Until quite recently, all British MPs were entitled to a free quantity of snuff, and Conservative Party whips kept a "Dirt Book" of secrets used to blackmail rebellious members into voting the proper way.
Those are gone, along with the crumbling metal roof of the Palace of Westminster. It hadn't been repaired since the Luftwaffe bombed it more than 70 years ago. Finally, last year, a new roof was installed.
Even so, the "mother of Parliaments" is falling apart, body and soul. It needs, in the words of one of its younger members, "a kick up the backside." I probably would not know any of this, except that the grey wigs in charge of it allowed a documentary crew in to film a most extraordinary series, which has just aired on the BBC. It's a fly-on-the-wall examination of pomp and power called Inside the Commons, and I can't imagine anything similar happening in Canada. As they said in the old tea commercial, "Pity."
Would the CBC or CTV devote the necessary resources to have a crew hang around Parliament Hill for a year? Would anyone watch? Those are rhetorical questions, of course. This government would sooner let rabid crocodiles into the corridors of power than a bunch of journalists with cameras. Possibly they don't recognize a difference.
Yet in a visionary and possibly crazy move, this is precisely what veteran journalist Michael Cockerell and his crew were allowed to do. Over a year, they shot 600 hours – interviews with senior ministers and rookie MPs, tea ladies and the guy who winds Big Ben's clock – and whittled it down to four episodes that are as riveting as the original British version of House of Cards. (If there is such a documentary in the works here, I'll be the first to watch it.)
The gorgeous Victorian-era Parliament buildings provide Mr. Cockerell with an apt visual metaphor: They are crumbling, approximately at the same rate as civility within their walls. The room housing decrepit pipes and wires, directly under the chamber where MPs debate, is called "the Cathedral of Horrors." It will require some $6-billion to fix the Palace of Westminster, although the loss of public trust in the MPs' shenanigans, in the wake of a recession and an expenses scandal, is even more costly. (One of the MPs seen on camera, Labour's Jack Straw, was just implicated in a favours-for-access scandal.)
The cameras catch wonderfully frank moments. One Labour MP says plaintively, "If you're in politics, it's because you think you understand the way the electorate thinks, but I don't know if that's true any more. A lot of us are scratching our heads and wondering what's going on out there." The Prime Minister shrugs and admits that his backbenchers are fed friendly questions to lob his way.
There's horse-trading in the hallways and the scent of sulphur from the whips' offices. "I haven't actually murdered anybody," says Labour's chief whip, Rosie Winterton. "Yet." At the same time, though – and this is why the series is so brilliant, and why I wish there could be a Canadian version – it shows the incredible hard work of average MPs, fuelled by coffee (possibly beer) and porridge, as they draft legislation and amendments they know will die a slow death.
While there are obvious differences between our two parliaments – theirs opened the door to scrutiny, for example, and our Prime Minister would probably never show up in tails for an emergency late-night vote – there are some comforting similarities. Both of our Houses are falling apart, for one thing. And British MPs also bridle at the control freakery of the Prime Minister's inner circle, and the lack of free and open debate. When the government shuts down debate on a crucial piece of legislation about European arrest warrants, veteran Tory MP Sir Richard Shepherd rises to his feet, practically shaking with anger at his party's perfidy. "The growth of executive arrogance is unsupportable," he says. "That is what brings this chamber into disrepair. We are not able to discuss the substance of what we stand for here, and that is wrong."
The anger is there, all right, set against the most wonderfully archaic details, like the pink ribbons in the MPs' cloakroom that are meant for hanging swords. Inside the Commons did well in the ratings; its first episode outperformed 24 Hours in Police Custody but was beaten, sadly, by Celebrity Big Brother. People may have tuned out of politics, but given the chance, they might tune back in.