An Outspoken Speaker

Impartiality is one of the key defining features of the role of the Speaker of the House of Commons. So what is to be made of John Bercow’s breach of the sanctified code of conduct? Is it the case, that alongside our philosophers, journalists, and cultural theorists that the Speaker is also having a truth-crisis, and is consciously rejecting objectivity as an achievable end? Or is it the case, that despite holding an impartial office successfully for eight years, the Speaker no longer feels the need to abide by this principle? Or perhaps the nature of the role has evolved and a necessary degree of subjectivity needs to be introduced? Or is it simply the case that John Bercow felt at liberty to exempt himself from these limiting restrictions?

It might be generous to imagine that the Speaker would not casually breach his code of conduct, not unless there was a moral or constitutional crisis at hand which he felt justified such an abandonment of his office’s code. When Bercow made his critique of President Trump, we can generously assume that he believed the issue to be of the utmost importance and that it was necessary to make an intervention using inflammatory language in order to remind the House of its principles and duties.

However, in a difficult political climate it becomes imperative to uphold the Speaker’s impartiality so that he may act as a beacon of stability, an unwavering constant in a tumultuous tide. In order to properly facilitate debate, it is of the utmost importance that the chairman does not participate, and the Speaker’s privileged position requires him to facilitate important debates in the correct manner.

Although Bercow may have personally felt that the situation was desperate enough to permit vocalising opposition, was it really? There was no a constitutional crisis, and nothing essential to the British system was under threat of derailment or abolition necessitating a defence from the Speaker. An unsavoury, but democratically elected leader had been invited to a state visit as a diplomatic measure, and the Speaker threatened to personally oppose the visit – on the basis of that the US President has failed to exemplify British values in his policy making. It has already been noted that Bercow did not breach his impartiality over the state visits of China’s President Xi Jinping or the Emir of Kuwait Sabah Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. These leaders’ countries have appalling human rights records, but the leaders themselves are not so controversial in the eyes of the British media, and they do not enjoy the same level of coverage as President Trump. So did Bercow simply jump on the populist media bandwagon and preach to, knowing that he would be buoyed up by, an already converted media?

Bercow also revealed to students at the University of Reading that he had voted to Remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum, but that he respected the result of the referendum and thought it unwise to immediately seek a re-run. Betraying the nature of the secret ballot, and entirely betraying his code of impartiality, the Speaker again found himself in a position where he was speaking to an audience which was likely to agree. He did not throw aside his impartiality with a call to arms to defy Brexit, and to crucify himself to a cause whatever the personal and political cost as Tony Blair has recently done. Again, Bercow revealed his bias casually, with no sense that there would, or should be any consequences for him, which seems remarkable for the Speaker whose role it is to discipline MPs in the Commons when they speak out inappropriately. The flippancy with which Bercow is treating the defining feature of his role speaks not of a man who feels that the nature of the role is evolving, but of a man whose views are too important to be contained.

Presently there is not a great appetite to have Bercow replaced, but we should hope that no PR advice is shared around the Bercow household, as the Speaker may then find himself facing growing calls to be evicted from the House.

Daisy Cummins, Research Executive

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