Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Four cheers for John Bercow
John Bercow, the Speaker (chairman) of the House of Commons, has made a name for himself during his tenure, and particularly in the last few weeks, for championing the rights of parliament against the government. For his pains he has been abused by Brexiteers, and even by Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, for alleged "flagrant abuse" of parliamentary process."
In fact Mr Bercow has been doing exactly what he's supposed to do: champion the commons against the government.
The presiding officer of the commons has the idiosyncratic title of "Speaker" because in the early history of parliament that is what he did: "speak" to the monarch and tell him what the commons wanted. In less settled times this could be a dangerous business and seven Speakers have been beheaded for their pains. You can find the details here. That is why, on their appointment, Speakers pretend a mock reluctance to take the chair and have to be manhandled into it.
The classic incident of "crown versus parliament), which "every schoolboy knows" (or used to, anyway) occurred in 1642 when King Charles I invaded the commons chamber with a troop of soldiers and tried to arrest five of the members. Mr Speaker Lenthall who had been forewarned, refused to reveal the whereabouts of the five with the words that he could "neither see nor speak but by command of the house."
Charles responded with: "I see the birds have flown" and every schoolboy used to know that too.
Since that day no monarch has been able to enter the commons chamber, and the monarch's representative in the House of Lords, Black Rod, has to knock three times before she's allowed in to summons the commons to the Opening of Parliament or the granting of the Royal Assent.
In his celebrated "History of England" G. M. Trevelyan O.M. says of these seminal events:
"By dispensing with parliaments and by dismissing all judges who dared to interpret the laws impartially , Charles removed every constitutional check upon his actions." (page 390, 1945 edition)
Mr Johnson has not gone quite so far yet, but there are clear echoes of the seventeenth century struggle in today's events: the prorogation of parliament at the most critical time in our history since the Second World War, and Johnson's apparent willingness to disobey the law to implement his "come what may" threat.
What is lamentable is that Johnson and the Brexiteers are in the public mind, getting away with it. They know full well what the true relationship between government and the commons should be in our parliamentary democracy. Yet when Bercow announced his resignation and the Opposition MPs rose and cheered him, quite rightly, few Tories joined them and, and, as far as I could see the entire government front bench sat on their hands.
The Tory view, though, is reflected in the sycophantic press.
One of our pundits has said that the antics of the past weeks have signalled the end of "the good chap theory of government." The British constitution is not codified but based on a series of traditions and conventions such as the one described above. We now have politicians fully prepared to crash though these conventions in order to get their way.
When the dust settles, Brexit of no Brexit, we need to take a serious look at the need for a written constitution.