John Bercow: "I hope my successor learns from my mistakes"

Posted On: 
10th September 2019

John Bercow talks to Harriet Harman about his ten years as Speaker, the task facing his successor and why parliamentary democracy must never be "sub-contracted to a focus group, a noisy protest or even a referendum".

Parliamentary democracy must not be "sub-contracted to a focus group, a noisy demonstration, or even a referendum," John Bercow says
Credit: 
UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Harriet Harman: We meet at very turbulent times. How do you feel it's going?

John Bercow: I've never known a more tumultuous time in politics, Harriet. There is huge political tension. There is a natural and healthy tension between government and parliament, that's not new, but it is in a more accentuated and striking form at the moment. What is most significant is that the political climate and agenda are dominated by one overriding issue. That is not to say that it is automatically – still less forever – more important than all sorts of other huge issues; the fight against global poverty, the enormous and ever-present threat of climate change, domestic violence, and so on. It's just that it is both a big issue and need of legislative and political resolution. The atmosphere is challenging in a number of respects. There are members of the public who say, ‘we want Brexit now get on with it’. And they're annoyed that they haven't had it. There are people on the other side of the divide who say ‘we don't like this, what are you going to do to stop it or put it right or ask us again’. And then there are people who say ‘oh, just sorted out. We expect you as our Members of Parliament to deal with these matters’.

I've never known a situation in which one issue has dominated to the detriment, almost to the exclusion, of every other political issue, not least as reflected in parliamentary focus. Very little else is getting any time or attention or being decided legislatively because there's very little legislation coming forward.

And I don’t think I've known it quite so high octane and sometimes even toxic in terms of atmosphere between disputants in parliament and atmosphere between parliamentarians and those members of the public who are expressing that anger most forcefully.

And you are slap bang in the middle of it, aren't you? And of course there's one very easy way for there to be not any conflict between the government and parliament and that is to arrange it in such a way that the government can just have its way, do whatever it wants. But you're not going do that, are you? Your role is to stand up for parliament.

Yes. I think it's very important. Very large numbers of people are aware of the existence of the chap called the Speaker, that bloke or woman who shouts ‘order order’, but a lot of people are perhaps not fully aware both of what the Speaker does and doesn't do. I'm sometimes struck when people say ‘given your position in the government’. Well of course the one thing the Speaker isn't as a member of the government, and the Speaker isn't a member of the opposition. The Speaker, in fact, is not a player for any political party. The Speaker is the referee of the match but not a player on the pitch. The Speaker is, if you will, the leader of the Good Order and Fair Play Party. The only job of the Speaker is to facilitate, within the rules and subject to the constraint of time, all the views that are there to be expressed and that Members want to articulate. That's the job of the Speaker.

"Now the Speaker is neutral within the chamber. But the Speaker shouldn't be neutral about the chamber and the Speaker shouldn't be neutral or impartial about parliament.

“The Speaker should be passionately pro-parliament. And I see it as my role as Speaker to champion parliament, and especially so and with particular force, if its prerogatives, its privileges, its opportunities, are being curtailed, threatened or circumvented.”

I've been a Member of Parliament for over 35 years and I've seen all sorts of different times and events. It feels to me as if this is a very tumultuous time in relation to the relationship between the government and parliament, but also the relationship between parliament and the public. One of the things that's happened since you've been Speaker is the rise in social media. That's had huge benefits, but it also the huge problems, and we've seen people threatening MPs. That’s very much of concern.

I do feel quite strongly that the overriding duty of a Member of Parliament is to do what he or she thinks is right, whatever the consequences. You know, in many ways the growth of social media is a very good thing. It's a democratizing force, people who don't occupy positions of power can give voice to their views. And that is an extremely healthy thing.

The uglier side of the growth of social media is the descent into rank in tolerance, abuse, bigotry and threats sometimes followed by the actuality of violence. And that cannot be accepted. We cannot compromise with people who try to shout down views that differ from their own. There are also, to be honest, keyboard warriors who are extremely noisy but frankly minority voices and they make the mistake of thinking that everybody agrees with them because they take silence for acquiescence.

A Conservative MP said to me the other day ‘Mr Speaker, what if the will of parliament clashes with the will of the people?’ It is not a matter for the Speaker to seek to adjudicate on what is the will of the people. The Speaker's job is simply to facilitate debate. And Members in the end have got to say and do what they think is right. And if ever we get to a situation where God forbid people think, if minorities think, that if they're rude enough and abusive enough and loud enough for long enough and threatening enough and just say ‘you do this or else’ well then that's the death of parliamentary democracy.

Okay, parliament now and again decides to have a referendum on a subject, I'm not saying there's anything illegitimate about that, but fundamentally we are a parliamentary democracy and the Speaker's role is to champion parliamentary democracy.

So within the rules, within standing orders, parliament can do as parliament wishes and parliament must do as parliament wishes. Otherwise there isn't a point in having a parliamentary democracy if you're just going to sub-contract decision making to an opinion poll, a focus group and a noisy demonstration, or even a referendum.

I've seen real changes that have been caused because of the fact there’s no overall majority. We've got much more powerful, cross-party working that we ever used to have, for example. Now the genie of cross-party working is out of the bottle, as much as the whips might want to, I think it's going to be quite hard for them to put it back in. Do you think that that will cause the culture to change or is this just a blip because of the turbulence of Brexit?

I'm hopeful that it will endure. I think there were a couple of reasons for it. First of all I think that some of these issues won't go away, if I may say so. I know that we are potentially within sight of the legislative resolution of Brexit or possibly the electoral resolution of Brexit, but the debate about Brexit will go on in one form or another for some considerable time to come.

