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For many, the Big Ben – the clock tower as it is commonly and erroneously known (it is actually the name of the bell inside) – is the most iconic image of London. A symbol of the Houses of Parliament, reminiscent of the debate in the rooms below, where 646 members and more than 700 bishops and Gentlemen loudly carry on the business of government. The nation expects to find midnight on December 31 to celebrate the start of each new year. Protesters against the state occasionally try to climb the 96m (315 feet) – and sometimes succeed.
Another name for the Parliament, the Palace of Westminster, alludes to the complex history of British democracy that has evolved over the centuries by the dominant domain of tribal chiefs, royalty and the Church in a government of elected representatives of the people. Thus, the medieval building that stood on the site until the 19th century, in which they were made the basis of the modern system of Edward I’s Model Parliament of 1295 was also the headquarters of British monarchs until 1530.
Survived the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 by a group of Catholics intent on blowing up the Protestant King James I in the Palace of Westminster was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1834. Westminster Hall, which dates back to 1097, has survived and is the oldest part of the building today.
William IV offered Buckingham Palace as a replacement, but the Parliament wanted to hang at the site of major river that William the Conqueror had made his base of nearly 800 years ago. Public debate on what the style should be used for the new building has been fierce. It should be a fitting emblem of a country with an empire on which “the sun never sets.” A neo-classical design, such as the White House or the U.S. Congress, was excluded because of connotations of revolutionary or a republican. In 1836, after studying 98 proposals, a Royal Commission chose Charles Barry’s plan for a Gothic palace that embody a welcome dose of conservatism.
Democracy in Britain has started to come of age in 1918 when the vote was given to all men 21 and women over 30, if women had to wait 10 years for equal rights. Even now continues to grow: in Tony Blair’s premiership, the power has been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northem Ireland in 1999, while the shape of the Second Chamber, the House of Lords, is unstable.
UK residents can arrange free guided tours of Parliament for the whole year through their MP or a gentleman, visitors from abroad have to pay and can only tour during the summer when Parliament is in session, but may participate in discussions throughout the year. Both tours last about 75 minutes and includes the Houses of Commons and Lords debating, as well as the Queen’s Robing Room. The official opening of Parliament, where the reigning monarch presents the government’s plans for members of both the House of Lords and Commons, is a colorful ceremony usually takes place in November.
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