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Conor Burns: The House needs a new servant

Conor Burns looks at the history of the important role of Speaker, and concludes that it is time for Speaker Martin to retire with dignity.

"May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."
- Speaker William Lenthall to King Charles I in 1642

There have been a vast number of holders of the office of Speaker of the House of Commons. I well remember studying the history of Parliament and the role of the Speaker at University and have been interested in it ever since. George Thomas, later Viscount Tonypandy, and the last Speaker to be rewarded with a Viscountcy on retiring in 1983, speaks in his memoirs of being “Speaker of a tradition that goes back nearly 700 years, a thought that always makes my blood tingle.”

As with any ancient office there are lots of statistics about the occupants of the famous Chair. Six Speakers have been Speaker on two occasions.  Two have been Speaker three times.  Only one, William Lenthall, has managed the feat of being Speaker on four occasions.  Two Speakers have managed, impressive in this very well documented and portraited role, to be completely unknown to history (1383-1392 and 1412-1413). The longest serving Speaker, Arthur Onslow, managed to stay in the role for 33 years between 1728 and 1761. Several Speakers have resigned in order to take up Ministerial office including William Bromley (1713 to become Secretary of State for the ‘Northern Department’), William Grenville (1789 to become Home Secretary) and, in 1801, Henry Addington who resigned the chair to become Prime Minister. John Henry Whitley, the Member for Halixfax, was the last Speaker to decline a Peerage upon giving up office. The widows of the two most recent occupants of the Chair who died in office (Edward Fitzroy 1928-43 and Sir Henry Hylton-Foster 1959-65) were given Peerages – Fitzroy as a Viscountess.

The office of Speaker of the House of Commons is several things all at the same time.  Ancient.  Symbolic. Important.  Relevant.

The ancient nature of the office can be seen in the fact that the post is almost as old as Parliament itself with the first recorded holder of the title ‘Speaker’ being Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1376.  Arguably it even predates Hungerford as Peter de Montfort presided over the Parliament sitting in Oxford in 1258 holding the title of ‘prolocutor’ or ‘parlour’.

The importance of the role of the Speaker of the House of Commons is demonstrated in that the holder of the office is the sixth highest ranked, non Royal, individual in the United Kingdom.  He or she, by Order-in-Council of 1919, is only outranked by the two Archbishops of the Church of England, the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor and the Lord President of the Council. But the importance of the Speaker does not derive solely or exclusively from ranked precedence.  It lies in the many powers of the office a few of which are:

  • Power of decision to recall Parliament from recess
  • The right to issue writs of election to trigger by-elections
  • The power to certify Bills as money bills with the implications of the Parliament Acts
  • The right to grant Private Notice Questions
  • The power to require Ministers to come to the floor of the House
  • The right to grant statements
  • Acts as ex-officio Chairman of the four Boundary Commissions for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England
  • The chairmanship of the House of Commons Commission

And the office of Speaker is, or at least should strive to be, relevant.  It is the Speaker who more than any other Member of Parliament who is the face of the House of Commons to the British public and, if you ask any American if they have ever seen Prime Minister’s Questions, to the international community.

As with any office the impact will, in some measure, be determined by the character and personality of the holder. Over the centuries the main battle between Crown and Parliament was over the ability to raise tax with the Commons realising that whoever controlled money matters had the main power.  It is arguable that one of the defining moments in the relationship between Parliament and Monarch came in 1642 when King Charles I entered the House of Commons to find and arrest five Members who he wished to charge with high treason.  The King demanded to know of the whereabouts of the five Members from Mr Speaker Lenthall who famously replied, “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

It is that view of the Speakership that has been the dominant one of, certainly, the last century. Yet as we look in at the House of Commons today it is hard not to conclude that this current Speaker in his definition of trying to ‘serve’ the House of Commons risks doing it the most profound dis-service.

George Thomas writes in his memoirs thus:

“There are people who want to change the way we do things in Britain and in the House, but very often change is just for change’s sake. Traditions that have endured through the centuries must have something about them and you need a very good reason to tamper with them. And if there was such a reason they would probably not have survived as long as they have.”

This sentiment seems to be shared by many people in the current House of Commons and especially some longer standing Members.  There is still the aura around of the Enoch Powell approach. Powell refused not only to wear but to even possess a security card and totally opposed the Register of Members’ Interests on the basis that Members were simply, by definition, honourable.

Yet today there is a massive disconnect between perception and reality and I believe it is far from coincidental that the mood among the public is hardening against the ‘political classes’ at exactly the same time as their economic belts are tightening. The public increasingly look at Members of Parliament as a group who see themselves as a ‘people set apart’. And, for the record, I believe that 95% plus of Members on all sides go into public service motivated by all the right reasons.

But it is now for the sake of the decent majority and to salvage the reputation of politics itself that the House of Commons must act. And act decisively. So before I make a couple of suggestions let me say a couple of things about Mr Speaker Martin.

Firstly, criticism of him is not in any way class-based.  I may not be able to compete with his personal narrative of impoverishment but I come from an ordinary family in Belfast who were by no means wealthy. I also think that Speaker Martin can be very proud of his achievement from his background and, as a fellow Catholic, I think he can be rightly proud to be the first Catholic to occupy the Speaker’s Chair since the Reformation.

Secondly I do not take the view that he was the ‘accidental Speaker’ who got the job by the Labour Party failing to honour some playground ‘it’s my turn’ rule. Lots of nonsense is talked about taking it in turns and Michael Martin’s election has having been ‘bad form.’  This is, frankly, ill informed. To illustrate this point one only has to note that from 1900 to 1992 seven of the eleven speakers had been Conservatives and the only two Labour speakers, Horace King and George Thomas, had been put in office by Labour Parliaments.

Thirdly I think that the criticism of Speaker Martin over expenses and building and decorating work is totally wide of the mark. Speaker Addington, as Betty Boothroyd points out in her entertaining memoirs, was the first Speaker to receive a salary of some £6,000 in the 1790s which would be the equivalent of £336,180 in 2008 money (if MPs were paid today the equivalent of what their pay was when first introduced in 1911 they would be on £22,824!).  And as for the criticism of the £700,000 on building and other work. The building is an ancient Royal Palace and one of the most recognised sites in Britain.  What would people have him do?  Send a team of school leavers down to B&Q? Get a grip.

Yet with all that having been said there are real, and very legitimate, criticisms to be made of Michael Martin and they are not going away. Perhaps the most real, and at the same time the most unfair, criticism is that Speaker Martin simply does not ‘get it’. It’s real because the sense of a hardening of opinion in the public mood about politicians and politics is palpable.  And it’s unfair because it is probably not his fault.  He is probably too much of what used to be called a ‘House of Commons man’ to feel the public mood.

His grim and gritty resolve to take his fight to protect the privacy of MPs' expenses to the Courts should fill all those who care about politics with a real sense of foreboding. It shows that he is not going to lead the charge to fix the bond of trust between Parliament and the people. Conversely he risks widening it. Speaker Lowther, who occupied the Chair from 1905 to 1921, said this of the job, “The office of Speaker does not demand rare qualities.  It demands common qualities in rare degrees.” Sadly Michael Martin is showing with each passing day that he does not have them.

His six predecessors in the Chair averaged six and a half years each. Mr Speaker Martin has done eight. He should relinquish his job with dignity and the campaign should begin about who the right man, or woman, is on merit not merely to preside over the House of Commons but to preside over the restoration of trust and faith by the public in the institution of Parliament.

The House needs a new servant. Soon.


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