'Giving the Speaker a Voice: A Traditional Office in a Modern Political Age'

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon John Bercow MP, addresses students and academics at the University of Cape Town during his official visit to South Africa on the invitation of the Speaker of the South African National Assembly, the Hon Max Sisulu.

Thank you very much indeed for that introduction. It is an enormous pleasure to be here in South Africa and at this institution in particular. There are two reasons for this. First, the role of the university sector in the transition from apartheid to the democracy which this country enjoys today is underappreciated, perhaps within South Africa as well as beyond it. More particularly, however, the University of Cape Town deserves recognition as a beacon of liberal and progressive resistance during the dark days of the ascendancy of apartheid. When the mass of South Africans were oppressed by one of the most objectionable regimes on the face of the planet, this University was an eloquent voice for enlightenment, for fairness and for progress. I am touched to have the chance to salute that role.

Secondly, I am delighted to address you in the company of my friend and invaluable advisor, the former Clerk of the House of Commons, the one and only Sir Malcolm Jack. When I was elected to the Chair three years ago Malcolm was the incumbent Clerk who offered me dispassionate procedural advice, and much other shrewd counsel, for which I have always been grateful. He is a long standing friend of South Africa and I am delighted that the University is drawing upon the knowledge, wisdom and experience which he acquired in four decades of distinguished service to the House of Commons. I have had the pleasure of meeting your Speaker of the National Assembly, Max Sisulu, a number of times now and it is hugely instructive to see him at work. As I will set out this afternoon, we have similar titles but quite distinct challenges which come with the role.

For I want to talk today about the office which I have the honour of holding – Speaker of the House of Commons – which certainly has been around for a very long time indeed and how it has evolved quite dramatically over the past few years. I am the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons yet in another sense the first in a different form of that office. The role of the British Speaker, as many of you know, has some significant similarities with that of my South African counterpart. In each case, the person concerned is expected to be a "referee" or "umpire" within his or her chamber, not a partisan political figure who controls the flow of legislation in the manner of, for example, the US Speaker of the House of Representatives. In both cases, the Speaker also exercises some very important, if largely unseen, managerial functions to ensure that Parliament as a building and an organisation operates smoothly. There are, however, also some subtle but important cultural differences between the two institutions.

The Speaker of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom, while having been a practising party politician before election to the Chair, is obliged to shed his or her partisan colours and become strictly neutral after elevation, rendering the Speaker if not a political eunuch then certainly politically celibate. As I was the most liberal member of the Conservative Party at the time that I was fortunate enough to secure my current office, this was perhaps less of a sacrifice for me than for others. As I will explain, I was also chosen after the introduction of a new and very different electoral system and in the aftermath of an enormous scandal concerning the extent to which Members of Parliament were submitting and being compensated for expense claims which were, to put it mildly, highly imaginative if improbable in character. The essence of the role of the Speaker remains unchanged – he or she must be absolutely impartial and has a very modest influence over the legislative schedule – yet changing the rules has, as it so often does in politics, changed the game. This means the Speaker of the House has acquired more indirect authority and is no longer, at least in my view, obliged to act as a sort of political recluse, rarely venturing from, let alone speaking beyond, the Palace of Westminster, the proof of which is that I am here and ready not only to talk today but also to answer your questions. This outward-facing role is not new for you but it is for us and I shall return to the subject later in my remarks.

To set the scene, however, I need briefly to outline the history of the office. There have been presiding figures in Parliament for many centuries indeed. Some of them might be viewed as "pre-Speakers" as the office itself had not yet assumed consistent form. The first of these, known by contemporaries as a Parlour or Prolocutor, was Peter de Montford who presided over the so-called "Mad Parliament" held at Oxford in 1258. Some time later Sir Peter de la Mare performed similar duties during the "Good Parliament" of 1376. He was followed, in a swift change of political tack, by Thomas Hungerford, one year later, the figure whom most historians identify as the first Speaker, who was at the head of the alleged "Bad Parliament" of 1377. So we have had "Mad" and "Bad" and probably lots of "dangerous to know" as well.

The role of Speaker was a precarious one for many centuries. At first, the Speaker was seen as the King's man in Parliament and thus he bore the brunt of the unpopularity of monarchs. As a consequence, no fewer than nine of my predecessors met unfortunate violent deaths, seven of which involved public execution, two of them on the same day. Even the modern media cannot hand out that sort of treatment. By the seventeenth century, and with the approach of the English Civil War, perceptions of the post had evolved entirely and the Speaker was viewed as Parliament's representative to the King, a switch in role which generally improved the popularity of the Speaker everywhere, with the exception of the Royal Household. Until the nineteenth century there was no real conformity in the age, background or tenure of the Speaker of the House of Commons. Indeed, two former Speakers became Prime Minister, a fate that is unlikely to trouble me. By the beginning of the last century, however, a norm had been established by which the Speaker was assumed to be a senior parliamentarian, at the older end of the age spectrum, therefore, entirely acceptable to the government of the day and at least tolerable to the main opposition party, a figure whose duties did not extend much beyond the oversight of questions and debates in the chamber of the House of Commons itself. If not quite an exclusively ceremonial figure, he, or in one instance in the 1990s she, was a constrained one.

