Unspeakable: The Autobiography by John Bercow
Liberty depends on rudeness, and John Bercow is the rudest Speaker of modern times. He has defied the tyranny of good manners by which the British Establishment seeks to control those who aspire to rise into its ranks.
Bercow never did know how to behave. His conduct from his earliest years was atrocious. In a generally favourable profile of him which I wrote for ConservativeHome in 2014, I quoted this account by his first biographer, Bobby Friedman, of how Bercow became the most unpopular boy in his year at school:
“He often flaunted his superior ability… Perhaps trying to compensate for his size, Bercow would often try to humiliate bigger kids in his class. One in particular used to make mistakes with his reading and Bercow would write them down and recite them back to him. Incidents like these would certainly have contributed to the view that Bercow was ‘an odious little toad’.”
It is in many ways wonderful, a vindication of our system, that Bercow was able, thanks to his extraordinary gifts as a debater, to force his way from modest beginnings to the top, while declining, for most of the time, to behave towards grander figures with the deference they expected of him.
But it also looks as if from his earliest years he was open to the charge of being a bully, who used his superior mental powers to torment his duller contemporaries.
Freedom of speech clashes here with the duty to treat people, especially if they are in some way vulnerable, with kindness and consideration.
Bercow’s critics say he is unfit to become a peer, because he bullied his staff while serving as Speaker. I have no doubt that he was at times atrociously rude to people who were unable to answer back.
Two days ago the House authorities condemned Bercow for naming in his autobiography “a number of staff who have never spoken publicly about their experiences or sought to gain publicity as a result“.
Bullying is horrible, and quite a bit of it takes place within the Palace of Westminster, where frustrated MPs sometimes vent their spleen by behaving as mini dictators towards their own staff.
Parliament’s Behaviour Code makes clear there should be zero tolerance for abuse or harassment. But although I agree that workplace bullying is despicable, and should not be tolerated, I cannot help worrying that we shall end up in a mealy-mouthed world where passive aggression has supplanted plain speaking, and the atmosphere is more poisonous than it was before because the air is never cleared by outbursts of anger.
Most of us are inclined to be a bit hypocritical about this. While deprecating bad behaviour, we are also grateful for it, because it is so much more amusing than good behaviour. Bercow was proud of behaving badly, for as the ConHome profile reported, having managed at the third attempt to become an MP,
“He at once became a manically active speaker in the Commons, and also an assiduous heckler: he has since conceded, or boasted, that during his first five years as an MP, ‘my behaviour was spectacularly bad – I mean not just sort of bad but bad on an industrial scale’. In the parliamentary session which ended early in 2000, Bercow made 76 speeches, more than any other Member and well ahead of Eric Forth, in second place with 57. He had become one of the relatively small number of MPs who keep the Chamber alive. In my view his remarkable enthusiasm as a backbencher for taking part in debates is one of his greatest qualifications for the Speakership.”
In Unspeakable, Bercow writes that his early approach in debate “was best summarised as crude and unrestrained attacks on the other side at all times”. He says this had a bad effect on his private life, where he had at last persuaded Sally Illman to move in with him:
“Ironically, I had spent years hankering after Sally, but now that she was living with me I barely saw her. I was obsessed with work…”
But in 2002, by which time he was 39 and they had known each other for 13 years, he at last persuaded her to marry him. They have remained married through various difficulties, and when he came to write this book, “Sally willingly typed the bulk of the manuscript, offering advice on style and substance in the process”.
This may have been of benefit to the Bercows’ marriage, but is not of benefit to his, or their, readers. For we are presented with an approved text in which he is exceptionally hard on the Conservative urges he felt as a teenager, condemnation driving out comprehension.
So he writes that “foolishly” he was drawn towards Enoch Powell, and in January 1981, when he turned 18, he reached “the most shameful decision I have ever made” and applied to join the Monday Club, a hard-right Conservative pressure group:
“So here I was, a Jewish boy born and brought up in a free country thanks to the Home Office permitting my paternal grandparents to enter it and thereby escape persecution, en route to flunking my A-levels, contemplating tennis coaching as my life choice, and sidling up to racists.”
