We have lost the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Right Honourable John Bercow MP has come to do a talk in York about the future of politics, in association with the Parliamentary Outreach programme, and we can’t find him. How does one manage to lose one of the most controversial and outspoken Speakers Parliament has ever known?
John Bercow was elected Speaker in June of last year after the acrimonious resignation of Michael Martin over the expenses scandal. His election was not without controversy, as he received very little support from the members of his own former Party, the Conservatives and he has barely been out of the news since. Just within the last few weeks, he has hit the headlines for a variety of reasons: from the controversial decision to postpone the Oldham by-election to allow the disgraced former Labour MP Phil Woolas to mount a legal challenge, to an expenses scandal of his very own, over questionable use of private transport. He could perhaps be excused for wanting to avoid the media.
We catch a glimpse of him in the Berrick Saul building, but he is whisked away to the incongruously named ‘Tree House.’ We follow.
So far, not a good start. However, when we do finally get to meet him, he is welcoming and it is clear that he genuinely wants to talk to us, seeming interested in both of our university courses and respective plans for post-York life.
We are unnerved. His jokes about his height and enthusiasm for sandwiches are not congruent with the media’s impression of him as a politician gone rogue. He’s clearly impressive but will he give us what we need?
We start off with a fairly standard opener: what first interested him in politics? “I was 15 in the winter of discontent in 1978/9. I thought it was a shocking state of affairs that public services weren’t operating, and a mess was being made of it by the government. I went to school in Margaret Thatcher’s constituency and I went to hear her in her 1979 election campaign and I was inspired by her speech.” He proceeds to do an impression of Thatcher – which sounds rather like a subsequent impression of Tony Benn made in his speech later.
But it would be rare these days for someone of a similar age to join a political party. With membership numbers and voting percentages at an all-time low, it is thought that our generation is the most politically apathetic yet.
“I don’t agree with that at all, and I would make a very sharp distinction between apathy and disengagement. Being disconnected from politics is not the same as having no interest. I think they’re critical for the political process: they have strong views, clear ideas and would like to make a difference.”
Perhaps political parties can be blamed for this disillusionment. “The political parties have got to find a way to reach out to young voters. All of them need to re-work the old model – doing things in exactly the same way as they’ve done for years won’t work.”
The role of the Speaker has always been a secretive one – until now. A unique job in British politics, it is their responsibility to chair debates in the Commons, determining which members may speak and maintaining order. The Speaker is expected to give up all previous party affiliations after accepting the job. It used to be all pomp and circumstance, but as the first Speaker to abandon the traditional robes, he is firm in his belief that the nature of British politics is changing and needed to do so.
During his speech he gives after our interview, he frequently mentions what he calls “the three Rs: to renew, reform and reconnect”. We get the impression that he is painfully aware of the intense damage caused to Parliament’s reputation after the expenses scandal – “the system was a manifestation of our failure to make the transition from private club to public institution. These changes have been made independently and it is now more transparent and accountable.”
When asked about his predecessor’s resignation, the Speaker becomes more sombre. “I think Michael was very much the sacrificial lamb for the expenses scandal. He would be the first one to say that he had made mistakes and he accepted that.
“In a sense, his resignation led to the rise in the belief that that the Speaker at the helm is a key figure and can be controversial. It increased the pressure on his successor to make a good fist of it. I feel very keenly a responsibility to do my job well.”
It is clear from the outset that he is a practised politician. Unlike most people, he offers clear, professional sound bites instead of the usual rambling explanations. His conversation is lucid and well-constructed and he is rather good at talking round the question. However, he is engaging to listen to and can be surprisingly forthright when you least expect it (and when, arguably, it is least relevant).
For example, when the question of the automatic right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords is raised, his response is as follows: “as I am now Speaker and this is hugely contentious, I of course hold no view, but when I was free to hold an opinion I was in favour of a wholly or predominantly elected second chamber. When we debated the subject of Lords reform, I spoke and made a particular point of saying in the modern age that the automatic inclusion of bishops was wrong. That was my view then and I leave it up to you to speculate if it might continue to be my private view.” Perhaps this was his intention: to dangle scandal in front of the audience with little risk to his impartiality.
