Why we need a man like John Bercow

Topics UK parliament

Indian democracy needs a man like John Bercow, the House of Commons Speaker who has announced he would stand down on October 31, or at the next general election, whichever comes first. Bercow has restored the centrality of Parliament to British public life. No less important — some would say even more important — he has cut down to size a monarchical Prime Minister who makes a cult of flamboyant populism. Above all, he has introduced future generations into the principles and practice of parliamentary politics. 

No public figure is ever blameless. In his 10 years as Speaker, Bercow has been accused of bullying Westminster staff, refurbishing his grace and favour apartment with parliamentary funds, and misusing the Speaker’s office to canvass money for his re-election campaign. Nigel Farage, the egregious Brexit Party leader, calls him the “worst Speaker in memory”. Donald Trump probably mutters far worse imprecations. For Bercow told the Commons on February 6, 2017, that he was “strongly opposed” to Trump addressing Parliament during his planned state visit to Britain, adding that “opposition to racism and sexism” were “hugely important considerations”. 

In the event, the state visit didn’t take place. When Trump did visit as Queen Elizabeth’s guest, Bercow, the taxi driver’s son whose ancestors were Jewish immigrants called Berkowitz, was conspicuous by his absence from the glittering Buckingham Palace banquet that meant so much to the American President and his First Lady. Bercow, who has modernised his job sartorially too, abandoning the Speaker’s full-bottomed wig, knee-length breeches and gaiters for a sober business suit and his own short-cropped but unruly white hair, would probably have felt out of place in that gorgeous assembly sparkling with diamonds. 

Last Monday’s tumultuous scenes in the Commons were a fitting epitaph to the vigour and energy he has injected into parliamentary proceedings. The previous style was slack. Contemporary issues were often ignored and few backbenchers could put questions to the Prime Minister. Bercow changed all that. With his sardonic lopsided grin and a twinkle in his eye, he made sure the Prime Minister spent hours standing at the Despatch Box answering question after question from backbench MPs. Ministers were furious at this intrusion in their time in the limelight but it must be admitted Theresa May diligently did her duty. It’s only Boris Johnson who tried to bluff his way out of parliamentary debates with invective instead of argument and more style than substance until he silenced Parliament altogether. He must envy Narendra Modi who avoids facing the Lok Sabha and much prefers public gatherings of adoring crowds hanging on his every word.

Apart from livening up the Commons, Bercow is credited with dragging it into the 21st century. The Palace of Westminster is a World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction. Thanks to Bercow, it has also become the nursery of legislative politics. Come November and members of the Youth Parliament will sit in the House of Commons for the 11th time. It began on October 30, 2009, when the Youth Parliament became the first and only group of non-MPs ever to debate in the chamber. Since then members aged between 11 and 18 have participated in an annual debate in the Commons, chaired by Bercow himself. Among the issues — chosen by a ballot of young people from across the UK and then voted on to decide which two issues should become the Youth Parliament’s priority campaigns for the year ahead — have been racism, Islamophobia, ending knife-crime, mental health, “equal pay, for equal work”, homelessness and “votes at 16”.

Not only are these young people drawn from all over the country, they also represent the changing face of modern Britain more accurately than the Commons. While only 29 per cent of MPs are women, the Youth Parliament boasts a 52 per cent female membership. Further, 32 per cent of Youth Parliament members are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds as against 7.9 per cent of the British population and 8 per cent of MPs. The group has included differently-abled young orators in wheel chairs. Adult listeners have also been known to single out teenage speakers as future prime ministers.

The Prime Minister must be furious he can’t have Bercow opposed at the hustings and defeated: the man has announced he won’t stand again. Reportedly, Johnson hopes to inflict some kind of punishment by denying him the peerage customarily bestowed on former Speakers when they resign. Bercow couldn’t care less. His service to posterity is preparing young Britons for a parliamentary future.

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