I’m No Trappist

The Speaker of the House of Commons is committed to party political impartiality, but John Bercow hasn’t let that stop his passion for politics. He calls the Daily Mail the ‘Daily Fail’, wants to ensure Parliament doesn’t turn into an ‘institutional toffocracy’, and tells backbenchers to ‘get off their knees’. He has a penchant (and a talent) for putting on old, posh accents, and makes sure he gets in four swimming sessions a week.

In an exclusive interview, Tom Stevenson finds out more about the man who sits on the grandest chair of all.

John, thank you very much for joining us. You were once, in your youth, Britain’s top ranked junior tennis player. What on earth made you leave that for politics?

Well, the truth is that I was never quite good enough at tennis. I was county champion and so on, but I wouldn’t have made it as a professional, and I never particularly wanted to. As far as my interest in politics, I have always been a passionate believer in parliament. I believe in the value, and history, of parliament as a representative democratic institution.

You were known as a firebrand at party conferences, and an MP with some very strong views on policy, what led you to run for the position of Speaker of the House of Commons, a position that demands impartiality?

I was in a position, for various reasons, where my becoming a minister was very unlikely, and to tell you the truth I didn’t particularly want to become a minister, nor do I think I would have been particularly good at it. The Speaker of the commons is an extremely important, and influential role in parliament. So when the opportunity arose, I did some digging around (as I suspect one always does in such situations) to find out whether there was support for my running in the election. I soon found out that there was considerable support and so I ran.

In your election speech you also mentioned a pair of 18th century Speakers elected at rather young ages who both went on to become Prime Minster. You said that wasn’t a likely career move for you. Why not?

Well firstly getting into government depends on the internal dynamicsof the house, and it certainly would have been unlikely that I would have done so. But more broadly, there is a culture in modern Parliament which doesn’t see the role of Speaker as a role which leads to ministerial positions. Perhaps partly because of the people who have gone before in recent years, and for whatever other reasons, it’s seen as the culmination of a political career, not a stepping stone to other things.

Tony Benn once suggested the Speaker could replace the Queen as head of state if Britain ever became a republic, what do you make of that idea?

Well, I would make absolutely clear that I have great admiration for Her Majesty the Queen, who I think is an outstanding monarch and head of state, and that I think she deserves all our respect as she celebrates her Diamond Jubilee. I also have great respect for a man, Tony Benn, with whom I have often disagreed but nonetheless listened to with great interest and passion on all sorts of political issues.

But do you think the Speaker would be a suitable head of state should Britain ever become a Republic?

I can’t ever imagine a situation where Britain would be without the monarchy.

Ok, well as Presiding Officer you are of course responsible for selecting which MP s may speak in Parliamentary debates. Do you ever feel like an old fashioned school master choosing children with outstretched arms to answer questions?

The analogy that I favour, and the one that I strive to live up to, is closer to that of being a referee or an umpire in the house, but the one area in the comparison is quite fitting is when members attempt to violate the conventions and rules of the house, and especially for use of unacceptable language. Then I do feel a bit like a headteacher, or teacher. Some members have in the past gotten themselves reputations for this, George Galloway would be an example, or Dennis Skinner who had a reputation and was suspended from the house many times. One instance where I had to ask for a colleague to withdraw a remark was when Tom Watson called Michael Gove a “miserable little pipsqueak”… “out of deference to you Mr. Speaker”, he said he would withdraw it. You can make up your own mind about that.

So who are the trouble makers?

The one thing I can and will tell you is that overall the women of the house are markedly better behaved than the men.

Does Prime Ministers Questions still serve a democratic function, or is it just theatre, and is that acceptable?

We famously have a much livelier chamber than probably any other country, but I can’t tell you the amount of representatives from other countries who say they wish they could haul in the Prime Minister or President and question them directly as we do in Britain. So I think it does serve a democratic function. That kind of accountability, even if the decibel level sometimes gets rather high, is very important. In recent years there has been an increase in orchestrated shouting, and that’s something I’ve tried to change.

The people have to be interested in Parliament though… isn’t the drama rather interesting?

Absolutely, and we wouldn’t want to lose all the drama and turn MPs into Trappist monks, but we also need to have serious substantial debate. Planned artificial heckling, especially when it gets to the volume that it sometimes does, which Deep Purple would have been proud of, doesn’t add to that.

As Speaker of the House, one of your responsibilities is for Parliamentary process. The current debate around Scottish independence brings the West Lothian question forward. Do you think it proper that Scottish (and of course Northern Irish) MPs to vote in Westminster, as well as their own assemblies?

I am responsible for process, but an issue like this is a highly controversial one where there are strong opinions all over the house.

But it is a matter of the process of Parliament isn’t it, you must be one of the major players at the table on this?

Yes, but this is also a matter of high politics, and as I said it’s very contentious so it isn’t for the speaker to make judgements on this kind of issue. Traditionally the Conservative party were against devolution, but have steadily shifted position, and whether we should have devolution, or independence, or devolution-max, I really can’t say. It’s not that I’m ducking your question – I’m not scared of any question – It’s just not an issue that I as Speaker can make judgements on.

Yes, as Speaker you have to refrain from expressing political opinions in the house, and are committed to impartiality, yet as we said your early career was marked by very strong party-political opinions… do you not feel constrained, and aren’t you ever tempted to influence things, by choosing certain people to speak for instance?

Your political opinions don’t disappear over night, but out of respect for the office of Speaker I feel no strain at all for not, say, participating in debates. But Ministers don’t participate in debates except where their office is responsible. I would never try to ‘influence’ a debate like that, because it would undermine the office. But I have very good access to ministers, who certainly answer my requests far quicker now than they ever did when I was a backbencher. So I’m no Trappist monk either, to return to the earlier metaphor, and I have absolutely no regrets about being Speaker. I don’t expect this to be the case, but if I were to die tomorrow, I would die a happy man.

