GAVIN ESLER: The last time stupidity destroyed parliament

Protestors demonstrate in Guy Fawkes masks. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA.

Protestors demonstrate in Guy Fawkes masks. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

GAVIN ESLER draws parallels between government behaviour today and around the Gunpowder plot.

It's time to roll out the old song again:

"Remember, remember the Fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

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We see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

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Should ever be forgot."

And of course we do still remember Guy Fawkes and his dastardly plot to blow up the Westminster parliament. But as we celebrate our third - third! - Not-Brexit Day of 2019 (it's become a tradition), some of us are also thinking about Boris Johnson's attempts to blow up parliament in his own inimitable style - something which has a very different parallel in the past, a time when the Palace of Westminster was in fact very seriously damaged.

For a product of antique institutions - Eton, Oxford and the Daily Telegraph - Johnson has shown his serial contempt for other institutions or customs observed in Westminster. He has been criticised for refusing (again) to appear before the parliamentary Liaison Committee, for using the Queen's Speech as a pre-election broadcast, for putting the Queen in an unseemly position, for being less than enthusiastic about the role of the Supreme Court and of course for permitting "senior Downing Street sources" to brief that he, Boris Johnson, invented the internet, was the first man on the Moon, and along with Mark Francois was in Seal Team Six when they took out Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Now, he is planning to fight a "people versus parliament" election. We'll get to the election blowing-up-of-parliament in a moment. But one of the many dodgy things about the dodgiest prime minister we have had since… since, well, ever, really… is that Johnson is always in a hurry.

Why is this? Is it like the street market trader in a hurry to sell his fake perfume before Trading Standards arrive? Will Johnson hold this 'special price' for the next few minutes, "then luv, when it's gone, it's gone". And of course he will also be gone, scarpering before you can open the bottle and smell Eau-de-Thames contents and call the rozzers.

He has much form in the hurrying department. He was in such a hurry to sell us his "excellent" Brexit "deal" until MPs dared suggest it might be wise to have a sniff at one or two details. Those distrusting souls in parliament were apparently unwilling entirely to commit the future economic, trade and foreign policy of the UK to whatever was the result of Johnson's autumnal stroll with the prime minister of Ireland as interpreted in a few late-night sessions in a Brussels committee room. But Johnson hasn't got time for this nit-picking shilly-shallying.

As his "do or die" date of Halloween passes, with no sign of Johnson heading to his ditch, the United Kingdom is heading to the polls for the first December election since 1923. That year a Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin arrogantly forced on voters an election which was not necessary. He lost. Big time. To avoid Baldwin's fate in this campaign Johnson will undoubtedly do what he always does: Find distractions to make us forget his lies, errors and countless broken promises. Part of it is likely to be the argument that parliament itself, the institution we revere as the guarantor of democracy, historically the target of terrorists and conspirators like Guy Fawkes, is really our enemy.

Some British voters, encouraged by a couple of well-known newspapers, may swallow this nonsense. Many will not. But the damage will be done. And if this develops into a "people versus parliament" election in any sense it will not be a Guy Fawkes-style failure. It will be damaging - much more like the destruction of the Palace of Westminster in 1834.

On October 16 that year, workmen cleared up two cartloads of small wooden tally sticks, flimsy pieces of wood used as part of the accounting procedures of the Exchequer and rendered obsolete in 1826 - rubbish uncollected for eight years.

The stoves in the Palace of Westminster - again with echoes of today - had also been neglected for years, the chimneys were a fire hazard and opening and closing the furnace doors added oxygen each time more sticks were put in, increasing the temperature. Floorboards heated up. Smoke was detected. The workmen were told there was a problem but they decided it wasn't really a big deal. Then the place burned down.

As the official online parliamentary website puts it: "It was a great sight for the crowds on the streets (who were kept back by soldiers) and a great opportunity for artists such as J.M.W. Turner who painted several canvases depicting it. Both Houses of Parliament were destroyed along with most of the other buildings on the site. Westminster Hall was saved largely due to heroic fire-fighting efforts, and a change in the direction of the wind during the night."

Outside one of Boris Johnson's own speeches, have you ever read such a smug, complacent account of a massive, totally preventable idiotic disaster? The facts are simple: It was a man-made catastrophe caused by lack of care and due diligence, neglect, stupidity, incompetence, pig-headedness and the triumph of complacency over reason. But the official parliamentary website makes it sound like a triumph of British genius: "A great sight… a great opportunity… heroic fire-fighting efforts" and the Hand of God blessing Britain with a change of wind direction.

Now, in 2019, again the facts are simple. Brexit has become a man-made disaster caused by lack of care and due diligence, neglect, stupidity, incompetence, pig-headedness and the triumph of complacency over reason. It risks destroying if not the fabric of parliament, at least it has begun setting light to its reputation.

We can smell the smoke. The floorboards are warm underfoot. But you can be sure the Bloviator in Chief, our dear prime minister, will emerge from the ashes to declare it all a great sight, a great opportunity and there will be lashings of ginger beer and cake for tea. I'm still hoping for the Hand of God to change the direction of the wind.

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