By Campaign Agent Joe Monk
For some it comes with great sadness, for others great relief, that John Bercow has announced that he will be stepping down as speaker of the Commons in 2019- the same year the era of Britain being a member of the EU is due to end.
The speaker, who represents the Buckingham Constituency, has been well regarded as a reformer, seeking to bring the Houses of Parliament into the modern era by ensuring that odd conventions that have precipitated since the 1800’s do not have as much relevance in today’s proceedings. In addition, he also received praise for his impartial manner in conducting tabled amendments that the government would use to their advantage. Consequently, he has provoked more frustration from his Conservative peers for being seen as too impartial with regards to giving the opposition more leniency than they might be entitled to.
Nevertheless, in spite of credentials for being a moderate speaker, much of the past year of his tenure has been dominated by allegations of bullying and for the allowance of sexual misconduct to go unnoticed. Allegations of bullying first arose when Bercow’s former private secretary, Angus Sinclair, revealed that he was bribed through payment to not come forward about the intimidation he suffered. Moreover, it included payment in the region of £86,000 for signing a non-disclosure agreement, thus he was willing to break the agreement to come forward and make these allegations public. This was seen to cause shockwaves through Westminster, and has come in the midst of the #MeToo movement with allegations coming left, right and centre against high-profile figures.
This was further supplemented by a report conducted by Dame Laura Cox earlier this week which revealed there has been a culture of `deference and silence` with regards to misconduct, thus ensuring that if there were any complaints of bullying or sexual harassment, it would be brushed under the carpet. Impetus for the report to be conducted arose earlier this year after a series of allegations were made against Bercow of bullying and harassing staff. Dame Laura, a leading QC and judge during her time, conducted the report independently so that no political influence could penetrate the results. It’s looking very hard for Bercow to deny these allegations given the reputation of Dame Laura and the dismal picture of Westminster she has revealed.
His controversial actions don’t end there, unfortunately. His remarks in relation to Donald Trump made significant headlines. This issue obviously divides much public opinion as to whether the President of the United States should be allowed a state visit to Britain. Bercow, to his credit, was consistent in his claims that the President hadn’t earned the right to be welcomed to our shores, in addition to being allowed to speak in the famous Westminster hall; a token of gesture and good will that was granted to Barack Obama. It is a reassuring remark to know that the speaker is trying to represent the best interests of the country – one of his main roles as the speaker is not just to preside over debates and questions across the floor, but also to represent Britain overseas and promote our liberal democratic values. Just because Trump has been elected President of our most powerful and trusted ally, it doesn’t give him the automatic right declare when he wants to visit Britain. It also helps to reaffirm that when it comes to the `special relationship` with the US, Britain will not bow to all wishes just for the sake of keeping the relationship on good terms. Nevertheless, there is a sense of hypocrisy here. Yes, it is very much welcomed that the speaker seeks to defend the best interests of the country, but what about the welcoming of authoritarian leaders with abysmal human rights records? The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, was allowed access despite his record on Tibet and secessionist movements within China. Furthermore, The Emir of Kuwait was given a welcome address in spite of policies subordinating women and placing limitations on free speech. What can be said here is that Bercow has lacked consistency during his tenure.
Despite the momentum for him to leave amidst these allegations, there will be a significant cohort that will miss the presence he has given in his tenure. To reiterate, he is very much a reformer amongst his contemporaries. Very recently, he allowed for the presence of the Lib Dem MP, Jo Swinson, to debate in parliament whilst attending to the needs of her new-born child. He helped to ensure that women who are in a similar position, just returning or are still on maternity leave, are not impeded from their work which is to represent their constituents to the best of their ability. This sends the message that women can pursue a career in politic, even if starting a family is a priority. It is hard to imagine even 20 years ago that MP’s would be allowed to bring their children, let alone dependent babies, into the chamber. It might seem intolerable to traditionalists, but for many it is a major step forward in the progression of parliament to meet demands of the modern era and preventing segregation from occurring.
Thus, this is very much an end of an era for parliament. It can certainly be said that his time hasn’t been a peaceful affair, having to contend with the coalition government of 2010-2015, the introduction of same-sex marriages, and the shock results of the Brexit referendum and the US elections in 2016. The next speaker has much to live up to in promoting reform of parliament and allowing for modernisation to continue, and hopefully the events they encounter will not be as those presented to Bercow.
Sources and Further Reading
Grame Demianyk, ‘John Bercow, Speaker Of The House Of Commons, Faces Fresh Accusation Of Bullying Staff’, HuffPost (1 May 2018)
Dame Laura Cox DBE, ‘The Bullying and Harassment of House of Commons Staff: Independent Inquiry Report’, Cloisters (14 October 2018)
Jessica Elgot, ‘Commons bullying inquiry suggests John Bercow should consider position’, The Guardian (15 October 2018)
Peter Walker, ‘Ex-judge Dame Laura Cox to head Commons bullying inquiry’, The Guardian (23 April 2018)
David Hughes, ‘Donald Trump not welcome to speak in Parliament, says Commons Speaker John Bercow’, The Independent (10 November 2017)
Danny Boyle, ‘Authoritarian leaders with poor human rights records John Bercow has allowed to address Parliament’, The Telegraph (7 February 2018)
‘Jo Swinson: Taking baby into Commons 'felt natural’’, BBC News (14 September 2018)
Image: UK Parliament @flickr