Alastair's Blog

Return to:  Blog | Articles | Videos RSS feed

The Speaker has to balance tradition and change – but defend Parliament

Posted on 22 June 2009 | 11:06am

Whoever becomes Speaker today will start their tenure, as have their predecessors, by being ‘dragged reluctantly’ to the chair. One of those traditions. Like the Queen at Ascot, and rain at Wimbledon. Funny hearing Roger Federer saying he hoped it rained when he was playing on the centre court so that he could see what it was like playing on covered grass. Traditional tennis in a modern setting, as John Prescott might say. Oh no, he’s croquet of course.

I covered a couple of Speaker elections as a journalist, and was with TB when Michael Martin was ‘dragged reluctantly’ by, if memory serves me right, Peter Snape and Ann Keen. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

The expenses scandal has now gone on for so long, and so loudly, and pushed MPs so low in general esteem, that you wonder whether there will be much warmth for the kind of tradition that normally makes British people feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

On the one hand – isn’t it marvellous that in a world defined by the pace of change, some traditions survive that take us way way back into our rich and wondrous heritage? On the other hand – could anything better show how out of touch our MPs are that the new Speaker has to start on the pretence that they don’t want the job in the first place, when we all know they’ve been campaigning like crazy?

The expenses row will be with us for some time to come, certainly up to the next election. David Cameron for one (his expenses claims incidentally but the latest example of him being treated more softly by the media than a Labour leader would be) thinks that there will be quite a few late exits on all sides. MPs are bound to weigh the impact of the expenses issue locally in deciding whther to stay or go, and many candidates opposing sitting MPs will feel they have been handed the basis of a non-policy campaign on a plate.

So, almost regardless of the overall outcome, there is going to be considerable change and churn in the new Parliament.

Where the mood is right now, all the talk is on the need to reform, and for the new Speaker to be leading the reform agenda. And certainly, given the background to this election, he or she arrives with a guaranteed higher profile than predecessors, and a lot more scrutiny too.

But amid all the obvious challenges – sorting out the old discredited expenses system, presenting a better face of Parliament to the public in such cynical times – comes the task too of standing up for Parliament and the job that it does.

There is a danger that the baby – properly defended Parliamentary democracy – gets thrown out with the bathwater – the worst excesses and the system which bred them.

At the charity q and a I did with the BBC’s Robert Peston and Alan Duncan last week, the Tory MP said public scepticism about MPs had moved to a kind of hatred. It was all very well, he said, but there comes a point where the public needs to stop and think how far this is going to go, and what kind of Parliament we end up with if the anger does not abate.

I found myself agreeing, and I find myself today hoping that MPs will elect someone who will understand the depth of anger at what has gone on, but not as a result of that follow very twist and turn of media-driven outrage, but see part of the job to stand up for MPs rather better than they have stood up for themselves.

As for the runners and riders, of those favoured by the bookies, I don’t know John Bercow well enough to make a judgement, but I fear he might be driven towards a baby plus bathwater position; Alan Beith was quite persuasive on the one hustings programme I saw, though two of the real favourites, Margaret Beckett and Sir George Young, did not take part. I am a big admirer of Margaret Beckett’s because she is solid and reliable, would really think things through, and not get pushed around by anyone.

I always quite liked Sir George Young when I was a journalist, but do we really want Old Etonions running London (Boris) the House (Sir George) and, unless the polls change, the country (Dave)?

  • helenhall

    Dave….love it 🙂

  • Mike

    After her dismal performance on Question Time, Margaret Beckett surely isn’t the candidate to reconnect parliament with the people? The factional manouevering involving the whips displays further contempt for the electorate.

    I oppose almost all of what she stands for, but I really hope Ann Widdecombe gets elected.

  • Jon Harvey

    I think the situation demands baby and bathwater (ie radical change) rather than solidity and reliability…. I would rather have a responsive speaker than an inflexible one.

  • Brian Hughes

    (Your blog is doing slightly odd things now that I’ve upgraded to IE8. My previous attempt at commenting ended up somewhere in the ether after I’d noticed that the name, email and comment labels were pointing at the wrong boxes and foolishly pressed the new “compatibility” button to see what might happen. I should know better at my age…)

    I was trying to contrast my love for the traditions of the Palace of Westminster and its atmosphere with the unfortunate effects they might have on MPs.

    The place seems to be somewhat like a cross between Hogwarts, an Oxford college and a gentlemen’s club. It must be odd, especially for a new MP, to find yourself being treated with fawning respect by hangers-on and flunkies some of whom dress in tights. A curious contrast with life as a constituency MP.

    Is this part of “the problem”? Is this why some of them end up a tad Upton Park (a tube map related attempt at an old joke)? Should they abandon the Palace and head for somewhere more austere? Who can say?

  • Chief Sub

    Old Etonions ??

    Dearie me

  • @THN_Nick

    What the British public are fed up with, have been fed up with for so many years, and want to see done differently, is the incessant, seeming impossible-to-avoid nature of top-level politicians (that is on any side of the House) – that is to say one thing and do another; That is to promise something and not deliver it; That is to unservingly stick to an idea that is clearly stupid and unhelpful at an indivdual, family, or country level.

    With the expenses scandal which has brought about the opportunity to change what is rancid and unhelpful with our political system, we’ve not really been dealt anything we weren’t expecting.

