At the heart of any good democracy is a publicly accessible debating chamber. What I'd not fully realised until yesterday is quite how accessible.
I hadn't left home with the express intention of entering Parliament, nor pre-booked anything, nor communicated with my MP. So I wasn't quite sure what would happen when I wandered up to the public entrance to the Palace of Westminster (about halfway along, opposite Westminster Abbey, close to the densest cluster of security barriers). A small group of uniformed officials wait outside, just off the pavement, to assist, support or ward off approaching members of the public. I watched for a bit, and all the other folk going in looked to be important, or at least rather more smartly dressed, as if with some kind of Parliamentary business to attend to. But I asked anyway, "is it possible to go in to the Public Gallery?"
And yes it is, right away. That's so long as either the Commons or Lords is in session, which is alas an increasingly rare occurrence as this rump of a Parliament stumbles towards the next election. The Lords weren't in session until 3, I was told, but the Commons had kicked off at noon with Prime Minister's Questions - the only half-hour slot of the week for which tickets should be obtained in advance. I was given a green laminated sheet and asked to hold it in front of me on the way in so that I'd be treated, and directed, appropriately. And within fifteen seconds I was entering the security theatre that would allow me to enter unchallenged.
The list of Don'ts on the way in is nothing unexpected - no bombs, no blades, no explosives. Three armed police guard the top of the entrance ramp (that's three police with bloody large firearms, not triple-limbed upholders of the law). There's sometimes a queue on the way down (apparently "a wait of one or two hours is common") but midweek afternoons in January aren't peak times so I had the friskdown posse in the security cabal entirely to myself. On entering I was handed a dated visitor pass to hang round my neck. At no point was I ever asked my name, although I assume they took a photo of me for their records on the way in, and for all I know some clever bit of intelligence software had already deduced my date of birth, postcode and bank account details before my personal belongings had exited the scanner.
And in. The public get to skirt the edge of New Palace Yard before entering the building via Westminster Hall. This is a treat in itself, the great medieval building with its hammerbeam roof has seen more than its fair share of history over the centuries. Plaques mark the spot where Charles I stood trial and where Nelson Mandela stood in triumph. It was particularly affecting to see the spot where Winston Churchill's coffin lay in state, precisely 50 years ago this very week, and to imagine the reverent queues processing through. Again it was quiet here, just the odd school group or tour party, and various suits and heels clipping through on official business within.
At the far end, up the broad stone staircase, St Stephen's Porch leads to St Stephen's Hall. Its splendid frescoes are well worth a look, before you step with a wow into Central Hall, You'll recognise it from TV, a highly-decorated high-domed space where four important corridors meet, with the Commons to the left and the Lords to the right. Again I was impressed at being allowed to walk around freely, to inspect the four statues of Victorian statesmen and to observe goings on at the members' internal post office, even if I didn't spot anyone famous or catch a TV crew setting up for an interview on camera.
The entrance to the public gallery is through the doorway immediately on the left. Here you swap your green laminated sheet for a green slip of paper, which you must sign and deposit to agree that you will not create a disruption in the chamber. Again there's no attempt to link your signature to a given name, but that won't save you if your reasons for entry are nefarious. You're now in a rather ordinary back corridor, part of the working life of the building, which leads to an even more ordinary staircase (apart from the cloistered view from the window on the spiral ascent). One final encounter requires you to hand over your bag, phone, camera, laptop and any other electronic equipment, in exchange for a numbered token. And then you really are in.
The public gallery hangs above the southern end of the House of Commons, with nine rows of green benches raked down in the manner of a theatre balcony. Architecturally it's an integral part of the chamber, but about ten years ago a glass shield was bolted in to screen Them from Us, and since then no well-aimed flour bomb has ever hit a serving minister. The divide means speeches can only be heard indirectly, via loudspeakers, with BBC Parliament cameras relaying the action from down below. Around thirty members of the public were present when I arrived, although at least a hundred more could have been packed in. They came and went - a school group in hi-vis tabards, an elderly couple, a party of visiting Hasidic Jews, and several suited entourages (briefly) present to see democracy in action.
I'd arrived on Opposition Day, during a debate entitled NHS (Government spending). It had already been going for some time, and had reached the point where backbenchers on both sides were keen to make sure their twopennorth was heard. We heard of good work in Islington, investment in Dover and shocking inadequacies in ambulance services in the northeast. The rhetoric was as partisan as you'd expect, but polite, and always with due deference to other Honorable members. Each MP had seven minutes to make their point, a time reduced to six and then five as the debate proceeded, and which ticked down on a green screen towards the moment when the Deputy Speaker would brutally cut them off. More charitable members gave way to interruptions from other members, ensuring arguments were properly challenged, and the variation in oratory also helped us to stay awake.
I really shouldn't need to tell you all this, because goings on in Parliament are broadcast live on their own dedicated TV channel which you could easily watch, but don't. Instead let me tell you a little more about what the cameras don't see, or at least which the director chooses not to show. MPs are allowed to use smartphones and tablets in the chamber and will often sit there checking the BBC news webpage or tapping furious messages. A more traditional means of communication is also available, with a clerk popping into the chamber on a regular basis to deliver, or to collect, written messages. I noted that anyone who spoke on the official record received a delivery shortly afterwards, and also that speakers generally stayed to listen to the speech immediately after theirs before nodding to the Speaker and exiting the chamber.
By the third hour of a debate the benches seem generally quite empty, except with those waiting to speak (and whoever's lumbered being the front bench spokesperson). At one point I counted barely 20 elected representatives present, although that number slowly rose as the scheduled end of the debate approached. It was at this point that the only well known minister arrived, this being Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary. He turned very deliberately to talk to the MP behind him throughout the whole of the Shadow minister's summing up, jabbing repeatedly at a notebook he'd brought, then turned back to face forwards the second his deputy opened her defence, his Blackberry in full effect. Of all the participants on all sides, including Coalition, Opposition and a speaker from the SNP, only Jeremy's behaviour rankled me with his petty schoolboy posturing.
There followed a vote, or as it's officially called a division. It was great to watch this up close, as the tellers trooped off to their positions and the stewards took up position by the doors. Suddenly the whole panoply of MPs trooped through, more than 500 in total, revealing they'd been in the building all this time just not particularly interested in the debate. Some had been in Select Committees, others no doubt in the bar, but the bell drew everyone in to vote over the ensuing ten minute window, thanks to Parliament's delightfully archaic system which requires physical presence and progression through a particular lobby. I spotted several more well-known members at this point, including Sarah Teather and a particularly frail-looking Gerald Kaufman, but I was equally struck by the huge number of non-famous identikit MPs whom nobody would ever recognise outside their own constituencies. The motion fell by 298 votes to 228.
And then we were straight into the next debate, on sustainable development goals. This was considerably better attended, or at least the opening speeches were - I suspect numbers drooped significantly as this three hour discussion dragged on. The initial debate seemed much livelier too, with higher levels of verbal jousting and a heartfelt intervention from Caroline Lucas, Britain's only Green MP. But I'd had enough by this point, and left the high-ranking ladies to battle amongst themselves as I went to collect my belongings. I can't claim to have been excited by what I'd heard, indeed it's easy to argue that the chamber is little more than a talking shop while the real business takes place elsewhere. But I was thrilled by seeing the parliamentary process in the flesh, which means that from this point on I can picture every televised debate in its proper setting in a high Gothic chamber beneath six heavy lamps. And all I had to do was walk in off the street.