I greet visitors to the House of Commons by saying, “Welcome to the scene of many crimes,” and then conduct what you could call a “Guy Fawkes” tour of parliament. That’s not because it is some kind of nihilist walkabout — interesting and important things have happened within those walls. It’s because it is a subversive tour, a look at the history that all too often remains hidden.
It starts, as does parliament itself, with the story of the English Revolution of the 1640s. A century and half before the French Revolution it was this radical clash in England that ended the divine right of kings.
Outside St Stephen’s Gate is a statue of Oliver Cromwell. Inside Westminster Hall there is a plaque on the spot where Charles I was sentenced to death.
Even though the business classes came to power as a result of the revolution, they acquiesced to the restoration of the monarchy and moved quickly to expunge all trace of radicalism. Cromwell’s body was dug up and his head placed on a spike outside St Stephen’s Gate.
A bit further on in Westminster Hall is a plaque commemorating William Wallace, the Scottish patriot who centuries before the English revolution had given form to the rebellious impulses in British society that have been carried down through the generations to today. There is mention of Thomas More, sentenced to death for refusing the dictates of Henry VIII.
From Westminster Hall you can descend the steps to the scene of the gunpowder plot in the cellars beneath the House of Lords. That was not simply a wanton act, but the product of the intense persecution of Catholics at the time. And how deeply did the establishment understand the value of promoting sectarian schisms, of the ancient policy of divide and rule. The consequences can, of course, still be seen today in Ireland.
Back upstairs you can see a very recent statue, only 12 months old. It is of the traitor Ramsay MacDonald. When he broke from the Labour Party to form a national government in the 1930s it was said that in Labour-supporting households across Britain people turned his portrait to face the wall.
Now, under Tony Blair, he has been honoured, with barely a squeak from the New Labour benches. As the saying goes, “Treason doth never prosper… for if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”
Then there is the corridor outside the chamber of the House of Commons. It was in the corridor, in fact, that MPs sat during the Second World War from 1941, as the chamber itself had been bombed. It was here that Winston Churchill made some of his greatest speeches. The man who was infamous in working class communities for turning troops on striking miners had to turn his rhetoric to the vision of freedom and solidarity in order to win popular support during the war.
The chamber itself is laid out in an adversarial style (two sides facing each other). Most assemblies the world over are in a horseshoe shape.
The adversarial style is preferable. It has accentuated the fact that there are two sides and, over the last century, two classes represented.
Over the last 20 years that sense has diminished. Argument, when it takes place, is largely trivialised. Working class representation has declined. Of course, there has always been the pressure to treat it as little more than a polite debating chamber, with the associated annexes of a Pall Mall club.
But at its best, there have been mighty clashes that have reflected the wider battles in society.
During the 1984-85 miners’ strike there were the Tories on one side — some of them descended from the old coal owning families. They were led by Margaret Thatcher, who truly represented her class.
On the other there were the mining MPs and others with strong connections to the trade union movement. They were led by Neil Kinnock, who badly represented our side. But, despite his best efforts to avoid the issue, he was forced to speak up for the miners, while disagreeing with the strike.
The wider struggle did find its way into parliament. The same is true historically. The 18th century radical MP Charles James Fox is a hero of mine. He was three times expelled from parliament and three times re-elected. When the American colonists broke free from Britain in a revolution, he spoke in their support. And he tabled a resolution congratulating the people of France for making their revolution.
The truly great parliamentary occasions were when the big issues and struggles of the day were articulated. I think of Bernadette Devlin, who became MP for mid-Ulster at the height of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, and brought all the energy, youth and principle of that movement into that building in Westminster.
That the debates now are so shallow is not only due to those conducting them, but also to the almost complete absence of substance for much of the time.
Once out of the chamber you can see a mural of Richard the Lionheart off to fight the Crusade. Arab visitors are especially interested that it says on the inscription that he is going to Palestine. It was known as Palestine in the 13th century, giving the lie to one- time Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who infamously said such a place never existed.
There is much else linking parliament to the great crimes that have been committed in the Middle East. It was in the Commons that Sir Percy Sykes agreed the secret deal with his French counterpart, Georges Picot, that led to the carve up of the region at the end of the First World War.
Many of the borders you see now in the Middle East were laid out by these two European colonialists nearly a century ago. One of the early acts of the Russian revolutionaries on taking power in 1917 was to publish the secret deal. There is the former office of Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary whose declaration in 1917 in support of Zionist colonisation contributed so much to a century of injustice and violence.
Yes, there are the fingerprints and forensic evidence attesting to many crimes. But this has also been a scene of battles. There is a plaque, for example, to Emily Wilding Davison. She hid herself in a broom cupboard in parliament on the night of the 1911 census so she could give the House of Commons as her address.
It was her protest in the struggle for votes for women. Two years later she was killed by the king’s horse when she tried to attach a votes for women flag to it at the Derby.
The gains that working people have made have always depended on mass, radical movements outside parliament. The Russian revolutionary Lenin was right to describe as “parliamentary cretinism” the attitude that you should sink yourself into the narrow debates and rituals of assemblies of MPs.
But it would equally be a mistake, and Lenin also recognised this, to ignore parliament and what can be achieved by having radical voices within it. Over the last four years it has helped the anti-war movement that I and other MPs have been able to speak out from the platform of parliament. Despite the bureaucratic procedures they have never been able to silence me.
It will make a difference in the future whether the voices of big business and war are challenged in parliament or not. I refused to sell out by accepting an offer to stay in the Labour Party, with a safe seat, if I retreated from opposition to the war on Iraq. I did that because of principle.
I’m standing for Respect, along with other candidates, in the coming general election because I believe those principles should be represented in parliament, thereby helping to galvanise the movement as a whole.
George Galloway MP
Respect website: www.respectcoalition.org