SpeakerProcession

Champion of the House

The new UK Parliament met on 18 May to deal with the first business of any new parliament: electing the Speaker. In the UK, if the Speaker seeks re-election in the general election, it is the tradition that he or she will continue as Speaker in the new parliament. Thus the day began with the Father of the House (the longest serving MP – which we call the Dean of the House in Canada) ascertaining whether Mr John Bercow was willing to be chosen as Speaker. Bercow replied:

It has been an honour to serve as Speaker for nearly six years, and I should be honoured to do so for a little longer if colleagues kindly agree. I shall strive to ensure that the House remains at the heart of our democratic system. All its Members, newcomers and veterans alike, should be part of the cast, not merely an audience.

If there are five words that I should like to be carved on my political tombstone—assuming that such items are not now for ever unfashionable—they are: “He was the Back-Benchers’ champion.” On that basis, I submit myself to the House.

This was a theme that came up repeatedly.

It then fell to MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to move the motion, That the right hon. John Simon Bercow do take the Chair of this House as Speaker. Rees-Mogg is one of those typically oddball MPs the UK House of Commons seems to specialize in. You get the feeling that he time-travelled into the future from the late 19th century perhaps. He is a procedural geek, and a fascinating speaker — even if you don’t agree with what he has to say. I won’t quote his entire speech upon moving the motion, but here are a few excerpts:

It has been the habit of this House to continue with a Speaker who wishes to continue to serve, and that is for very important constitutional reasons. The Speaker is the champion of the House of Commons against all-comers—the champion of the Commons against the Lords and sometimes against the judges, but perhaps most particularly against the Executive. The historians here will know that some seven Speakers lost their heads for championing the Commons against the Executive—something that we hope is no longer necessary.

The connection between the Speaker and the Commons protects us and the rights of this House. If we were to be light in changing our Speaker, we would find that the Speaker spent the whole time paying regard to what the Front Bench on one side or the other were thinking as to how he should rule, lest he should not continue in office after a general election. The last time that happened was in 1835, when Charles Manners-Sutton was booted out by the Whigs for being too much of a Tory. I am glad to say that there are not very many Whigs left to behave in that way.

(…)

The key virtue of the right hon. Gentleman is that he is impartial in this House, but he is a partisan for the House of Commons. In here, we are all equal and judged by him equally and fairly, but outside he defends our rights, our traditions and our liberties, and that is how it should be.

The question was put and adopted unanimously on a voice vote. Speaker Bercow was dragged to the Chair, as is the tradition, and said a few words:

I thank the House for again bestowing upon me the greatest honour that it can confer upon any Member. I am intensely conscious of the responsibilities into which I again enter, and I shall do my best to discharge those responsibilities efficiently, effectively and fairly. Above all, I am conscious of the rights of Back Benchers and the need to facilitate Members in championing the causes dear to them and, from whichever side of the House they come, holding the Government of the day properly to account.

It then fell to a representative from most of the parties to say a few words. And they all stressed that Speaker Bercow was truly a champion of the House of Commons.

Prime Minister David Cameron:

“It is a tribute to the inclusive way in which you have upheld this office always, as you have just said, putting Back Benchers first. I am sure you will do that in this Parliament, just as you did in the last.”

Harriet Harmon, Labour:

To all those entering the House for the first time, I want to say that we are all on an equal footing. You are not trainee MPs or apprentice or junior MPs: you are the real thing. You, along with all of us, have been elected by constituents to stand up and be a fierce champion for them. When you get the inevitable advice in the coming days telling you to learn the ropes and keep your head down—possibly for five or 10 years—I would say, ignore it! You did not get elected to keep your head down; you were elected to stand up for your constituents.

In doing that, you will all have a strong ally in the Speaker, whom I congratulate on his reappointment. He may be small in stature, but make no mistake: in this office, he is a giant. Of all the Speakers who have sat in the Speaker’s Chair since I was elected, he is the best. Whether you be a Government Back Bencher or on the Opposition Benches, when you want to speak up for your constituents, Mr Speaker will make sure that your voice and your case are heard.

SNP parliamentary leader Angus Robertson noted that in the previous parliament, when his party held only 6 seats, they greatly appreciated Speaker Bercow’s commitment to ensuring backbenchers were heard:

In the previous Parliament, that was particularly important to the SNP, which then had only six Members, or 1% of the membership of the House. With colleagues from the Welsh and Northern Irish parties, we were regularly called with fairness in questions, debates and statements and during the other business of the House.

From Nigel Dodds, of the DUP:

You are not only the guarantor of fairness between individual Members of Parliament and political parties here, but you have the important role of ensuring that the Government of the day are held properly to account, that the role and duties of Back Benchers are defended and upheld and that, as has just been said, the voice of smaller parties and the parties of the different countries of the United Kingdom is heard loud and clear at all stages and in all proceedings of this Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Alistair Carmichael of the Liberal Democrats, and a minister in the previous parliament, noted:

I confess that when I served as Government deputy Chief Whip in the last Parliament, the relationship with the Speaker was, obviously, not always an easy one, but it was always professional and courteous, and, if I may say so, as an Opposition Back Bencher I find the qualities that you exhibited which occasionally caused me difficulty on the Treasury Bench much more attractive now.

Representatives of the SDLP and Plaid Cymru also paid tribute to Speaker Bercow’s vigilance in protecting the rights of all MPs.

(All quotes from the UK Debates for 18 May 2015.)

 

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