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Westminster

Salmond’s heading for Westminster. But will he recognise the place

Alex Salmond is ready to rumble Westminster, he says.

Alex Salmond is ready to rumble Westminster, he says. But will he recognise the place? The Palace of Westminster is not what it was.

Back in Salmond’s glory days, under Margaret Thatcher and then Tony Blair, the House of Commons really was the cockpit of the nation. Just being in its precincts gave you that intoxicating sense of being near to power. But now the lobbies are silent, many bars have closed and the palace is mostly deserted in the evening.

The Labour MP John Mann gave the game away admitting this week that parliamentarians have been putting in only a two day week. Politicians ?? like journalists ?? now spend far too much of their time in their offices sitting in front of computers. Tweeting, face booking, emailing and playing computer games. Even when they are supposed to be in committees as we discovered when the Tory MP Nigel Mills was photographed playing Candy Crush while in a Work and Pensions Committee session.

Politics used to be a contact sport. This was partly because of the institution called the Lobby ?? a kind of parliamentary freemasonry which allowed MPs and selected journalists to frequent the quadrangle immediately outside the Commons debating chamber.

Special rules applied ?? most importantly that whatever MPs said there was quotable, but on an unattributable basis. The Lobby was a great journalistic resource if you were part of it, but it was highly manipulative. It allowed politicians to push stories ?? often against rivals in their own party ?? behind a cloak of anonymity.

But even the Lobby is not what it was. There are fewer late night sessions in parliament and MPs now tend to congregate in the forbidding Portcullis House over the road where they have their big offices.

Back when Salmond was causing endless mischief, politicians lived in cramped broom cupboards, so they tended to hang out in the Lobby and in the bars, to chat and plot. I once went on a parliamentary pub crawl and lost count after 12 bars.

But politicians don’t even frequent the ??liquid dungeons?? of Westminster, as the Labour MP Brian Wilson called them, any more. Annies bar, which used to be notorious for heavy parliament is long gone as is the press bar ?? heaven forfend. P

Mind you, Alex Salmond wasn’t much of a drinker and used to claim that he had never visited Annies. But he will find the place very much less convivial than in his day. Too many politicians spend long lunches with lobbyists in the many Commons dining rooms where many sordid deals are struck.

Parliament is now infested with lobbyists ?? both professional hired guns and representative of corporate entities. They were there in the past too, of course, but they were always regarded as the lowest of the low. Interlopers. Paddlers of influence.

After the great cash-for-questions scandals of the 1990s, they were supposed to have been swept away, but they just became institutionalised instead. In fact, so many ex politicians are now lobbyists that it is hard to tell elected members from the hired hands.

Famously, the former Labour minister, Stephen Byers, disclosed to an undercover journalist in 2011 that he was |??available for hire, like a taxi??. That was a sad insight into just how far our elected members had fallen.

Salmond is really a product of a bygone age, when MPs really were big beasts and attracted some of the most powerful personalities in public life. So how will roisterous, chatterbox Salmond fit into this deracinated parliament of nonentities who spend their time in the gym when they should be plotting? .

Well, I’m sure he’ll find a way. If nothing else, he will become the member for chat shows like Have I Got News For You. Salmond is a compulsive publicity seeker and he will not doubt be back on our screens before long

Alex Salmond loves to cause trouble. And trouble makers ?? intelligent ones with a purpose ?? is precisely what Westminster lacks these days, now that the Tony Benns and Michael Heseltines, are part of parliamentary history.

Modern politicians are mostly ex policy wonks who behave more like public relations executives than parliamentarians. So, perhaps Westminster’s will be all the better for Salmond’s second coming. It certainly needs someone to put a bit of life back in the old place.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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