Andrew Adonis on why the ‘striking and unpredictable’ speaker John Bercow has made it possible for parliament to hold government accountable.
John Bercow is one of the few heroes of Brexit. He has made it possible for parliament to do its job of holding the government accountable to the people, after decades when the subservience of the House of Commons to No.10 had become the first article in Britain’s unwritten constitution.
The highest point in the history of the speakership was January 4, 1642, when Charles I entered the chamber of the Commons with soldiers and sought to arrest John Hampden, John Pym and three other leaders of the parliamentary resistance to his autocracy.
The speaker, William Lenthall, knelt before the king and said: ‘May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the house is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.’
Tipped off, the ‘five members’ had already fled. ‘The birds have flown,’ Charles muttered, and withdrew. No monarch has set foot in the House of Commons since.
The problem is that over recent decades the prime minister has become an elected monarch. Partly this is because of the party and electoral system, which has generally produced single party majority governments. But it is also because of a long run increase in the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature, which is largely the consequence of the two 20th century world wars and the deliberate failure in the same period to reform the House of Lords.
Thus the draconian control by the government of parliamentary business is the result not of the modern party system, or the rise of democracy, but of decisions taken by MPs to give virtually total control of Commons procedure to Asquith’s government in the heat of total war in 1914. This was not reversed afterwards.
There is no necessary link between modern democracy and what Lord Hailsham, a former Tory lord chancellor, called Britain’s ‘elective dictatorship’. We made a 20th century choice, albeit in extreme circumstances, to have an authoritarian government and a weak parliament, unlike, for example, the Scandinavian countries. Crucially, holders of the office of speaker until Bercow did nothing to reverse this trend. On the contrary, they were part of it because so many speakers of the era were ex-senior ministers who secured the job thanks to prime ministerial patronage and became, in effect, poodles of No.10. George Thomas, under early Thatcher, and Selwyn Lloyd, under Heath, are prime examples, alternating with nonentities chosen for their popularity among the party whips, of which Bernard Weatherill, under late Thatcher, and Michael Martin, Bercow’s predecessor, were low points.
Bercow, a striking and unpredictable independent, got the job in mid-2009 because Martin imploded in the midst of a now-forgotten parliamentary expenses scandal. He also benefited from a classic whips’ ruse: Gordon Brown plumped for Bercow rather than an establishment Tory like Sir George Young, given that it was the Tories’ ‘turn’. Bercow was by now visibly advanced on a journey from right to centre, which suited Brown.
Bercow’s personality and politics were ideal for the first truly independent speaker of the modern era. But circumstance played a key role. Within a year there was a hung parliament, followed, after the short 2015 Cameron/May parliament, by even more hung parliament, dealing with the most momentous issues since the war. Bercow seized the moment. He also seized the potential of an office at the heart of parliament in Britain’s centralised polity where all power nominally lies in the Commons but came to be delegated to No.10.
He has systematically separated parliament from government, and the constitution will never be the same again. His task is not finished. The endgame of Brexit is being fought hour by hour on the floor of the Commons. Controversy over the third meaningful vote will be followed by others until this struggle between an out-of-control government and an increasingly assertive parliament is resolved.
Behind this lies the key issue at the heart of the modern constitution: namely, does the faction of the largest party, which captures No.10 through the office of prime minister, then have power to dominate the policy of the state unless and until it is voted out of power? Or should there be a new system of checks and balances, safeguarded and to some extent operated by a parliament enjoying real independence from government? This is an issue almost as big as Brexit, and both are being resolved together under speaker Bercow.
In his will, Lenthall asked to be buried without pomp. His grave had a plain headstone carved with the Latin inscription Vermis sum, ‘I am a worm’.
Not the epitaph I think Bercow has in mind.