Order. ORDER. The thundering call for calm which has seeped into the public sphere. It’s source? John Bercow, who last week announced he will stand down as Speaker of the House of Commons at the close of parliamentary proceedings on the 31st of October. For a man so theatrically inclined, the dramatics of his departure date is telling of his deeply self-regarding nature. Indeed, the political climate over the last three years has provided the perfect stage for the verbose, strong-willed character of Bercow, who found himself at the centre of a complex, unfolding drama, complete with those depicted as villainous, heroic and downtrodden.
However, his role in events has been far from straightforward. For instance, one of his early breaks from convention was invoking Common’s Standing Order 33, which enabled backbench MPs to put pressure on David Cameron to back a Referendum, subsequently producing the public vote in June 2016. More recently however, Bercow has backed parliamentary action which successfully led to the legal prevention of the UK crashing out with a no-deal Brexit on the 31 October. With these actions, and many others in between, Bercow has challenged the traditional role of the speaker, showing willingness to fight for and protect the legislature majority against an executive hellbent on getting their own way. In further challenge to the government he has overseen the more regular permittance of Urgent Questions; subsequently forcing ministers into the spotlight and calling them to account for their policies. Such actions cannot be taken for granted and have been powerfully influential in propelling debates into the public sphere, with the Parliamentary Channel drawing significantly increased audiences. Given the power concentrated in the House of Commons, it can only be a good thing that such debates have gained more popular engagement.
Over his nine years as Speaker, Bercow has further offered significant support to those entering politics from traditionally underrepresented groups. He has strongly backed the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme, which widens access routes through paid internships, whilst also facilitating the growth of Youth Parliament to encourage political engagement from young people. At a time when politics appears increasingly hostile, maintaining and broadening the scope of these schemes is essential for the development of a more representative democracy.
Love him or hate him, Bercow has certainly moulded the Speakers position into a more hands on, legislative position by paving the way for more muscular intervention in the protection of parliament against executive powers. And at a time where we have a lack of parliamentary or national majority, and when everyday takes us a step further away from precedent, a character willing to encourage structural change and contest executive authority is one of the most powerful tools we have; one which is certainly worth forgiving the pomp and theatricality of Bercow.
Image: Julian Mason via Flickr