We choose to change the subject in our interview itself. He says he was attracted to the role of Speaker because “I had become much less adversarial than I was and much less attracted to the ping-pong of party politics and much more focused on the work of Parliament”.
Always the historian, he explains more: “in the past, the role of Speaker was a dangerous thing because you were accountable to the monarchy. People avoided it and would present disqualification speeches explaining why they weren’t up to the job.
“Campaigning used to be seen as something that one just didn’t do – ‘terribly bad show, old boy’. It was an attitude left over from the British class system and old fashioned snobbery. I think that’s bunkum … it’s a very important role and one that a lot of people want. I campaigned openly, was the first to publish a manifesto and I was the fortunate victor.”
Does he think that politics can be too adversarial at the moment? “It can be. In some cases one has to accept that there is a very strong difference of opinion about something based on a real difference in principle values. But I do think that the public like adversarialism to be kept within reasonable limits. I’m not either supporting or opposing the coalition, but I think the idea that people work together and try to see each other’s point of view is something that the public rather like.”
But despite this rather conciliatory point of view, he is vitriolic in his opinion towards the BNP. “Thankfully, —they have been for the most part warded off. I do believe unashamedly that the BNP is a fascist party. The major parties have got to ensure they’ve got credible policies to ward off the extreme right, but am I confident that we will continue to have a Parliament without a fascist presence? I am cautiously optimistic.”
Listening to him speak, you do genuinely get the feeling he was exasperated with the old political culture.
“MPs need to redouble their efforts within their constituencies … otherwise we’re just preaching to the converted.”
He recently led a group of young people from across the country in a debate within the Chamber for a Youth Parliamentary session. It would seem that some MPs were less than thrilled about the idea of children sitting on their hallowed benches. One advised the Speaker that, at the very least, “they’ll leave chewing gum all over the seats.” The Speaker replied that he expected the children would behave far better than the majority of the opposition during PMQ’s – this turned out to be correct.
Before the interview, it was made clear that we were not to ask about his views on politics. We test the strength of this direction with a question on tuition fees – would he have gone to university if he had had to pay £9,000? He responds saying it’s not for him to comment on individual policy of the government and “it’s very difficult to go back in time and imagine what one would have done”. Our hearts sink.
Then something happens. A glint comes into the Speaker’s eye. Our journalistic antennas are raised. There may be something more here.
“It would have been hugely challenging. I went to university on a full grant. It would have been excruciatingly painful for me to have to repay a very large sum of money and I’m not sure my father would have been happy for me to get in a massive amount of debt. It’s not for me to express a view for the government’s policy or against it. But I do think it’s incredibly important to take steps to ensure that access to university is determined by ability and commitment rather than ability to pay.” We can practically see the Press Secretary twitching in alarm.
Despite the heightened rhetoric, it’s hard not to warm to him. “The role of Speaker is a privilege. I had strong support in the Labour party, considerable in the Lib Dems, and some from Conservatives. I was considered by some to be too young and too liberal minded. All I can do in response to criticism is to try to concentrate on doing a good job.”
Our hard journalist hearts begin to melt. It’s hard not to be won over by such honesty, whether real or faked. And he even kept Brian Cantor, the Vice-Chancellor, waiting in order to answer our last few questions.
“The duties of politicians are first to country, then to constituency and only then to party. I need to stick to my convictions.” His speech appeals to the patriot in each of us and it is this which confirms our belief that Parliament made the right decision in electing him Speaker. The expenses scandal only confirmed what has been known for a long time: British politics needs to change.
Although only a masochist would attempt to be part of his public relations team, one can’t help but admire a man so skilled in the art of chaos while remaining firmly in control of himself. Subversive? Perhaps. But in this day and age, that is no bad thing for someone leading one of the most confrontational democratic chambers.
“My relationship with the whips was characterised by trust and understanding – I didn’t trust them and they didn’t understand me.” We wouldn’t trust him to fit the mould either.