall debates have enhanced democracy since they were introduced over 20 years ago, but complains that not all ministers take them completely seriously, with answers getting “worse and worse”.

Asked if some ministers don’t take them seriously, she replied: “Absolutely. What I call very, very formulaic speeches written by the Civil Service, which don't actually reply to any of the points that have been made in the debate that it responds to.

“Obviously it depends on the minister, some are much more engaged with trying to answer questions than others, if I could put it that way.”

Nowadays, the walls of Westminster Hall listen to the hum of tourists and the sound of the parliamentary debate. If those walls could talk, you would listen for hours.


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