Business Not Quite As Usual

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UK Houses of Parliament (Credit: Long Road Photography)

In her Statement, in the aftermath of the attack at Westminster, the Prime Minister defiantly insisted that parliamentary business would today continue as usual. During the morning sittings in both Houses, there was a united and wholly unambiguous message that those who would destroy our democracy and fundamental freedoms will not succeed.

But in the sombre atmosphere that inevitably prevailed, it wasn’t quite business as usual. And we always need to remind ourselves that this is not the first, and will not be the last attack on Westminster – both on the buildings and on the values which are its foundation stones.

Nearly forty years ago, on March 30th 1979, on the day after I was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election, Airey Neave was murdered by the Irish National Liberation Army, blown up just yards from where P.C. Keith Palmer – a father-of-two and a member of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Squad – was yesterday murdered by an Islamist terrorist.

Keith had worked at Westminster for fifteen years and he was one of our gallant band of men and women who protect us and every day greet us, and endless visitors, with great courtesy but who also know that Westminster is far more than a tourist attraction. It is an iconic building that stands for democracy and freedom and is therefore bound to be a target for those who wish to destroy those things and impose hate driven ideologies.

P.C.Palmer’s body lay just yards from the entrance to Westminster Hall – which was subjected to Nazi bombs at the height of World War Two. In 1940 a high explosive bomb fell into Old Palace Yard. In 1941 an incendiary hit the Victoria Tower and a police sergeant showed great courage when he climbed the scaffold and extinguished the burning magnesium with a sandbag. Then the western courtyard was hit and two auxiliary policemen were killed.

Next, the Commons Chamber was hit along with Westminster Hall – built by William Rufus in 1097. As the Commons burnt, firemen with axes broke down the doors of the Hall and as the medieval rafters burnt they pumped in water from the Thames to save the Hall.

P.C.Palmer stands in a long and heroic tradition of extraordinary bravery placed at the service of their country.

If the walls of Westminster Hall could speak they could tell this nation’s history – of its struggles for political and religious freedom, its belief in human rights and its belief in the rule of law. From its construction in 1097, and the first meeting of Parliament in 1265, to the trials of William Wallace in 1305, of St.Thomas More in 1535, and Charles I in 1649, to the lying in State of Kings, Queens and Prime Ministers, there is little that this Hall could not tell us about who we are and what we stand for as a nation.

My first visit to Westminster Hall was as in 1965, as a school boy, when we came to pay our respects to Sir Winston Churchill whose body had been brought to the Hall – and whose leadership saw this country through its darkest hours.

Yesterday, after being locked down for several hours in Central Lobby many of us were taken into the Hall – where hundreds of people waited as events continued to unfold. Here were Peers, MPs, secretaries, researchers, ancillary and catering staff and visitors to the House– the complete diverse mix that makes up the Westminster community on any working day. I wondered what some of the school children, who had been singing songs to keep up their spirits, would make of this their first visit to Westminster. Beyond the tragedy I hope they will be inspired and realise that in every generation the baton must pass to the one which follows.

As the attack was taking place I was meeting with the Egyptian Coptic Bishop, Angaelos. A few months ago he had spoken in Westminster Hall at the annual parliamentary prayer breakfast. During our meeting we had been talking about recent attacks on his church community – many driven out by ISIS killers from the Sinai Peninsula. We talked about the Copts who had been murdered by ISIS in Libya – who went to their deaths refusing to renounce their faith. We were recalling that the last time we had been together was to stand outside Westminster Abbey at a service of remembrance to mark the deaths of 25 people at Cairo’s Cathedral of St.Mark.

Then, one of our Doorkeepers urgently asked us to follow him – and he took us to Central Lobby. Among many we spoke to there was Lord Tebbit – who had survived the Brighton bomb and whose dear wife Margaret had been paralysed by the attack. Bishop Angaelos and I spent five hours in the lockdown in Central Lobby and Westminster Hall. Horrible but nothing in comparison with what happened to those who were killed, maimed or wounded.

At 4.00pm I had been due to chair a meeting on North Korea and I still don’t know if anyone hoping to come into the House for that hearing was hurt but I do know that South Koreans were among the casualties on Westminster Bridge. The intended speaker, who had escaped from North Korea, and his translator, sent me a text to say that they had got safely away.

Yesterday, London had a glimpse of the brutality and unforgiving hatred that fuels a global ideology. But, as Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reminded us when we assembled in the House later in the morning, hatred need not win. Westminster has withstood far worse, and in displaying traditional British stoicism and resilience, Parliament must also inspire and encourage beleaguered communities, the world over, by displaying leadership and determination in resisting those who would destroy the values for which P.C.Palmer gave his life.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

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