A week is a long time in politics, so the saying goes, but as I sat drawing in the House of Commons last week, it felt like every minute was packed with enough material for me to fill my entire sketchbook.
Unfortunately this would have required some sort of Bernard's Watch, or at least a request from the Speaker of the House for everyone to please sit still for a moment whilst I perfected my cross-hatching of Ken Clarke's lapel. So I stuck with my usual approach- drawing and documenting as much as I could take in, capturing a sense of the energy and composition of the scene before me, as well as focusing in on particular moments, characters, gestures and interactions which caught my attention.
My trip to the grand Palace of Westminster in London was timed so I could witness and draw the first Prime Minister's Question Time of the new parliament, followed by the debate and vote on the Queen's Speech- the first major test for Theresa May's post-election government.
I attempted a visit a couple of months ago- on the day of the final PMQs before the snap general election- but unfortunately I just missed out on the last available seat in the public gallery. It wasn't a wasted trip however: I ended up with the memorable experience of watching the debate on a TV screen from a dusty room just off Westminster Hall, alongside a group of muttering strangers of various political persuasions resembling a scene from 12 Angry Men.
This time, with the help of my local MP, I'd managed to source a ticket to guarantee a spot, and thankfully received permission to draw in the public gallery from the Serjeant-at-Arms- a good person to have on your side as the only individual traditionally allowed to enter the House of Commons armed with a sword.
Meandering my way through the opulent halls and grand lobbies of Westminster, I felt like I was visiting a museum of British political history where half the exhibits have come to life. Alongside ornate statues and epic murals showing a sweeping timeline of kings, queens, and political figures like Gladstone, William Pitt, Churchill and Keir Hardie, I spotted a who's-who procession of today's politicians- the new deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson, the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr, Tory grandee Oliver Letwin, Labour veteran Dennis ‘Beast of Bolsover’ Skinner- chattering beneath the archways and making their way to the Commons chamber in time for the day's session.
With the Speaker John Bercow keeping us all alert with his remarkable bellow, I settled into my seat in the Commons public gallery, and over the course of two days I spent almost fifteen hours observing this historic and grand forum for our democracy. I drew as Jeremy Corbyn challenged Theresa May over the response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the cuts to emergency service funding, as Chancellor Philip Hammond clashed with his shadow counterpart John McDonnell over the economy, jobs and the impact of austerity, and as Home Secretary Amber Rudd debated Diane Abbott over security and policing.
Old faces and new names came forward to make impassioned speeches on Brexit, single-market membership, the public sector pay cap, Rupert Murdoch's bid to takeover Sky, access to abortions for Northern Irish women and the Government's deal with the DUP. And at the end of each day, the Speaker boomed his command for all MPs to stand and file out of the chamber into opposing 'division lobbies'- one for 'Aye' and one for 'No'- as they voted on various amendments to the Government's Queen's Speech and ultimately the Speech itself, which passed with an expected but slim majority of fourteen.
I even had the privilege of hearing the Speaker announce a relaxation on rules about wearing ties in Parliament, a historic moment if ever there was one. When in fifty years the definition of 'business-like attire' has progressed to wearing lycra onesies and feather boas, at least I can say I was there when it all began.
Although I've watched TV coverage of the House of Commons many times, to witness and draw the scenes live from within the chamber felt far more immersive and gripping. Debates were as boisterous and boorish at times as they appear on the screen, yet the exchanges and speeches were, for the most part, well-mannered, forceful, passionate and articulate.
However flawed, divisive and detached the Commons may appear, I left with the impression that this 'Mother of Parliaments' remains a crucial and meaningful forum for our representative democracy, where progress engages in an awkward dance with tradition, but where the voices of constituents are heard and where an increasing diversity of people and viewpoints are given a national platform.
Thanks for reading the Drawing Democracy Blog. I'll be continuing to share my experiences as I work towards producing a printed publication of the project, where you'll be able to read more and see the full collection of my drawings of democracy in action. Keep your eyes peeled for updates!