I am sick and tired of the extraordinary vitriol being poured out against John Bercow. From anonymous Tories who don’t have the courage to put their names to their messages, to Nadine Dorries’ banal, narcissistic, vacuous blog remarks, the extent and depth of loathing is unmerited and unbecoming. I want to tell you a different story.
In early 2004, soon after he became Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, John Bercow met my friend James Mawdsley – who had been imprisoned in Burma for staging pro-democracy protests. James told me about their meeting, and suggested that John was interested in pursuing Burma as an issue. I followed it up, wrote to John and a few weeks later we met. I persuaded John, without any difficulty, to join me and Baroness Cox on a visit to the Thailand-Burma border to learn more about the desperate human rights and humanitarian crisis in Burma.
We travelled together, to refugee camps and across the border illegally into the jungles of eastern Burma. One of the places we visited was Ler Per Hur, a camp for internally displaced people inside Karen State, Burma, which just this month has been attacked by the Burma Army. The people I know well, and whom John met five years ago, have been forced to flee for their lives to the Thai side of the river. One such person was Rainbow, the school teacher – whom John met, and who spoke to the BBC earlier this month. In these attacks, two teenage girls were raped and killed.
At the end of that visit five years ago – during which we met victims of torture, former political prisoners, Karen refugees and internally displaced people, former child soldiers, orphans and widows – John told me that it had changed his life. He speaks about it on our Change for Burma website. He said that the combination of the extraordinary faith and determination of the Karen, Karenni and other people of Burma, as well as the horrific personal testimony of grotesque abuse, had made an impact on him like no other. He promised me that whatever he did in politics, he would be an ally on Burma.
A few months later, I picked up a newspaper and read the headline. John had been dropped in Michael Howard’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. I was deeply disappointed initially – I had made a strong alliance with the Shadow International Development Secretary, invested a lot in developing that relationship, and now after less than a year, he was out. What a pity, I thought – Burma is no longer part of his brief, he has no particular reason to pursue the issue, and so that was that. But I dropped him a note, and suggested we meet.
We met a few days later, and I could not have been more encouraged. John told me that the fact that he was on the backbenches was a good thing, because it meant he could devote even more time and energy to the causes he really cared about, Burma being among the highest priorities. He repeated the promise he made at the end of our visit to the Thailand-Burma border – that whatever he did in politics, he would always be devoted to Burma.
A little while later, the Burma Campaign UK contacted me and asked if I thought John might chair the All Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma. I told them I thought he might.
Since that time, John has proven to be by far and away the most steadfast, devoted, committed, energetic, passionate, loyal and eloquent advocate for the suffering people of Burma – and many other international human rights causes – in Parliament. He has been tireless in tabling Parliamentary Questions, initiating Early Day Motions, writing letters to Ministers, seeking and speaking in debates and writing media articles. It would be extremely difficult to imagine finding another MP as energetic as John on this issue.
Furthermore, perhaps his most significant contribution was as a member of the International Development Committee. He initiated an inquiry into DFID’s Burma policy, which resulted in DFID doubling its aid budget for Burma and funding cross-border aid to the internally displaced people in eastern Burma’s conflict zones for the first time, in the face of stiff opposition from civil servants. John worked doggedly, tirelessly and effectively for this purpose, with no political gain except the satisfaction of achieving some help for those in Burma who desperately need it.
In 2007, John agreed to come with me on another trip to Burma, this time to the Chin people on the India-Burma border, becoming possibly the first elected politician to visit that area. We returned to London just as the Saffron Revolution in Burma was developing, and John was magnificent in doing what he could to help. If he does not become Speaker, it is my hope that in 2010 we may make a visit to one of Burma’s other borders together.
John has gone well beyond the call of duty on Burma. On several occasions he has not simply gone the extra mile, he has run the extra marathon. I am in no doubt at all that the visit to the Thailand-Burma border genuinely did change his life – and the results are there to prove it. When he left the frontbench, he could so easily have said to me: “Sorry, I am no longer Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Burma is no longer part of my responsibilities”. But instead he said the opposite.
In 2007, he addressed thousands in Trafalgar Square at a protest in solidarity with the Buddhist monks and demonstrators in Burma. And on countless other occasions, away from the cameras, he has met with Burmese activists and NGOs, tabled Parliamentary Questions, pursued the issue regardless of whether or not there was media coverage to be had. I remember him speaking at the Day of Prayer for Burma, a specifically Christian event. He was completely honest about the fact that he did not have a particular Christian faith – but that he was inspired by the faith and courage of the people of Burma. He wept as he spoke of the testimonies of torture with which he had been confronted. On another occasion, he met a friend of mine, an NGO worker from the Thailand-Burma border – ad they wept together as they shared stories of the intense suffering of the people. Burma isn’t a cause he has somehow appropriated cynically for political ends – it is an issue that has affected the very core of his being, and I have seen that. John has lived up fully to his Churchillian motto, “KBO” (Keep Buggering On), which he utters to me at the end of every meeting we have.
Those who criticise John do him a gross injustice in ignoring this whole dimension of his life and work. Of course John has his faults, as every human being does. I am sure he has said and done things that have upset people, in his party and beyond. I do not agree with him on everything – indeed, on some issues I know we have some significant and profound differences of opinion. But that does not stop me, and should not stop others, from recognising that he has gone well and truly beyond the call of duty on the issue of international human rights, and especially Burma.
Furthermore, those of his colleagues in the Conservative Party who criticise him so bitterly ought to ask themselves four questions:
- First, does not his work on Burma, and on international development and human rights, merit recognition?
- Second, ought not we to follow his example and do more on these issue?
- Third, ought we not to find it in ourselves to be more charitable, more full of grace, towards a person with whom we may disagree on many issues but who has a proven track-record of immense devotion to this important moral cause?
- And fourth, does it do our party any favours if we continuously bad-mouth a man who may be an occasional thorn in our flesh, but who in many ways is a prophetic voice of justice and compassion?
Ought not especially those who consider themselves Christians reflect on whether their blogs serve a higher purpose or are simply self-serving, vacuous, and unnecessarily unpleasant about their colleagues? Was it really appropriate and necessary to bring John’s wife’s political views into the debate about his candidacy for the Speakership? For those Conservatives who call themselves Christian, oughtn’t they to consider what kind of message they are giving out when they speak in such unnecessarily unforgiving, judgmental, hateful tones about a parliamentary colleague?
I do not particularly want John to win the Speakership, not because I do not think he is qualified, but because if he becomes Speaker, he will not be able to devote as much energy and passion to Burma and international human rights as he has done. But I cannot sit idly by and watch his character and reputation trashed, especially by his own side, when I know a side of him that deserves deep respect and appreciation. I am not saying we should all vote for him, or that we should all suddenly agree with him on everything – I am simply advocating a sense of proportion, balance and fairness. This is about John Bercow the man, not John Bercow the candidate for Speaker. Whatever the perceived wrongs, surely people in the Conservative Party can find it in their hearts to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution he has made, with no personal gain at all, to the cause of human rights, freedom and international development, particularly in Burma. If colleagues in the party cannot do that, then they are smaller-minded than I thought.