John Bercow- the Jester Who Spoke the Truth

President Xi Jinping with House of Commons Speaker John Bercow (R). Image: UK Parliament/Roger Harris

President Xi Jinping with House of Commons Speaker John Bercow (R). Image: UK Parliament/Roger Harris

The Pax Britannica, an English world governed directly and indirectly from London, only a half a century ago spanned almost a quarter of the planet. The unprecedented scale of this empire was only to be rivalled by the impossible speed of its collapse. Attempts to retain some of its possessions were swiftly replaced by a mostly isolationist policy. In the end a few small islands and Britain remained.

If you find this analysis of loss of power and relevance to be lacking, perhaps I may persuade you to recall the Chinese President’s recent state visit. It is not uncommon for a foreign head of state to be welcomed with the best the host can offer.

To speak of a meeting between equals would be ludicrous

The lengths David Cameron’s government went to however are truly extraordinary. London’s streets were lined by Chinese expats, holding identical signs, orchestrated by the Chinese embassy. Mentions of any “alleged” human rights abuses were omitted, if anything criticism as a whole was suspended during the visit. Chinese dissidents praised only weeks before by UK government officials were arrested, in one case after holding up a hostile poster.

To speak of a meeting between equals would be ludicrous. Equals are not afraid to speak the inconvenient truths, they do not temporarily forget their nation’s fundamental beliefs and principles.

Perhaps it is then unsurprising, that much like in old times, the court jester is the only one with true power. For the jester, could tell the King what no other man could, by mixing what everyone else thought, but not dared say, with humor.

The thinly veiled attack on China’s poor human rights record did not go unnoticed

In this case, Britain’s conscience is a rather short man, who in a room where all remained compliant alone dared to critique the world’s second most powerful man. During Xi Jinping’s extraordinary visit to a joint session between both houses, John Bercow, the Speaker, traditionally speaks a few kind words and makes a few witty remarks to entice a laugh or two. His speech was not expected to be searing, and his role as Speaker is supposedly apolitical. In this case however, Bercow found it necessary to praise Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese “champion of democracy” and civil liberties. Suu Kyi endured years of house arrest under a military dictatorship for espousing her causes, and has played an extraordinary part in Burma (now Myanmar) as it becomes a freer society.

The thinly veiled attack on China’s poor human rights record did not go unnoticed. While Xi Jinping remained stoic, David Cameron was visibly unhappy about the remark. But in the end, Bercow’s dissent is merely a drop in an ocean of carefully managed public appearances. Both sides accomplished their goals, after all. The UK will receive billions in Chinese investment, and China got lovely footage of thousands cheering while the Queen accompanied the Chinese President in a horse drawn chariot. The jester had his say, but the world is larger.

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