The Commons is a seat of proud democracy, and the current Speaker is keen that MPs behave in a way that befits this, writes John McTernan
In 1560 the House of Commons passed a resolution stating that “every person of the parliament ought to keep secret and not to disclose the secrets and things done and spoken in the parliament house”.
It has been a long road from there to the televising of parliament and the large weekly audience that Prime Minister’s Questions gets. Pessimists would argue that the greater the openness there has been about parliament and its work, the lower the reputation of MPs has fallen.
Optimists, and I count myself among them, would observe that democracy – in terms of the universal franchise – is not yet 90 years old. In that brief period it has prevailed in two global conflicts – the Second World War and the Cold War – and has faced down two worldwide economic crises, the Great Depression and the Great Recession.
All the while it has delivered a welfare state, equality and an eight-fold increase in living standards. Not bad really.
Why, then, is the reputation of parliament and of politics at an all-time low? The bitter truth is that the House of Commons is exactly what it claims to be: a mirror for the country. All leaders, all politicians, want to believe they shape the destiny of the nation but they don’t really make history, history makes them.
The war demanded Churchill but, by God, he needed the war. Who better to represent the country that the 60s swept away than Alec Douglas-Home? The frozen conflicts of the 80s brought us Thatcher the warrior, and the late 90s the Blair who let the country relax and remind ourselves that this is the greatest country on earth. If we are irritated by Cameron, Osborne and Clegg it’s not entirely their fault. We picked them. In the end, democracy gives us the politicians we deserve. We can’t swop them for a different, better set, but maybe we can get them to be their better selves.
That is the experiment that the Speaker, John Bercow, has embarked on. It’s quixotic and noble in equal parts, as befits the man. Mr Bercow has always been ferociously bright and thoughtful, but the Speakership has been the making of him – and he may well be the making, or rather remaking, of it.
Faced with the aftermath of the expenses scandal and the challenge of Britain’s first peace-time coalition government, many would have wondered what they had done in a previous life to deserve this fate. Not so Speaker Bercow. He concluded that openness wasn’t the problem causing the reputational damage, it was in fact the solution – the only route to salvation.
He has embarked on a wholesale period of reform. His is a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand he is throwing the doors wide open. He is travelling the country to talk to people – particularly the young who are the most cynical about politics yet most idealistic about the world they want to see created. He is making Speaker’s House into a salon with his series of Speaker’s Lectures, which allow senior parliamentarians the opportunity to reflect at length on a topic before an audience of colleagues and interested members of the public. On the other hand he is tackling the source of the greatest reputational damage which is behaviour in the chamber, and the heart of darkness: Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).
This very British institution is admired all round the world by the press and the public as a brutal form of accountability which they wish their politicians had to face. In contrast, those foreign leaders are deeply grateful to avoid it. It is indeed a powerful and potent institution. Politicians can be found out and undone on the floor of the House.
Famously, it was the interlude in the week that Tony Blair most hated as PM and has missed least. However, the braying, the bawling and what passes for banter in the Commons is so off-putting to viewers. I remember taking my then four-year-old son to see PMQs. Afterwards, over tea in the Pugin Room, our MP Tessa Jowell asked him what he thought of it all. He replied: “If we were as noisy as that in our nursery we’d get into a lot of trouble.”
Well, firmly and at times theatrically, Speaker Bercow is taking the House in hand. He gallops through questions, giving more back-benchers a voice. He insists that questions and answers should be heard with respect. It is an uphill struggle, but he’s making headway. Bercow is not afraid to mobilise public pressure either. His plea during the recent recess for more grown-up behaviour in PMQs was a Speakerly form of naming and shaming. And it worked. This week we saw a more serious tone, and a more respectful hearing being given. Long may it last.
The key to Speaker Bercow’s success is in his championing of the Commons as a place where the opposition and back-benchers hold the government to account. Bit by bit he is bringing ministers to heel. In the recent past it became a habit for the government to bypass the Commons and make announcements directly to the Today programme. Do that now and you can be sure that the Speaker will grant the Opposition an “urgent statement” and the relevant Cabinet minister will be forced to scuttle into the Commons. To avoid this humiliation there has been a surge in ministerial statements – and light has been shone into many dark corners, such as the car-crash that is Universal Credit, and the authority of parliament re-asserted.
It is said that in politics you should be feared or respected. John Bercow is rightfully gaining more and more respect.
His is a remarkable political journey from Thatcherite outrider to Speaker elected by Labour votes. And his combination of showmanship and intellect is turning the House of Commons into a place the public can respect again. MPs are lucky to have the right Speaker at the right time.