If you want to understand some of the centuries-old traditions and arcane idiosyncrasies that make up constitutionless British parliamentary democracy, the Palace of Westminster, as the complex is still properly called, is the place to come. A palace was first established on this site by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. William II started building a new palace in 1087, and this gradually became the seat of English administrative power. However, fire destroyed most of the palace in 1834, and the current Gothic-style complex dates largely from the mid-19th century.
Visitors aren't allowed to snoop too much, but the Visitors' Galleries of the House of Commons do afford a view of democracy in action when the banks of green-leather benches are filled by opposing MPs (members of Parliament). Debates are formal and full of arcane procedure, but they can also be explosively raucuous—especially during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs), when any MP can put a question to the nation's leader. The Speaker's plaintive cries of "order, order" are drowned out by baying and jeering as the game of political one-upmanship reaches fever pitch. Tickets to PMQs are free but highly sought after, so virtually the only way for non-UK citizens to gain access is by queuing on the day and hoping for returns or no-shows. The action starts at 1 pm every Wednesday when Parliament is sitting, and the whole shebang is broadcast live on television.
There are also Visitors Galleries for The House of Lords—the (controversially) unelected second chamber, that scrutinizes and revises legislation but has no lawmaking powers. Debates here are, frankly, dull by comparison, although the opulent debating chamber is impressive.
Westminster Hall, with its remarkable hammer-beam roof, was the work of William the Conqueror's son William Rufus. It's one of the largest remaining Norman halls in Europe, and its dramatic interior was the scene of the trial of Charles I.
After the 1834 fire, the Clock Tower—renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012, in honor of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee—was completed in 1858, and contains the 13-ton bell known as Big Ben. At the southwest end of the main Parliament building is the 323-foot-high Victoria Tower.
Public tours of Parliament cost £16.50 and must be booked in advance through www.ticketmaster.co.uk.
Nonresidents are able to watch debates when Parliament is in session by waiting in line for tickets. Embassies and High Commissions often have a quota of debate tickets available to their citizens, which can help you avoid long lines.
The easiest time to get into the Commons is during an evening session—Parliament is still sitting if the top of the Clock Tower is illuminated.
The most romantic view of the Houses is from the opposite (south) bank, across Lambeth Bridge. It is especially dramatic at night when floodlighted green and gold.
St. Stephen's Entrance, St. Margaret St., London, SW1 0AA, England
020-7219–4272-Information; 0844-847–1672-Public Tours; 0161-425–8677-Public Tours (from overseas)
Apr 2, 2008
Big and fascinating building, with surprisingly ornate interior (lots of mosaics, paintings, architectural detail). House of Commons has a so-so interior but worthy speakers, House of Lords has a gorgeous interior but dull speakers. Went in the early evening and encountered no wait -- was able to see both houses with no problems. Definitely worth a visit.
Sep 10, 2002
You'll learn about these things and more if you manage to get a tour of the place. Take the tour if you want to learn more about the traditions behind British politics from the state opening of Parliament to that little patch of gold (bronze?) on a certain former PM's statue. Was at first a little disappointed that I couldn't catch the House of Commons in action, but I liked the tour much so better. Now when I watch the H of C Q&A on C-Span at 12
am on a Sunday morning I always giggle over the fact that I've stood in the very spot where the then new PM Tony Blair stands when shouting over the the opposition or walked in Queen E's path during the opening of Parliament. We had a great tour guide, an older gentleman, who knew his stuff and told a lot of great and trivial political stories past and present.