13 September 2019

Why the next Speaker should be a traditionalist


At last. We are to have a new Speaker of the House of Commons. Already some runners and riders have declared their ambition to succeed John Bercow. We have Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Dame Eleanor Laing, who are both Deputy Speakers. There is Labour MP Harriet Harman, who is standing as the continuity Bercow candidate. Other Labour candidates include Chris Bryant and Meg Hillier. Tory MPs to have announced they’re running include Sir Edward Leigh, Shailesh Vara and Sir Henry Bellingham, a Conservative MP best known for being related to John Bellingham, the man who assassinated the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in 1812.

A key concern has been that whoever is chosen should conduct proceedings in an impartial manner. After all, that is supposed to be a basic tenet of the job, yet it has not been carried out over the past decade.

A broader question is that of “modernisation”. As with other institutions, there will sometimes be advantages to changing things. But it would be childish to believe, Tony Blair style, that ‘new’ automatically means ‘better’ when it comes to Parliament; that somehow the more established an arrangement, the greater the case for changing it.

It’s important to remember that, while the physical manifestation of change may seem trivial, the symbolism of it can be powerful. For instance, it used to be the case that the Speaker had a special costume which included a wig. This was worn until Bernard Weatherill stood down in 1992 and Betty Boothroyd refused to wear it. Then her successor, Michael Martin, got rid of tights. Bercow extended the dreariness by opting for a “plain business suit and off-the-peg academic gown”.

Perversely the lurch to a more egalitarian dress code was egotistical. “It’s not me,” declared Bercow of his decision to dispense with the breeches and buckled shoes. That was a revealing comment. It’s not meant to be about him. It’s meant to be about the office holder. The wig gives a certain anonymity as well as authority. It makes one think less about the personality and more about the role that is being undertaken. If the Speaker looks different then it is easier to forget about who the Speaker is.

We have had the same debate for barristers and judges. Rumpole creator, Sir John Mortimer, once said: “A barrister without his wig would be like a doctor without a stethoscope; a cook without a spoon; a gardener without a pair of secateurs or a middle manager without a flip chart”.

Once you start saying tradition is ridiculous and should be cast aside the question becomes ‘where do you stop?’ Already male MPs are no longer expected to wear a tie in the chamber. Why not shorts and t-shirts? If clapping is allowed when the Speaker feels like it, then why not all the time? What about the type of language used in the chamber? The “archaic language” some decry – such as making reference to the “honourable member” rather than talking about Jack or Jill – has a point to it. It acts as an automatic check on hostilities becoming too personal.

None of this is to say that a change in arrangements is always wrong. If it offers a practical advantage without causing any harm then it should be adopted. To take a modest example, we can now read Erskine May, the definitive guide Parliamentary procedure, online for free. That has only happened this year. With all the procedural wrangling in the House of Commons over Brexit arrangements becoming ever more intense how were we supposed to make sense of it all? Until a few weeks ago we had to buy a copy – at £408 on Amazon.

A more important welcome constitutional change is the Recall of MPs law that makes provision for constituents to be able to recall their MP and call a by-election.

By contrast, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act has proved a mess and should be repealed. Of course, these examples are not within the gift of the Speaker. That is rather the point. Change should not come in on some personal whim. The Speaker should be the servant not the master of the House. As Jacob Rees-Mogg reminded us recently: “The Speaker by convention and longstanding tradition has no tongue with which to speak or eyes with which to see, other than which is directed by the House.”

An example of the sort of change that the Speaker has some say over, and should embrace, is the matter of the Parliament building itself. The Times reports that Speaker hopeful Chris Bryant “was one of the biggest supporters of a £3.5 billion plan to move MPs out for six years to allow a restoration of the Palace of Westminster. In his pitch for Tory votes, however, he played this down, promising to ‘keep an eagle eye’ on the plans.”

For several months of the year Parliament does not sit. It should be possible to complete the necessary repairs without relocating. As with other large public sector projects the costs sound as if they are vastly inflated. It would certainly be welcome if the new Speaker got a grip on this, ideally by ‘modernising’ Parliament’s procurement process to achieve far better value for money.

I remember a speech where that great Parliamentarian Enoch Powell, declared: “People say to me: ‘Mr Powell, you can’t turn back the clock,’ But what a silly thing to say. You just take the clock off the mantelpiece and turn back the hands.” There is no reason why the new Speaker could not ‘turn back the clock’ of his office, and in doing so renew it.

But what hope is there of a new Speaker being a such a traditionalist? Very little, judging from what some of the candidates have said. However, no Parliament can bind its successors. If this Parliament chooses someone contemptuous of the past, it would be up to the new Parliament, returned after the next election, to reject that choice. The best hope for traditionalists lies with the next generation of MPs that recognise the value of the institution they have been given the honour to join.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist