From the moment he was elected as Speaker, the Conservative party didn’t like Michael Martin. They joined with parliamentary sketch writers in mocking his background and accent, as though being a former sheet-metal worker born in a slum automatically meant he was unfit for high and respected office. (And in so doing provided a neat demonstration of the differences between Britain and America – in the USA people who rise from humble beginnings are celebrated for their achievements, in the UK we criticise them for getting above themselves.)
The Tories didn’t like the fact he was Scottish, some because they felt this meant he was too close to high-profile former colleagues in the Scottish Labour party, and some because they felt that, post-devolution, a Scottish MP shouldn’t preside over debates that related only to England & Wales. They didn’t like (with good reason) that the government whips had been fairly heavily involved in promoting him to Labour backbenchers as the ‘preferred’ candidate. More than anything else, they didn’t like the fact that he was, until he became Speaker, a Labour MP. They had convinced themselves that the Speakership rotated between the two main parties, and that, since Betty Boothroyd had been from the Labour benches, it was now the Tories ‘turn’.
In fact, they were quite wrong about that.
As the table above shows, there have been 13 Speakers over the course of the last century, and all but 11 of them were members of the prevailing majority at the time they were elected (the two recent exceptions are highlighted in red text). It’s true that from 1965 to 1992 the Speakership happened to switch between Conservative and Labour, but this was only an accidental result of the outcomes of various elections, and the points at which the various Speakers chose to stand down. The idea that there is an established convention whereby the Speakership rotates between the parties is simply not borne out by the data. Similarly, the claim that there has been something especially unfair in the fact that Speakers chosen from the Labour benches have been in the chair for the past 17 years is rather undermined by the fact that former Conservatives held the Speakership for a continuous period of 37 years, from 1928 to 1965, and, in fact, have been in the chair for a total of 67 out of the last 104 years (almost 65% of the total). Tory claims that they have a particular grievance are not well founded.
Of course, we shouldn’t be remotely surprised that the Speakership has tended to go with the majority – people are always more likely to vote for their friends than their enemies. Betty Boothroyd was an exception to this, partly because she had a lot of friends among Conservative MPs, and partly because, with their narrow majority after the 1992 election, the Tories saw the election of a Labour MP as Speaker as a way of effectively increasing their majority by one (since it reduced the Labour vote by one). In other words, the Conservatives’ actions had little to do with fairness and disinterested self-sacrifice, and a lot to do with partisan gamesmanship.
All of which made their sniping during the early Martin years rather frustrating. They muttered darkly about sinister plots and evil behind-the-scenes machinations, but failed to come up with any particularly convincing evidence. They complained that they didn’t like the fact that government policies and proposals for legislation were announced to the public before they were announced to parliament, but seemed unaware of the fact that the Speaker has no authority to compel the government to make announcements in the Commons first. They complained that senior government figures failed to come to the House often enough, but seemed unaware of the fact that the Speaker has no authority to compel any MP to attend parliament (something they seemed happy enough to take advantage of while pursuing their lucrative City directorships). They complained that they didn’t like what ministers said in reply to Commons questions, but seemed unaware of the fact that the Speaker, while s/he can insist that a question is answered, has no authority over how it is answered. They complained, most pathetically of all, that they didn’t feel like the Speaker was approachable and friendly, apparently failing to realise that their habit of calling the Speaker by offensive names (like ‘Gorbals Mick’) might explain his frosty behaviour in his non-official dealings with them.
They failed, fundamentally, to realise that the supposed failings of the Speaker were in fact their own failings. It’s the opposition’s job to hold the government to account, not the Speaker’s. His (or her) authority extends only so far as making sure the opposition are given the opportunity to hold the government to account. It’s not Michael Martin’s fault that the Conservatives’ attempts to do so were so woefully unsuccessful for so long. For the blame in that regard, they might look to some of their own decisions, like electing the totally unsuitable Iain Duncan Smith and the toxically unpopular Michael Howard as successive leaders of their party.
That’s not to say, of course, that Michael Martin was a good Speaker. He wasn’t, especially in his later years. Some of his interjections from the chair seemed arbitrary, and others were downright weird. He has been blamed for a lot of things that weren’t his fault – the expenses system was put in place by the MPs themselves, not by him – but he has also been correctly blamed for things that were his fault. The decision to attempt to fight against the publication of MPs’ expenses was a bad one, but his worst decision was in allowing the police access to an opposition MP’s office without insisting, at the least, that they got a warrant. Given the significant concerns about undue ‘closeness’ between the anti-terror squad (who carried out the raid) and the government, that failure to protect the rights of MPs was probably sufficient grounds for his resignation on its own. Attempting to blame his officials (especially the Sergeant-at-Arms, who had only just taken the job, and whom he should therefore have been supervising more closely) was truly shameful.
So it was hard to be sad when he was eventually forced to do the decent thing, and resigned. It was also hard to disagree with the many MPs (including several prominent government figures) who argued that it would be best if the new Speaker were to be selected from the Conservative benches, if only to remove the impression that the government were attempting to cover their backs. And, now that we have a shiny new Speaker who is a former Conservative, and one who represents a constituency in the heart of the Tory shires, have the Conservatives finally stopped their whingeing? Have they hell.
Now, it seems, the long-desired Conservative Speaker isn’t Conservative enough. They object to the fact that John Bercow has changed his mind on political issues, and that he entered the House of Commons as a hardline right winger and has become rather more liberal since. Nadine Dorries, for example, is not pleased at his election:
this was the last hurrah of a dying Labour Government and I think it was almost a two-fingered salute to the British people from Labour MPs, and to the Conservative Party. It was a vindictive political act on behalf of the Labour Party towards what they see to be the future Conservative government and the British people.
