Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bercow the Backbench Champion

John Bercow gradually became a very maverick Tory MP, and that might be what now allows him to sound like a backbench-championing Speaker, if the evidence of his Hansard Society speech is anything to go by. In a packed room where only Sir George Young seemed able to find an extra chair, Bercow outlined some of his ideas for restoring dignity or respect to the role of the backbencher. He seemed early on to be critical, at least in passing, of two recent developments in the life of MPs. One was the excessive whipping that now made them lobby fodder in the same way that the soldiers of the Somme were cannon fodder (an uneasy analogy for several reasons); the other was in the increasing localism that forced MPs to become essentially super-councillors, working on constituency casework rather than engaging in debates on national issues. I have to say that in neither of these criticisms would I differ from our new Speaker.

But his firm focus was to outline no less than TEN proposals to strengthen the role of MPs as inquisitors and legislators. What he called a "Backbench Bill of Rights". I have to confess my attention did begin to wander as he outlined all of his ten points, but the principal sounded good. Well done Bercow, we might have cried had we been a less well ordered meeting, for accepting that the House of Commons needed better legislators and inquisitors. Indeed, Bercow's service, as a Speaker loathed by his own party and no longer in hock to the governing party, has been to feel free enough to say what surely every MP is thinking (those, at any rate, who have been gifted with the ability). That if the Commons is to recover some respect in the public mind, it can no longer continue to be the limp plaything of governments, and must start to assert some level of independence and even aggression.

The questions afterwards brought a comment from Mr. Bercow that he would like to see the long summer holiday that MPs enjoy reduced, but that was hardly the meat of his talk. All the more of a pity that it happens to be the BBC's main story from the lecture, but perhaps that's because the holiday questions was asked by a BBC journalist?

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