He remarks also, “I am not good-looking, but rather rat-like and somewhat intense.” There is an uneasiness about Bercow which one may guess is one reason why he lashes out at other people.
So it would be more charitable to pity Bercow than to condemn him. He makes life hard for himself, and has a thin skin. When he lashes out, he does so because he himself feels wounded.
He is remarkably rude about various of his colleagues. Patrick McLoughlin, at this point serving as Deputy Chief Whip, is described as “a rather unimaginative and slow-moving control freak”.
Of Michael Howard, for whom Bercow works in the shadow Treasury team at the start of Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership, Bercow writes:
“Michael Howard and I worked well together. That is not to say that I ever liked him. Frankly, I didn’t. Some people are cold. Others are oily. Michael’s peculiar distinction was to combine coldness and oiliness in equal measure.”
This book runs to 435 pages of text, and the original manuscript was far longer, an “overlong stream of consciousness” as the author himself admits.
He wrote it “at crack of dawn” and at weekends over the last 18 months of his speakership. One cannot fault his energy, nor his fluency, but these are not the only qualities needed to write a good autobiography.
The text is splattered with superfluous adverbs and adjectives, which detract from the words to which they are attached. He begins by describing Geoffrey Cox, as Attorney General, becoming “more florid of face, hyper in tone and undilutedly pompous”.
The author could be describing himself. This is more of a harangue than a book, and he seldom manages to get behind the externals and cast any new light on the main characters involved.
About half-way through the book, Sally warns him, “The bloody Clerks are trying to take control of your office.” Bercow proceeds to reject various accusations of bullying: “In my opinion, the disagreement between us did not constitute bullying in any way.”
Indeed, he had “superb staff” in his office and “the team spirit was outstanding”. The trouble, in Sally’s words, was that “the Clerks want to pack your office with their Oxbridge-educated clones, for God’s sake”.
And yet he was in many ways an admirable Speaker. The business of the House moved more briskly under Bercow than it had under his somnolent and at the end overwhelmed predecessor Michael Martin.
It also became easier to debate events which were actually taking place, by means of Urgent Questions and other devices. The essential task of holding the Government to account was carried out much better.
One way in which Bercow would hurry up long-winded MPs was by saying, “We have got the gist.” The same might be said of this book: we soon realise he detests David Cameron, William Hague and various other Tories, but that does not stop him repeating himself.
Here he is on the present Tory leader:
“As it happens, I like Boris Johnson. He can be charming and witty. He has never been anything other than courteous to me. We played tennis in January 2017 at his official country residence, Chevening, and he took his 6-0 6-0 6-0 defeat with very good grace. He is not stupid but highly intelligent, very well read and a fine conversationalist. However, he is careless with words and facts and, even by the standards of a profession in which self-regard is not uncommon, he is disproportionately preoccupied with whatever serves the cause of advancement for B. Johnson. As a debater, he is undistinguished….he is, at his occasional best, a passably adequate politician in an age not replete with them.”
Bercow’s desire to cut Johnson down to size tells us more about the author of this book than it does about the Prime Minister. The vanity of Johnson’s rivals is one reason why they made the mistake of writing him off.
This Speaker’s critics will probably never forgive him for bending the rules of procedure in such a way as to favour those MPs who wanted to legislate against a cliff-edge Brexit, and if possible to avoid Brexit altogether.
But by taking sides, and bending over backwards to help Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve and other would-be Remainers, Bercow did not attain his end.
He and his allies were outwitted by Johnson, that “passably adequate politician”, who saw the stage set for an election in which, despite leading a party which had been in power for almost a decade, he could be the heroic insurgent who could be trusted to implement the referendum result.
Bercow by the end had degenerated into an Establishment stooge. He has not yet admitted this even to himself.