I'm not predicting an outcome. I'm not signalling that one thing is going to happen rather than another. I'm simply making the point that the notion that we're going to go from dealing with inverted commas ‘Brexit’ to not talking about Brexit again or the future of our relationship with Europe, is simply not realistic. The truth is that that issue is going to run and run and run.

I think there's another reason why it will be an enduring phenomenon and that is that we have now got stronger, more focused, more purposeful select committees than at any time I can recall. Is the real link between the democratic legitimacy conferred by election on those committees and their greater effectiveness? Well, it seems to be very obvious that there is.

I think other arugments are going to come back. The argument about how we deal with Private Members' legislation won't go away. It's not a mature way of dealing with it. A lot of people would say ‘well, we don't think parliament is showing itself to good advantage if bill is a talked out, let there be a dedicated slot for a bill to be debated and if it's got the support of the House it goes into committee and if it hasn't then it dies’. That would be a mature way of dealing with it.

Similarly, I think there should be a trigger threshold for the recall of parliament. That is to say I don't think it should just be left as it is under the standing order for the government to decide to approach the Speaker. What if there were a cross-party gathering of Members? It couldn't just be opposition, otherwise they'd be recalling parliament every two minutes. What if there were a cross-party trigger mechanism that could produce recall or at the very least a cross party threshold that could cause the Speaker to be asked whether he or she agreed to recall?

These are quite dry and procedural matters, which tend to cause people to lose interest quite quickly, except when people are exercised about something and then people say ‘oh well we better have a recall of parliament, Mr Speaker, will you recall the House?’

It seems to me that the best time to deliberate on these matters is in what I would call political peace time. We shouldn't always wait for situations of conflict and then say, oh we better get x sorted or we better arrange for y, because it's very often too late.

At all times we ought to be saying let's keep the best and improve the rest. And any future speaker should a) prioritize backbenchers, that I think is incredibly important, and b) not be content with the status quo, but be saying to him or herself, what are the key priorities for change either in the chamber or on the parliamentary estate?

When you look back at your time as Speaker. which are your most smug moments and which are your most self-tortured moments?

Well, I think that the change of which I'm proudest in the chamber is the renaissance of Urgent Questions because I do think that that's invested the House with a liveliness and a topicality and an urgency and an unpredictability which is beneficial to parliament.

Looking back, I am convinced that it was right to separate the role of the Clerk of the House, the principal constitutional advisor to the Speaker and to the House, from the role of chief executive, the person responsible for the management of the parliamentary estate. I think separating those two roles was the right thing to do. But it happened in 2014 in a higgledy piggledy and messy fashion, and the truth of the matter is that I should have thought longer, harder, and more effectively about how to deliver such a change before embarking on it. Looking back, I think some of the mistakes I made could have been avoided if I'd thought it through more carefully and for longer and plotted it more strategically in advance. That was a weakness.

You can never tackle everything, you've got to try to juggle lots of different balls, but I'm sure there are issues that could have been better tackled and it will fall to a future Speaker to oversee improvements. I think the place is a lot more diverse than it was. The present House is a more richly diverse and representative parliament than any of its predecessors in terms of female representation, in terms of BAME representation, in terms of LGBT representation and so on. But it's still not a totally equal House. I wish in a way looking back that I had started earlier and been more rigorous and insistent on setting targets for the recruitment of a more diverse staff base in the House. I think we've achieved a certain amount, but there's still a long way to go and more to be done and I think a lot of these matters will have to be taken forward by a successor Speaker.

Are we quite like the modern world in the way that we operate in? I don't think we are. For an institution based in London, in the capital city, we are not sufficiently representative of London or of the country. We're more representative than we were. We got a lot more women in parliament than we had thanks to you and others.

I've tried to do my bit culturally in the chamber, by resolving to call women earlier. I don't have a completely mechanistic formula, but I tend to say to myself that I don't want to be calling six men in a row if I can avoid it. I try to mix it around. Somebody recently complained about not being called in a debate, and that a particular female Member was called before him. He looked at me with complete disgust and incomprehension, and the burden of his point was that he knew much more about the subject than she did. And I said ‘well that's a matter of opinion’, but there are lots of factors for the Speaker, and I'm looking to ensure that there's a gender balance in the debate, and you can't always be called to speak just when you want to be called. So, you know, there's always more to be doneI would rather imagine the future speaker will think, well, what can I do through my public pronouncements and my conduct to encourage more female representation? What can I do to make the chamber more topical?

Are there respects in which we can embrace new technology? Might we consider electronic voting in the House, which you know, would be a decision for the House. But personally I think would be a very much more efficient way of doing business. And what do we do across the estate? How do we operate in terms of the recruitment of staff, how do we ensure that we're more representative of the country that we're charged to represent and what, what do we do by way of outreach? What sorts of relationship do we establish with the electorate as a whole?

Hopefully my successor will not make the mistakes that I have made and will do good things that I haven't done. I think one should always want improvement to follow. I think it's a great mistake to think, oh well let's say I have a poor successor so everyone will say 'wasn't he good?' That's a completely wrong outlook, you know, in the interests of the institution that you should love. And I do love the House, for all its faults and flaws.

I'm not completely dewy eyed about it, but I do love the House of Commons and you know, it is our representative, democratic legislature. I want it to be brilliantly served by future speakers. I hope the next Speaker will improve upon my strengths and not suffer from my weaknesses.


Housework, Harriet Harman MP's new podcast series exploring the personal side of politics, will launch in the autumn