This article was published in New Turn Magazine on March 6th.

Image courtesy of The National Assembly for Wales.

A Day With The EDL

Tom Stevenson interviews an EDL 'protester'.

Reggie, a young woman tending to a stall on Whitechapel Road, was optimistic about her September 3 demonstration against the English Defence League (EDL). “It’s a celebration,she said, “a day for multiculturalism… the Trade Unions are here, Muslims, white people, gay people, all of us as a community”. With the UAF, the Socialist party, Socialist Workers Party, Stop the War Coalition, Right To Work and many more, Reggie was handing out leaflets, carrying placards, playing music, and campaigning on the corner of Vallance Road and Whitechapel Road.

But there was a feeling of apprehension along with the music and smiles. It was like being at a party that everyone was afraid would be crashed by unwanted guests. Cedric, a Socialist Party member, was deeply concerned about the EDL. “There’s a breeding ground at the moment” he said, “It’s allowing certain groups to develop influence, and it’s really anti social”. The responsibility, he thinks, also lies with the government: “the cuts, not just here but in Europe too… it’s an emergency and we need to unite against the EDL.”

Having received word that the EDL had arrived in London, myself and two other QMedia reporters rushed to Kings Cross Station. As we climbed the stairs and emerged from the underground, the sound of the national anthem greeted us. Euston Road was awash with England flags and police officers surrounding their bearers. The EDL were being guided by the police towards the underground the station, and their chants were loud and proud. “Don’t surrender, don’t surrender, don’t surrender to the Taleban” was a popular strain, with “Taleban” often punctuated by pointing at Asian bystanders.

They were reluctant to speak to us. “What do you want an interview for?” a large man with ‘EDL Team Leader’ printed on his back replied to my request, before agreeing to “find someone for you”. That someone was Leon. Why are you here today, I ask him. “We’re going into Tower Hamlets, the most Islamified, radical borough in London, probably in Great Britain as well, for a few simple reasons: there’s an R.E. teacher been attacked for teaching religious education, there’s [anti] gay posters going up, abusing the gays in the east end there’s all different sorts of Shari’ah controlled zones. We’re coming back to take our country back, simple.”

I ask Leon whether he thinks his demonstration will intimidate the inhabitants of Tower Hamlets.”Not really,” he replies, “it’ll only intimidate the radicals. If the normal Muslim people, the good people, listen to our mission statement, and find out about us, then they’ll know what we’re all about instead of believing left wing bias press.”

I’m unconvinced by Leon’s claim that the demonstration is about opening a dialogue with “normal” Muslims. Just before speaking to him the crowd have been chanting “there was four Muslim bombers in the air” and “then the RAF from England shot one down” to the tune of 99 bottles of beer. It’s a chant that combines both a nostalgia for the Battle of Britain, and a football-stand celebration mentality, to perfectly describe the EDL.

In order to get ahead of their progress to Aldgate – the rumoured assembly point for the final demonstration – we run over to Liverpool Street. Groups of EDL members were already arriving, and were being guided by the police to the rear of the station. Their numbers seemed to be growing – perhaps over a thousand now.

Kev, a tattooed – and lightly irrigated – man wearing a florescent jacket over a bear torso, stopped to speak to us. “We’re not having Islam in our country mate” he says, “we’re not having Shari’ah law.. we’re not having Muslim drug dealers or Muslim paedophiles”. Kev is an angry man, and repeats the all too common concern about Shari’ah civil courts, that the EDL constantly stress, with a more aggressive conflation of Islam and criminality. “They’re coming to our country, milking our benefit system, raping our under-age girls, selling drugs to everyone, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg he continues, “they’ve got Shari’ah law going off right now in Tower Hamlets, and everyone is turning a blind eye to it, the EDL is turning a blind eye to it.” They certainly aren’t; it’s barely possible to get through a sentence with an EDL member without hearing the tautological phrase “shari’ah law”. “I would just like to say that we are not a racist organisation”, Kev repeats again and again.

At Aldgate, the EDL coalesce into a single crowd. They are separated from the SWP, UAF, and Muslims who have come from the East London Mosque, by 200m of empty road, and multiple lines of police officers. Their leader and founder, ‘Tommy Robinson’, gives a speech. “Islam rules by intimidation and violence” he says, “we are here today to tell you, quite clear, every single Muslim watching this video on Youtube… on 7/7 you got away with killing and maiming British citizens, you got away with it.” This statement is greeted with deafening cheers which destroy the credibility of the EDL’s claim to be an anti-racist organisation that is merely protesting against specific interpretations of Islam.

We will not tolerate it,” he goes on, “and the Islamic community will feel the full force of the EDL if we see any of our citizens killed, maimed or hurt on British soil ever again”. Is this the message – expressed directly by the leader of the EDL – that Leon wishes “normal” Muslims to hear; the message that will show them the EDL is not a racist organisation intent on attacking them?

It’s difficult to draw any conclusions from the EDL’s demonstration. They are angry, confused people. They are mobilized by the belief that they are a vanguard in a coming conflict. They seem to genuinely believe that ‘England’ is under attack. And they are isolated. The ‘love music, hate racism’ message doesn’t appeal to them, and they feel alienated from the world of politicians and journalists, whom they mistrust. If the words of their leader are anything to go by though, one thing is certain: they must not be ignored.

(Additional  reporting by Kamil Ahmed and Matthew Taylor.)

This report first appeared in Qmessenger.co.uk on September 6th 2011.

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