    There’s a kind of shock for sure, that what has been revealed really is what we all thought anyway. It is good that it has happened. It has given this country the opportunity for change.

    What the people of this country will not tollerate (least I hope they will not) is a watering down of the change that needs to happen; Of politicians going back on their word; Of politicians going back on their moral duty to do what is right for me. That is why they are there…to make my life better, to make my neighbour’s life better. They are the stewards of my and everyone else’s money. They have a privelege in being given the responbility to be such a steward. A little humility and humbleness would go a long a way to restoring public cnofidence in our politicians.

    Pomp and ceremony and tradition is fine. It is good to remind where things came from, how they started, what their roots are. But tradition should not stand in the way of progress nor what is just and right and proper.

  • AC

    I am going to pretend Old Etonions was deliberate and leave as is… thanks for pointing out!

  • Frankie Granger

    The election is another interesting illustration of the complexities of the secret v public debate. There seems to be an acceptance that MPs will vote according to their own views, rather than party pressure, if they vote in secret Yet we also think we are entitled to know where our elected reps stand on big issues, and not least now, who becomes Speaker is a big issue.

  • Jane A

    I agree with Frankie re secrecy. The only thing which rankles with me over the Speaker process is the secrecy of the ballot. Could they not declare who voted for whom afterwards, even? It would be good to see how the tribal groupings work, and would send a strong signal about improved openness to come.

  • Claire

    I almost oppose everything Ann Widdicombe stands for but I heard her on the radio the other day, and her intention to stand for just a year and clean up as much as possible before she retires seems sensible.

    She is known to be critical of her own party if they are out of line, and I think she will take no nonsense from anyone.

    Whoever is voted in must make sure that the image of MP’s is restored to being trustworthy, because, as usual, the actions of few has affected so many.

  • Lou Rossati

    The ‘traditions’ of the British Parliament border on the farcical in an age when communication is all but instant, formality in business dealings has been consigned to the dustbin of history and people expect ‘openness’ and ‘accountability’ to be inextricably linked.

    So, I’m rather in favour of throwing out the traditional baby with the traditional bath water and bringing Parliament into the 21st century. Hell, I’d settle for it being brought into the latter half of the 20th century! Let’s do away with this nonsense of the Speaker being dragged; MPs referring to each other as ‘my learned colleague’, ribbons hanging off coat racks to hold long-obsolete swords, etc etc.

    The House of Commons should be a place of business like any other – not some museum-come-theatre which is great for tourists but has no connection with modern Britain.

  • Em

    I just wish the top wasn’t so white, male and from bourgeois and upper classes. Never mind Etonions.

  • Alex

    “I always quite liked Sir George Young when I was a journalist, but do we really want Old Etonions running London (Boris) the House (Sir George) and, unless the polls change, the country (Dave)?”

    What manner of bigory is that? So they hapened to go to the same large private school, but how many Labour cabinet members also went t selective and fee-paying schools?

    Do you object to the fact that the PM, the Chancellor, the recently retired Speaker and a recent Home Secretary and a recent Lord Chancellor were all Scottish? Of course not. Such prejudcie has no place in modern life

  • AC

    Thanks to those who have highlighted a few other typos. I have amended.

  • mary

    Not entirely sure why old Etonians shouldn’t be Speaker. You might as well say that people who went to Oxbridge, or people born in Scotland, or people with mental health problems shouldn’t be treated equally either!

  • CPW

    Really, I must say only morons and the ill-educated are inspired with a feeling of ‘warmth or fuzziness’ at the evocation of tradition when the speaker is dragged to his seat. Not two hundred years ago that self same speaker presided over a house that represented but one seventh of the adult male population in this country – let alone the women.

    Britons should not in the least be proud of the position’s traditions, its panoply or indeed the institution he presides over. Rather, a right-thinking, decent Brit should be proud of how those idiot traditions were disinvested of their power and the crony, thieving bastards that sought to maintain them were slowly overcome.

    A warm, fuzzy feeling it is not. More a reminder how unimaginative and self serving the species can be. Much like how future generations will regard this blog.

  • Katharine T.

    I wonder, now that the news has broken what you think of the choice Mr. C?

    I do find it interesting that, if my history is correct, MP’s began getting paid because traditionally, the posts were held by the titled and monied sorts. The rigors of travel and the job and the expenses made it impossible for an average person to become an MP.

    It is sad that the original act of paying MP’s and allowing expenses was to ensure that all people had a fair chance of becoming an MP, just to see it end up in such a foul display of greed and false entitlement.

    However, I could be wrong in my assessment.

  • Wyrdtimes

    I can’t see Old Etonians doing the job any worse than the Scottish Mafia (plastic or otherwise) – Brown, Blair, Darling, Browne, Faulkner, Campbell etc etc etc etc. They have been a disaster as our grandchildren will attest when they are still paying Brown’s debts.

    The Etonians will still treat England and the English with contempt of course, and maybe it’s worse being betrayed by your own countrymen than shafted by Scots who at least are an auld enemy that can be relied upon to hate England.

    I look forward to the day when the whole institution is torn down and the people of England are once again represented by an English parliament.

    As William Wallace probably didn’t say; “Freeeeeeedom”.