Covid-19 has necessitated some dramatic changes to how Parliament operates, with an unprecedented shift to remote working and proxy voting in a bid to avoid an outbreak at the heart of national politics.
These measures have been hotly debated here and elsewhere, but one side-effect of them has been to obscure (or delay, depending on your point of view) the effort to restore the proper operation of the House of Commons after the inglorious reign of John Bercow reached its overdue conclusion in 2019.
An interview he gave to The UK in a Changing Europe last summer is a fascinating artefact. The open contempt he exhibits for the clerks and institutional memory of the Commons – for all the rhetorical throat-clearing about admiration – is quite breathtaking. On his tearing up precedent to allow an amendment to a notwithstanding motion, for example:
“I think, to be fair to David, he thought I was wrong and he thought it might genuinely be damaging to the chair. Not just to me personally, but to the authority of the Speaker. And that is something people can debate. But I can live with myself over it.”
Of course David Natzler, then a clerk, was right. That and other stunts the former Speaker facilitated risked serious damage to the proper operation of Parliament. But it is entirely typical of Bercow to pay no mind to the consequences beyond how he feels about it.
He exhibited this tendency long before the high drama of the 2017-19 Parliament. Consider the fact that this great moderniser was swift to cast off the traditional raiment of the Speakership – which he doubtless found inconvenient or embarrassing – but still expected MPs to observe the traditional ‘courtesy of the House’ and spring aside as he processed by. Bottomless entitlement to the dignities of the office partnered with scant regard to the dignity of the office was ever his way.
We are happily spared the need to pay Bercow much mind today. The Government has rightly barred his path to the House of Lords. A counter-productively feeble contribution to the anti-grammar schools lobby – now he no longer needs to justify himself to his Buckinghamshire constituents, who rightly cherish such schools – and doubtless a few other progressive grifts must suffice to enliven his retirement.
But he should live on as a valuable lesson in the dangers of playing fast and loose with our institutions, a lesson that can be traced right back through his speakership to its improper origins in a deliberate stitch-up by Labour MPs hoping to inflict a partisan Speaker on the next, most likely Conservative, government. In fact, there are moments where Bercow himself seems almost aware of his tragic role:
“Has Parliament been weakened of strengthened by the Brexit process? Well, the answer is that, up until October 2019, I thought it had been strengthened. But because, in the end, everything depends on the final act in the play, ultimately it has been weakened.”
Here, too late, the former Speaker perhaps grasps the virtues of precedent and tradition. They may stop you doing whatever you want in-post, but they do help to ensure that gradual, positive change can be bedded in over the long haul. Bercow’s approach saw the Commons “strengthened and strengthened and strengthened from 2017 onwards”, in his view, but that all went up in smoke with the advent of a majority government and his own retirement. Shelley might have been writing of him when he wrote:
“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains.”