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INSIGHTS Revisited: The Speaker, Parliament and engaging with the modern democracy by John Bercow

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, 2009 - 2019

Date/Time: Thursday 16 April 2020, 17:30 - 18:30

Introduction by Dr Martin Farr, Co-Chair, Public Lectures Committee, Newcastle University

Click here at 5.30pm on Thursday 16 April to watch the lecture with fellow audience members and take part in the conversation online.

In 2018 John Bercow visited Newcastle University to deliver an INSIGHTS Public Lecture.

For all their prominence in Parliament, Speakers of the House of Commons were never public figures.

They would, occasionally, be interviewed, during their tenure or subsequently, after they’d been elevated to the House of Lords, as was the convention. Some even wrote memoirs.

Sometimes the Speaker would be a former minister, though as a former Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer Selwyn Lloyd (1971-6) was very much the exception.

Usually the Speaker – who by convention professes so little desire for the Chair that they have to be dragged to it by other MPs – is a backbencher from one of the two main parties, a person respected and liked – or at least not disliked – across the House. But even then, they were not well-known to the public at large.

This began to change with the broadcasting of Parliament. It’s hard to imagine now but the whether the proceedings of elected representatives being recorded by anyone other than Hansard reporters was hotly contested for years. Even allowing radio was a national event when it was experimented with in 1975. In 1978 proceedings were broadcast on radio as a matter of course, and thus we have Today in Parliament.

It changed most of all in 1989 with the televising of Parliament. Before then I have childhood memories of budget day on television consisting of a photograph of the Palace of Westminster, overlaid by a photograph of the Chancellor of the Exchequer as they spoke, or the Shadow Chancellor when he did. Or the Speaker, George Thomas (1976-1983), and his very distinctive Welsh accent.

Televising Parliament began with the House of Lords in 1985 – enhancing the drama of Harold Macmillan’s evisceration of the government of Margaret Thatcher – and then, finally, after twenty years of debate, the House of Commons itself was televised for the first time: the State Opening of Parliament and the debate on the Queen’s Speech, 21 November 1989.

The speaker of the House of Commons suddenly became the most prominent person in it, because by convention the Speaker speaks whenever they like, and everyone else has to sit down and shut up as the TV camera focusses on the Chair.

The first speaker to offered such limelight was Bernard Weatherill (1983-1992), a mild and modest Conservative. But Speaker Weatherill still donned the traditional a wig and gown, their very purpose, as for judges and barristers, being to confer anonymity.

Anonymity disappeared with his successor, who by virtue alone of being the first woman Speaker, became a public figure; that she had also been – as profiles invariably mentioned – a Tiller Girl, and began her tenure with an almost end-of-the pier entreaty – “Call me Madam” – ensured her celebrity. Her Lancashire vowels and ready sense of humour added to the entertainment provided by the naturally authoritative Betty Boothroyd (1992-2000).

The second full Speaker of the television age, Michael Martin (2000-9), had a less happy time. A Glasgow MP, Speaker Martin suffered challenges to his authority such that no speaker had ever experienced, and resigned having lost a vote of confidence.

Speaker Martin’s ignominious departure provided the opportunity for the person who made the Speaker of the House of Commons an international celebrity. There was no wig, robes, or anonymity, for John Bercow (2009-19).

None of his 156 predecessors has been anything like as prominent, as loved, and as detested. Any Speaker having to preside over the parliamentary trauma that flowed from the 23 June 2016 referendum on UK membership of the EU, would have become a figure of great, partisan, attention. That the Speaker became so associated with one side of an increasingly vituperative debate made the office effectively a political one for the first time.

Beyond Brexit, Speaker Bercow was perhaps the most radically reforming Speaker, reforming Commons practices and procedures, and transforming the role from being largely the Chair of an often unruly assemblage to being an ambassador for parliamentary democracy, across regions, borders, and generations.

That was why when he came to Newcastle he attracted well over 1000 members of the public, on a cold winter’s evening, to hear him speak – or not hear him speak, as queues carried on along the pavement long after all three lecture rooms were full. It was a bravura performance, and John Bercow had endless patience thereafter with members of the audience, their questions, and their selfies.

The Commons now reverberates to the tones of another Lancastrian Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who has made it clear that he wishes to revert a more traditional, less public speakership. But our age, and our means, means that the office has very much become the person. Speaker Bercow was instrumental in that development.