Alan Duncan is more measured, but, as shadow leader of the House, presumably speaks on behalf of the majority of Tory MPs when he says:
a lot of Conservatives feel that John positioned himself in order to woo Labour to get the Speakership and a lot of people are annoyed that it worked.
Nadine Dorries is, of course, known for her strong and forcefully expressed views, and much of her antipathy seems to come down to the fact that, as she complained on her blog, John Bercow didn’t marry a nice Tory girl:
I for one will be studying the procedure, to call a Speaker re-election following a general election, very carefully; and will have that procedure engrained on my heart ready to go when the Conservative party take power.
I shall be doing this for a number of reasons. The first being that the Speaker’s wife, should he have one, plays a very important role. We have all seen how often Speaker Martin’s wife has been named in the press over the years. John Bercow’s wife is reported to be a socialist. Does this matter? I think it does, a great deal. The position has been held by socialists twice already.
There seems to be some slight confusion on Ms Dorries’ part here as to who exactly was seeking election as Speaker – that would be Mr Bercow, not Mrs Bercow. It is also not entirely clear to me why the Speaker’s wife being ‘named in the press’ would impact on her husband’s ability to be impartial – being ‘named’ would not seem to be the same as giving lengthy interviews to The Guardian about her political views, after all. In the same blog post Ms Dorries expresses concern that John Bercow’s ‘strident zealot views’ (which are, perhaps not insignificantly, at odds with her own) on matters such as abortion mean he will struggle to maintain impartiality in the speaker’s chair.
Taken together, Nadine Dorries’ and Alan Duncan’s criticisms of the new Speaker show that, in fact, impartiality is not what the Conservatives are after. If impartiality were the concern, then the grumbling wouldn’t have started until after Speaker Bercow had been given an opportunity to show whether he was impartial or not. The grumbling that John Bercow is the wrong kind of Tory also proves that a straightforward swap between Labour and Conservative isn’t what they were after either.
Both of these things in fact prove that the Tories (or at least those Tories who are complaining) want a blatantly partisan Speaker. They decided to retrospectively invent a ‘tradition’ of rotating appointments in order to justify putting in the chair someone who would be biased in their favour. This is why they fussed about the election of Michael Martin, and it’s why they’re fussing now about the election of the new man. They’re not confident that John Bercow will use his powers to favour them over Labour. His most prominent rival – Sir George Young – might have done, and even if he couldn’t actually have been persuaded to publicly violate his neutrality, they would at least have been sure of having a cosy relationship with a sympathetic old friend in the chair.
In reality, those Conservatives who are whingeing most bitterly about this are showing themselves not just to be partisan hacks, but far more importantly to be significantly out of touch. The faultline in this election for Speaker wasn’t between government and opposition, it was between establishment and anti-establishment candidates. It was (to borrow the words of one of the candidates, Parmjit Dhanda) between those who ‘got’ how out of touch the House of Commons has become, and those (like the outgoing Speaker Martin) who thought that a little bit of superficial change was all that was required. Most of the candidates represented the status quo. They represented fine words, but limited action, and the hope that the appearance of change would dazzle the electorate enough for them to forget that there had been little actual change. There were only three genuinely anti-establishment figures in the contest – Ann Widdecombe, Richard Shepherd, and John Bercow – and all of them came from the Conservative benches. It’s significant, I think, that the preferred candidate for the majority of the Tories – Sir George Young – was one of the establishment figures. He was the defeated candidate last time around, and he’s a quiet, mild-mannered man, happy, most of the time, to go along with the majority of his colleagues, and to do what he’s told.
Widdecombe and Shepherd and Bercow, on the other hand, have all been thorns in the side of the Tory establishment, almost as much as they have been thorns in the side of the Labour government. They have asked awkward questions, and refused to tow the party line on high-profile issues, and have voted with a sense of what they believe to be right uppermost in their minds, and not thoughts of how a particular vote will affect their careers. They have shown that they are not afraid to stand up in the Commons, in the face of the withering gaze of their own colleagues (as with John Bercow and Nadine Dorries, or Ann Widdecombe and Michael Howard), and tell them that they are wrong. They have shown, in other words, that they are ideal candidates for taking on the mixture of entrenched traditionalism and abject cowardice in the face of authority that has so reduced the effectiveness of parliament.
Any one of them would have made a good Speaker. I watched the hustings on BBC Parliament (what? You know I’m a politics geek…), and on the basis of that, Richard Shepherd was my preferred candidate. If she had been available for the long term, Ann Widdecombe might – god help me – have been my second choice, but as it was I would have settled for John Bercow. There needs to be a fundamental re-balancing of the power of the executive and the legislature, and although the Speaker can’t do that on their own, they need to be available long-term to coordinate the efforts of backbench MPs in securing that. Ann Widdecombe is a formidable woman, but there’s a limit to what even she can do in a year (and that’s assuming the government doesn’t fall sooner than that – an autumn election is still entirely plausible.)
John Bercow may, of course, turn out to be a disaster. He may be the most blatantly partisan Speaker in the history of the Commons. He may break with tradition and develop the habit of referring to the Prime Minister as ‘the Dear Leader’, and routinely cutting off opposition MPs in mid-sentence. He may, now he’s in position, abandon all attempts at reform of the House, and propose an index-linked £500,000 salary for life for all former and current MPs, and a flat expenses rate of £3000 a day for current members. If he does any of those things, or less blatant but more plausible versions of them, I will criticise him. But – and here’s the point at which I depart from the whingeing Tories – I’ll wait and see what he actually does before I start to complain. I won’t moan from the outset, just because he’s publicly disagreed with some of my ideas, and married someone I don’t approve of.
In other news, I have overhauled my blogroll, and added quite a few new links. Try them out, you never know, you might like them!