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.

The Candidates Who Care – Part Two: Brian Paddick

In the last Qmesenger of the year, Tom Interviewed  the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates for London Mayor. This is part two, the interview with Brian Paddick.

You were Deputy Assistant Commissioner for the Metropolitan police for many years. Your opponents, I think it fair to say, have a more obviously political background. Why should Londoners vote for you, a policeman?

I think the first thing to say is that, unlike the others, I’ve spent my life actually doing things. From Oliver Letwin, who let a thief into his house at 3 in the morning to ‘wash his hands’, to countless other examples, many politicians don’t live in the real world. I don’t own a car; I get public transport every morning. But that’s also not to say that I’m politically inexperienced. As a senior police officer you liaise with the home office, and with the political system in various other ways. So you could say that a good deal of my career has been political with a small p. Recently of course I’ve moved into politics with a big P.

You certainly have considerably experience with the Police. Part of that experience was during the Brixton riots in 1981. How has that affected your opinion of policing policy – especially with regard to last year’s riots?

I think that what happened last year was a culmination of something that’s been brewing for some time. During the riots, we saw some very poor policing tactics. There were too few police, then too many police, there were police deployed in entirely the wrong places, and at the wrong times. I think that lots of lessons learnt in the past, at times like Brixton, seem to have been forgotten. And one of those lessons is certainly about discrimination. I want to end stop and search discrimination, and fight racism in London’s police force.

What went wrong?

It’s a bit like being asked what was the start of the universe, or what was before the Big Bang, but I think that since Boris took over entirely the wrong advice has been given to the police force. Were I in charge, I wouldn’t have ever let community police relations get to the stage they have been at in the first place. I also wouldn’t have allowed the rioting to get to the stage it did. I would never have allowed the smashing of a police car on downing street.

Police-student relations are at a real low point…


…the London Student Manifesto says part of the solution to this is police meeting with student representatives to advise them on forming policies, particularly where they directly effect students, in areas like protest, and kettling etc. What do you make of that, and what are you going to do to improve police-student relations?

I have been shocked by what we’ve seen – completely shocked. There’s been failures of intelligence, and failures in police numbers. There’s been far too harsh policing as well; you only have to look to what happened to Jody Mcintyre to see that. I like the idea of police meeting student representatives. I’m not resistant to criticizing the police. I certainly haven’t refrained myself. I have gave evidence against the police in the Jean Charles de Menezes case for instance, and recently on the phone hacking scandal.

I apologise for all the questions on policing, but I’m afraid it’s something of a natural place to start with you. Onto another area. A good deal of London’s rental housing is very poor quality. This affects students particularly, who almost always rent. Should there be a full scale investigation into this by the London Assembly?

Absolutely, but more important is an accreditation list of landlords, that will really make a difference. We also need to focus on building more affordable housing. Not a lot of people realise this, but the Mayor has the power to build, and the land to do it as well. I could offer a 60% cost reduction on land price, which investors would certainly like.

Ken Livingstone says he’s committed to a 7% reduction in tube fares, and an 11% reduction in bus fares. The London Student Manifesto wants a one third blanket discount for all students in London. What are your plans for fares?

Students are obviously facing expensive times. Fees are going up to nine thousand pounds. You might say that we Liberal Democrats haven’t been very good at signing pledges recently. Honestly, we’ll have to look closely at our spending plans and work out if we can afford something like that. Ken has shown that his budgeting isn’t sound here; he was caught out on television over the feasibility of this point. I would like to see help for people on low incomes, in part-time work, and those particularly vulnerable to fares prices like students.

Unpaid internships

Well, ‘unpaid internships’ are slave labour as far as I’m concerned, pure and simple. This certainly affects students, who want work experience, naturally. Mayor is a very powerful position, and therefore I would lobby according to my opinion of this, but it is a national matter. You do have to be careful about interfering with the employment market as well of course.

You are running as a Liberal Democrat; you’re not running as an Independent. Many students, as you mentioned, feel somewhat betrayed by the Lib-Dems. Why should they trust a Lib-Dem for mayor, and what’s your personal opinion on tuition fees?

I don’t support the idea of tuition fees at all. I support free education. But I also realise that we didn’t win a majority; we are in coalition and you have to compromise. But I will say that if I publicly signed a pledge, there would be no way I would go back on it, and I’m an ex-policeman, the whips would’ve had trouble persuading me.

Brian, I’m a celebrity, why?

After speaking scathingly for years about people who have a price for their dignity, it got to the stage where the offer to me made it a no brainer.

Lastly, is Boris too charismatic? Is Ken too experienced? In three words: can you win?

Look, Boris very entertaining, he can perform well, and Ken is a very professional politician – with all that comes with that as well unfortunately. With me, it’s what you see is what you get.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia commons

The Candidates Who Care – Part One: Ken Livingstone

In the last Qmesenger of the year, Tom Interviewed  the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates for London Mayor. This is part one, the interview with Ken Livingstone.

Ken, you’ve been Mayor before – in fact you were the first London Mayor. Why Ken again?

Because in those previous periods of office, I was able to cut fares, to totally rebuild the bus service, and to get police numbers to their highest level ever. I think if you stop most people and ask ‘does London feel better off after 4 years of Boris or not?’, I think the majority will say they think it’s worse, and they’re right. Crime statistics are up; the murder rate is up. There’s a 30% increase in knife crime among young people, burglary is up about 8% and rape is up about 8%. With those rising crime figures it’s inexplicable that we’ve lost 1700 police posts.

