Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A new Speaker

Curiously enough, there was a kind of a buzz in both Houses yesterday as the MPs went through a ridiculously laborious exercise from which the 157th Speaker, John Bercow MP, emerged. Ceremonies matter, not least for what they represent.

The system had been changed after the fiasco of the Martin election when there were 14 candidates and, in the end, the Speaker was elected and dragged to the Chair by the Labour Party only. As it happens, I do not think the exhausting new system, which started with 10 candidates and went through three secret ballots was any better and the result did not produce anyone unexpected.

By the last ballot it was down to Sir George Young (own rather dull website), which would have put another Old Etonian into a position of importance in the House of Common or John Bercow, the son of a Jewish taxi driver from North London. (Here is his website). These things should not matter, but I cannot help wondering how much of the Tory fulmination (here and here, not to mention comments on the various blogs) is due to the fact that Mr Bercow is just a bit uppity. (Incidentally, I note that the Jewish part has been removed from Wikipedia. Is that because it was not true or because somebody does not want people to be reminded of it?)

It is undoubtedly true that John Bercow has been politically slippery even by Tory politicians’ standards and there have been rumours for some time that he might cross the floor. As he started his political career on the extreme authoritarian right of the Conservative Party a move of that kind could have seemed a step too far but, in reality, how much difference is there between an authoritarian right-winger and an authoritarian left-winger?

When I first met John Bercow, he was not yet an MP but he cheerfully admitted that he would do anything to further his career. He also added that some issues were too important not to support despite that career and he named Maastricht as one. Had he been in the Commons then, he assured me, he would have voted against it, no matter what the cost would have been. Well, maybe. Even at the time I was doubtful.

Much water has flown under the bridge since then and there have been many twists and turns in Mr Bercow’s career until yesterday when he was dragged to that Chair. Given the rather colourful history of the Speakership since its beginnings, I remain philosophical about Mr Bercow’s personality and political inconstancy. After all, Speaker Lenthall, who has gone down in history as a personification of all that is finest in the office, was, in reality rather a poor fish and much despised by other parliamentarians.

Nor are the various accusations of skulduggery exactly new. In fact, all this added to our feeling in the House yesterday that we were witnessing another episode in a long historical process.

In the meantime, let us not forget that all this discussion of whether he is a reformer or not, and whether the House will regain credibility while he is in the Chair is so much hot air.

While legislative power remains in Brussels or with various quangos in this country the House of Commons will remain a poor, much despised body, no matter who the Speaker is.

On a different level, while MPs think that they can simply double their salaries without paying any taxes on the second half, they will remain, in most electors’ opinion, despised and pathetic.

Will the new Speaker do anything about that? As he cannot, I suspect he will not.


  1. You can find out why a wikipedia article was modified. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:John_Bercow
    ... check under "Jewish Taxi Driver"
    I hope that helps.

  2. Thanks, it is quite helpful. I did note Cameron's mention of him being the first Speaker of Jewish faith. On the whole I would have more faith (in the other sense) in people's editing of the Wiki entry if they could spell. That first comment is atrocious.

  3. I'd like to comment more often here, Helen, but time constraints apply and you inevitably make similar points to the ones I'd mention regardless.

    As far as John Bercow's Jewishness is concerned, I think it's irrelevant and couldn't understand why Wiki alluded to his father at all. Surely, this is the crux of the problem in today's society: rather than examining a politician's record and their effectiveness, the public and opinion formers seem more concerned with the member's ethnicity or religious persuasion. Needless to say, I was glad that the hypocritical Parmjit Dhanda didn't succeed given his hypocrisy over MPs' superficial (skin colour/religious persuasion) representation of their constituencies.

  4. Welcome Shlomo. I hope you will comment more often.

    About Bercow's Jewishness: most certainly he should not be elected to any position for that reason but it is useful to mark stages in the development of freedom and equality of opportunity. From that point of view I think it matters. The Speakership is rather an odd position in that previous record does not necessarily qualify you for it. Bercow's political meanderings are not particularly attractive but there is no reason why that should mean he will not be a good Speaker.

    Incidentally, I am glad to see that ConHome notes his support for those oppressed politically in other countries. There the Speaker's unique position can give him a great deal of clout.