ONE of the regular strands of argument from those campaigning for a Yes vote in the independence referendum is that Westminster – by which they mean the politics of the Houses of Parliament – is a broken system that does not reflect life in the outside world.
While it is a fairly simplistic argument, which ignores the failings of politics at Holyrood – not least in holding the Scottish Government to account – the assertion seems to gain some credence when bizarre arguments break out over the internal workings of the Commons and its traditions steeped in a bygone age. Modernisation has happened, but it is always painfully slow.
Such an example is the current debate over who should succeed Sir Robert Rogers as Clerk of the House when he retires shortly. For the sake of explanation, the Clerk of the House is one of the three men sitting in front of the Speaker in a funny wig and black robes during debates. More seriously, he is also one of the most senior officials in the Commons who is the principal adviser on constitutional matters and parliamentary procedure to the Speaker. While the Speaker can make his own judgment, it is almost unheard of for him to go against the Clerk of the House’s advice.
Sir Robert, like many of his predecessors, spent many years working within the House before eventually succeeding to the post in 2011. Like his predecessors, he was immersed in the rules of the House but was also privately educated, went to Oxbridge and had a spell with the Ministry of Defence. Many of those who hold the post are former officers. Current Speaker John Bercow is a great moderniser and has managed to upset a good many of the traditionalists in pushing for parliament to be more up-to-date. The row over installing a creche still has echoes three years on.
However, for some, Bercow has now gone too far. He has for the first time opened up the position of the Clerk of the House to applicants from outside and, it appears, wants to appoint the first woman to the post, one Carol Mills, the clerk of the Australian senate in Canberra. Some may think that if Mark Carney can be made Governor of the Bank of England on the basis that he ran the Canadian central bank, then Speaker Bercow’s proposal to appoint Ms Mills from Australia is not so far fetched.
The traditionalists, led by former Speaker Baroness Betty Boothroyd – who has a dislike of modernisers – disagree. They argue that Ms Mills will be out of her depth. She does not know the rules of the Commons, its eccentricities and so on. The decision is Speaker Bercow’s and allegedly he is not listening to his critics. If he gets it right, he has won another small victory for modernisation. If he gets it wrong, then things could get very messy.