Whether you’re interested in political intrigue and grubby plots, or the refined residences of the great men and women of history, there is no better place for political sights than the city of London. As you walk streets past palaces and Georgian houses, you truly get a sense that this is where things have happened, and decisions have been made that have changed the course of history forever.
And while our current chaos engulfing Westminster may have left you feeling sick of politics, and the Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ never seemed more apt, it has demonstrated that London is still the heart of a fierce and lively political culture. We are at the coalface of history at the moment, and in my view this makes it the perfect time to appreciate the political sights of the past with fresh eyes.
Below are the six spots I recommend any tour should take in:
Churchill War Rooms
When the second world war broke out, it was decided that the threat of aerial raids from Germany meant that the country could no longer be safely run from Whitehall and Number 10. Instead, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his cabinet would descend into the cabinet war rooms: a network of underground bunkers below the Treasury with a full-time staff, where they would direct Britain’s war effort.
When the war ended in 1945, everyone who worked at the cabinet war rooms (no doubt sick of having to spend so much time underground) simply put down their pens and left, locking the door behind them. As a result, they left behind them a perfect time capsule of the nerve centre of the British high command during the war, which is now an excellent museum run by the Imperial War Museum.
My own favourite item inside has to be the huge wall map of the world, with the front lines of the different forces represented by pieces of string fixed with pins. Looking closely, you can see thousands of these little pin holes, showing where the allies retreated and advanced, how every battle, every fight to the death was monitored here in Whitehall, before deciding the next course of action.
Nearest underground station: St James’s Park / Westminster
Britain has a proud history of fierce political debate and polemic, which is nowhere more apparent than Speaker’s Corner, on the North East edge of Hyde Park. Every Sunday morning, ordinary members of the public come to the corner to declaim on the issues closest to their hearts, as those gathered round them heckle and argue back.
The tradition stems from the many protests and marches that used to gather in Hyde Park, and was formalised in 1872, when an act of parliament decreed that an area around Speaker’s Corner would remain free for debate.
Today, a lot of the arguments you hear are more tiresome than illuminating, but there’s still something quite comforting about knowing that in a little corner of London, there’s an arena for people willing to test their ideas and beliefs in the heat of debate.
Nearest underground station: Marble Arch
Carlton House Terraces, St. James’s
When you find yourself on The Mall, your eye naturally finds itself gravitating towards Buckingham Palace, but I recommend taking a walk on a sunny day through the Carlton House Terraces, overlooking St James’s park. Built in the 1860s on the site of the Carlton House stables, these grand houses, now used by think tanks and royal societies, have been an exclusive residence of government ministers and political figures for decades.
On the Western side of the terraces you can see the former residences of Lord Palmerston and Charles De Gaulle (who ran the Free French Forces Headquarters during the second world war from this square). On the Eastern side is the residence of William Gladstone, and opposite are the famed gentleman’s clubs of Pall Mall, where every politician worth his salt, (and a fair few Archbishops) has wined and dined.
Keen fans of the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, may also be able to find the luxurious grace and favour home, 1 Carlton Gardens, he refused to vacate for three weeks after leaving government in 2018.
Nearest underground station: Charing Cross
Upper Street deal
If you enjoy modern political intrigue, then the scene of the Upper Street deal may be worth a visit. It was in this unassuming terrace at 127 Upper Street, in the (now closed) Granita restaurant that Tony Blair met Gordon Brown to form a pact that would define the Labour government for years to come.
Allegedly, this was the moment the Labour pair agreed that Gordon Brown would not stand for the Labour leadership following the death of John Smith, to allow Tony Blair an easy path to victory. In return, Brown would be given sweeping powers over domestic policy if he became Chancellor, and would take over from Blair after two terms in power. Both the place of the meeting and its significance have been disputed, but I quite like to believe this is the spot where the fate of the last Labour government was sealed.
Nearest underground station: Angel
The Clapham Sect
The Holy Trinity Church in Clapham may not look like much when you walk past it in the park, but this humble place of worship had a tremendously outsized influence on Westminster in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
It was here that the Clapham sect were based – a small, but pioneering group of Evangelical Christians who were driven to solve social issues. Among their members was William Wilberforce, who with the rest of the group, successfully led the parliamentary campaign to abolish slavery in British territories, which was achieved in 1833. Wilberforce himself is said to have given the most eloquent speeches the House of Commons has ever heard in defence of abolition.
Nearest underground station: Clapham Common
Palace of Westminster
Where else to end a tour of the political sites than at the Palace of Westminster? Where MPs and Lords stalk the corridors of power, whips cajole reticent backbenchers into obedience, and MPs file into the division lobbies to inflict painful defeats on the government. Although parliament may not be looking its best at the moment — politically or architecturally, with scaffolding covering the Elizabeth tower — the UK legislature is still well worth any politico’s visit.
For security reasons visitors are not able to just walk straight into parliament, but you can book audio and guided tours in advance. I would recommend though that you contact your local MP first to see if they can give you a tour: they’ll know the place like the back of their hand, will have some great stories, and even may be able indulge in some Westminster gossip.
Once inside, you will hopefully see all the main sights: the ceremonial mace, the Woolpack in the Lords, Hansard: the official transcript of parliamentary debate, and of course, the Chamber itself. But what I find quite striking about the building is its eclectic mix of styles. The only surviving bit of the old Palace is Westminster Hall, built just after the Norman conquest. The bulk of the building was rebuilt by Barry and Pugin after a huge fire in 1834, and various other sections have been replaced since then. So you can quickly move from the indoor fig trees of the modern Portcullis House, to masterful gothic decorations, to interiors that wouldn’t look out of place in a hotel last furnished in the 1970s. British democracy is in many ways a hodge-podge, with unwritten rights with arcane procedures gained from the monarchy over many years. So, it’s quite fitting that the Houses of Parliament are much the same.
Nearest underground station: Westminster