Student police relations are not exactly rosy right now. The London Student Manifesto recommends police meeting with student representatives to discuss policy. Do you support that?

No problem with that. In the 8 years that I was mayor, in the run up to every big demonstration, I would meet with the commissioner two three four times, and his senior staff, and we’d get the line right on how it should be policed. I always gave out the firm line: the police were there to stop violence – and there is occasionally a small group of people who come committed to violence – and apart from that the police are there to ensure the right to protest. It seems to me that from the moment I lost, and Boris was giving guidance to the police, it’s been hostile to demonstrations. When you had the demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy in January 2009, while there was the attack on Gaza, Boris Johnson said the demonstrations were anti-Semitic. It’s not surprising, therefore, that when the police moved in there was the use of truncheons. Then you had the fact that a lot of kids, many of them in secondary school, were corralled on Westminster bridge until the small hours of the morning in freezing cold weather. That looked to me not like it was about public safety, but teaching kids they shouldn’t protest.

As for working with students…

One of the things that might have prevented the riots this summer, when Mark Duggan’s parents led the march protesting to Tottenham police station, the mayor wasn’t there to meet them, the commissioner wasn’t there to meet them, there was no senior office there to meet them. If they’d of been able to have a meeting, that anger would have evaporated, and you might not have had that three of four days of rioting that followed.

The London Student Manifesto wants a one third blanket discount for all students in London. What are your plans for fares?

Given this commitment that we will cut fares 7% on the tube, 11% on buses, and freeze them until 2013, and after that they will only go up in line with inflation. From looking at the books, that’s what we know we can do. We will look to see what extra we can do for students…students will get some benefit from that fares reduction, and we’d like to go further, but I can’t make that as a firm commitment because I’m not sure that we can afford to pay for it. I’d like to say that students can travel free, but we can’t afford that. What can we do between the current situation and that? I’m sure we can find some way of reducing fares further for students… if we could tie it to income levels, yeah, but that might not be possible to do.

Bus fares actually went up under you didn’t they?

When I became mayor, bus fares were 70p in outer London, and £1 in London, the day I left office they were 90p anywhere in London. The Independent calculated that bus fares in real terms were cut by 9% during my 8 years.

A good deal of London’s rental housing is very poor quality. This affects students particularly, who almost always rent. Should there be a full scale investigation into this by the London Assembly?

Well it’s fine having an investigation by the London Assembly. What we want to do is crack down on bad land-lords, that means – working with good landlords – we want to set a London living rent. At the moment the average two bedroom flat in London is two thirds of a person’s take home pay – that’s not sustainable. Now, part of the reason we’ve got this crisis is that Thatcher, and then Blair to his shame, didn’t build council housing. I’ve been talking to Ed Milliband and saying that we need to build half a million homes in London in the next 10 years to cope with the crisis we’ve got.

Many students find the police’s PREVENT policy of ‘combating extremism on campuses’ very concerning, possibly discriminatory. The London Student Manifesto says it should be reviewed. What do you think?

It’s a national government thing and the Mayor can’t stop it, but I think it’s a mistake. If you actually look, in Western Europe 90% of all potential terrorist incidents come from the far right, and yet the whole weight of media and official scrutiny is on a small minority of Muslims. That runs the risk of demonising the whole community. If you get one mad Muslim who turns up at the home Secretary’s press conference and berates them, as happened when John Reid was Home Secretary, that person gets 10 minutes the next day on the Today program. You then find a bomb factory somewhere in the midlands where a group of white fascists have accumulated a small arsenal, and it gets a brief mention. Islamophobia sells papers. The far right, and I include the Daily Mail in that, have always demonised the latest arrivals.

You famously left the Labour Party over the position of London Mayor. You rejoined. Why?

I was invited to rejoin by the prime minister… you see, I’m not here to put forward the Labour leadership policy on anything and Blair didn’t expect me to when I came back in.

Do you support the policies of the Labour leadership now?

I’m there to put forward what I think works for London. I’ve made absolutely clear that there will be no cuts during my administration. But I’m in a different position, we’re a hundred days from the election, I’ve got a fair idea of the budget I’m going to inherit, we’re close enough to know what I can do. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have no idea what state the economy is going to be in in 3 years time. I don’t have the slightest doubt that under an Ed Miliband government, there would be an expansion of the public services that we need, and a change to a fairer tax system, and changes to a military budget – I’m absolutely certain that we don’t to be spending 80 bill over 20 years on a new generation of nuclear weapons.

What about on education. Do you support their fees policy?

I support free education. I was still an MP when tuition fees were introduced, and I voted against them, against the Labour whip. I take the view that all these MPs had free education themselves… My view is that you pay for education by a progressive tax system. A lot of people who are doing courses at the moment will never earn a lot of money, they’ll be in social care or education, or health – others will come straight out of University and will make a couple of hundred thousand pounds a year working for a hedge fund manager, they should pay a lot more.

Boris is too Charismatic to lose isn’t he?

No. We’ve had the second opinion poll today which gives me a 2 point lead over Boris. Last year everybody kept saying, Boris is very popular, Boris is a laugh, and it’s all a personality contest, but now we’re just 100 days from the election people are focusing on the question: do I want someone who will make me laugh, or someone who will cut my fares… Do I want someone who is charismatic, or someone who will restore police cuts. Honestly, if Boris was standing to be the permanent host of have I got news for you, I’d vote for him. I wouldn’t consider contesting it. He is hilariously funny. But do you want a laugh or do you want your city to work?’


Image by Matthew Tk Taylor


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