IN A HIGHLY contentious move, the Speaker of the House of Commons has voiced his opposition to President Trump addressing Westminster Hall. This has divided MPs; many in his own party feel John Bercow compromised his neutrality when he announced Parliament’s ongoing opposition to “racism and sexism”. The “earned honour” of speaking before Parliament, as Bercow put it, has in the past been reserved for a privileged few, including Nelson Mandela, the Pope and Barack Obama.
Notably, this is not the first time that the actions of the Speaker have come under question. There is widespread belief that he was not the popular choice among Conservatives when elected in 2009, relying primarily on the support of Labour MPs. Since then he has come into conflict with Conservative MP Simon Burns who called him “a stupid, sanctimonious dwarf ”, whilst rebuking David Cameron who he cut off during PMQs. It is not out of character then for Bercow to cause a stir within the walls of the Commons, but what is it about this outspoken display that makes it so unique?
At a time of such marked uncertainty for the UK, there are fears that the Speaker’s words may undermine the Prime Minister’s very public efforts to create a new special relationship with the new Donald Trump administration in the White House. 10 Downing Street has since re-affirmed its support for the state visit, saying they look forward to welcoming Mr Trump to the United Kingdom later this year. Such disapproval has been echoed by some members of the Conservative Party. Writing for The Guardian, Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi condemned Bercow for speaking out of turn as the neutrality of his position represents a cornerstone of British democracy. Zahawi is himself “totally and unequivocally opposed to the President’s current immigration policy” but believes an address is necessary, even desirable, to demonstrate the UK’s moral opposition to Mr Trump’s executive order.
For all the negativity surrounding what some have labelled a ‘diplomatic snub’, MP Stella Creasy, speaking on BBC Radio Four, came out in support of Bercow whom she believed to be representing the voice of the House of Commons. The Speaker is in fact stepping into the gap that the Prime Minister’s desperation to achieve a trade deal with Trump has left, upholding the values of the UK at a time when pragmatism appears to outweigh moral concerns. If the validity of Trump’s views are left open to debate, we risk normalising his opinions to the extent that his objective sexism and racism become merely ‘controversial’ comments.
Clearly, the real issue here is not the words of the Speaker; this was a representation of discontent across party lines, not forgetting that Trump’s comments have prompted hundreds of MPs to sign motions opposing a parliamentary address. Yes, it may be ‘unprecedented’ for the speaker of the House to espouse his opinion in this manner, but to stay silent in the face of such adversity would be to legitimise the violation of civil liberties that the world is witnessing in the United States. John Bercow has spoken for the people, at a time when no other member of the political elite would.