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John Bercow

Modernisation can be appallingly destructive. No intelligent person, even one of severely conservative outlook, can deny that institutions need to undergo a process of gradual and occasionally drastic adaptation to changing circumstance, or else will become ossified and irrelevant. But there is always a danger that what is excellent in an institution, the accumulated wisdom which it embodies, will be thrown away in a vandalistic attempt to look (rather than actually be) in harmony with modern conditions.

The Commons last night retreated from such an act of misplaced modernisation. It held a short debate in which some of its leading members talked so much good sense that their remarks will receive little attention.

A very dangerous situation had arisen. The Speaker, John Bercow, had encouraged the appointment of a new Clerk of the House who did not possess any of the procedural knowledge which this figure must possess. Procedure is not – as Jesse Norman (Con, Hereford and South Herefordshire) observed, while opening the debate – “some pettyfogging accretion or irrelevant decoration”. It determines who can speak and what laws are passed.

Julian Lewis (Con, New Forest East) said that as a friend of the Speaker, he sometimes finds he has to help him “to extricate himself from holes he does sometimes dig for himself as a result of his passion for modernisation”. This was the purpose of the debate. The Speaker had recruited Carol Mills, an Australian civil servant, to become the new Clerk. This looked extremely modern: an outsider, and a woman, would become the most important Commons official. The problem was that once she arrived, she could not be expected to do the job, because she had never had anything to do with procedure.

Natascha Engel (Lab, North-East Derbyshire), who chairs the backbench business committee, declared herself to be a feminist, but observed that this appointment would set back the cause of feminism, for it would be taken (wrongly) as evidence that no woman could be Clerk. Sympathy was expressed by a number of members, including David Blunkett (Lab, Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough), at the unfair treatment of Ms Mills, and the horrible position in which she has been placed. But Sir George Young (Con, North-West Hampshire) said the selection process which led to her appointment should not just be “paused”, it should “be aborted”, and she should show she understands the situation by withdrawing.

Andrew Lansley (Con, South Cambridgeshire), until recently Leader of the House, offered some glimpses of how the whole thing went wrong. The Speaker wished to remove from the job specification the requirement for “detailed knowledge” of Commons procedure and replace this with “awareness”. By way of compromise, it was instead agreed to leave out the word “detailed”.

The vigilance of various members prevented the appointment from just going through during the summer, when MPs were not at Westminster. And there was widespread agreement – not joined in by Michael Fabricant (Con, Lichfield)  - that the episode should not be used as a means of undermining the present Speaker. Philip Davies (Con, Shipley), a member of the awkward squad rather than the Establishment, reminded the House that the previous Speaker had been “an absolute disgrace” compared to the present one, and added: “I hope my colleagues will stop using this as a Trojan horse to attack a Speaker doing a very good job.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg (Con, North-East Somerset) made the point that because we have an unwritten constitution, “to an extent we make it up as we go along”, and this entails “an enormous amount of bluff”. It follows that the Clerk must enjoy the complete confidence of the House, or he or she will be unable to bluff successfully. And only a Clerk who knows what he or she is talking about can enjoy such confidence.

Rees-Mogg ventured a further paradox: that the House needs in some respects to be inefficient, or the Government will be able smoothly to drive its business through, without the Opposition being able to have its say. He could have added that this was one of the points of the old all-night sittings: they were not, from a modern, managerial point of view, efficient, but they were a wonderful way of making life difficult for the Government.

This was, as I say, such a heartening debate, in which so much good sense was spoken, that it will barely be reported. But our Parliament is not in quite such a bad condition as one might think when listening to some of its saloon-bar opponents: though Alex Salmond and the people of Scotland could by the end of next week have inflicted far graver damage on it than would have been caused by the appointment in the name of modernity of an inadequate Clerk.

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