This history continues to cast considerable influence over the office. By tradition, when a Speaker is elected he or she is dragged to the chair by fellow MPs reflecting the fact that this was once an office which came with considerable personal peril attached to it. Political neutrality remains, as I have remarked, fundamental to it. This means that at general elections the Speaker stands in a constituency or district, just like every other MP, but not as a party candidate but instead as a de facto independent called "The Speaker Seeking Re-election" and the three main political parties do not put up rival contenders against him or her, although all sorts of other individuals are more than welcome to stand and have done so. When the Speaker chooses to leave office the very strong convention is that he or she resigns from the House of Commons at the same time and enters the House of Lords. The retiring Speaker cannot revert to the status of a party politician or even remain in the chamber as an unaligned member. It is thought, and there is much logic to this argument, that it would be very awkward indeed for a new Speaker of the House to attempt to oversee MPs and make what are occasionally contentious procedural decisions with his or her predecessor sitting in the House of Commons. The Speaker also lives in Parliament itself such are the strange hours that the House meets, although we voted only a month ago to modernize them. While some of these informal but revered rules may seem strange they are largely sensible.

They have, nonetheless, limited the Speaker in a number of respects. This might not have mattered much, in truth, were it not for the perception that the House of Commons, like many legislatures throughout the democratic world, although not the United States, was struggling in its attempts to scrutinise and hold the executive to account and at risk of being regarded by elite commentators and the broader public alike, as a marginalised institution. And it has to be conceded that the pressures of party discipline, the challenge of seeking to oversee a much larger government machine, and the emergence of a mass media which in many respects is a rival to legislatures, has been a real challenge for the House of Commons. The capacity of any Speaker to be a counterbalance to this is distinctly finite, but the formal and informal understandings surrounding the office reduced even this small space further. The Speaker was thus in the ironic situation of having a voice within the chamber but being an almost mute figure outside of it. He or she could become a notable national personality through Parliament, as a number of my recent predecessors have, with specialist news and cable channels adding an international dimension to this, but could not be an active public advocate for Parliament.

By a combination of accident and design this started to change about a dozen years ago. As I alluded to earlier, it had become the norm for Speakers to be selected by a private, secret, understanding between the two major political parties in Britain, rather than properly elected to their office. This did not prove to be a sustainable arrangement. In 1992, the seemingly "establishment" candidate to be Speaker was challenged and defeated by another figure, Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker. When she retired in 2000, no fewer than a dozen contenders put their hats into the ring, although there were no clear rules as to how the contest should take place and utterly overt campaigning for the post was still deemed improper. In the aftermath of the election of my immediate predecessor, a comprehensive review of the system for electing the Speaker took place and a much broader and more conventionally democratic set of regulations, including a secret ballot, were adopted. Once again, I appreciate that my South African counterpart has long been elected by secret ballot but the House of Commons decided only in 2001 that such an approach would in future apply. This meant that when I stood for Speaker in May/June 2009, I did so with a formal system of nominations, open hustings and personal manifestos, and a set of rounds of balloting before a Speaker was elected and then, as per the tradition that I mentioned, dragged to the chair.

I do not want to overstate the extent of this transformation. The technical powers of the Speaker were not changed by the democratisation of the process of his selection. That a candidate might have stated personal preferences for how the procedures of the House should be changed did not of itself allow his or her personal mandate to impose those innovations. There may have been a number of individual MPs who voted for me, for example, without agreeing with everything that I had suggested in my personal platform regarding the functioning of Parliament. The need to be seen as politically neutral also restricts the ability of Speakers to launch campaigns to realise their institutional preferences. Despite all this, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the democratisation of the selection process for Speaker has increased the moral authority of the office in pursuing a certain path and enhanced his self-confidence within the system. When combined with the dramatic sense of crisis that the expenses scandal had created at Westminster in 2009, the space for exercising a degree of leadership had been opened. While I am sure my successors will do many things differently to me, I would be surprised if they would be content to retreat to an exclusively ceremonial existence. As General de Gaulle said in 1962, when asked why he wanted the French people to support, as they were to do so, a directly elected presidency in a referendum, "you do not elect a man to open flower shows".

So how have I sought to secure the Speaker a voice and modernise a very traditional role? I would not want to exaggerate the change but I have sought to make progress in three areas.

The first is to innovate within the scope of the office. The main example of this is a device in the parliamentary arsenal known as the Urgent Question. The Urgent Question allows for any Member of Parliament to petition me to insist that a government department sends one of its ministers to address the House of Commons on an issue of importance which has arisen suddenly or since the House last had the opportunity to consider it and with at most three or four hours' notice for the minister. It is the rough equivalent of the South African National Assembly being able to demand that a senior minister here appear to address an issue, upending whatever else might be in the diary. This is precisely what happened to our own Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, the four most important offices of state in the UK, since they assumed their positions in May 2010. It is a weapon which I suspect few other legislatures have to hand.

It is also, however, one which had fallen into disuse. In the year before I was elected Speaker, precisely two Urgent Questions were accepted. MPs could have been forgiven for thinking that the Urgent Question had been abolished or was to be reserved for only very special moments. Since I became Speaker I have awarded more than 100 Urgent Questions or roughly one every sitting week. The impact of this change has been positive in a number of respects. Ministers now know that Urgent Questions are being granted and are hence more inclined to offer statements to the House voluntarily rather than risk the relative indignity of being summoned to the House of Commons. The media have been obliged to report that a political statement has been made to MPs in Parliament and not on some television channel. MPs feel empowered that they can make an immediate impact on ministers.

This is one of several areas where I have sought to test the elasticity of the office, observing the maxim of party neutrality vigorously but nevertheless holding the executive to account. I have also sought to use the influence over business in the chamber that I have to speed up proceedings, to ensure that more MPs have the opportunity to speak and to stand up for those MPs who are neither ministers nor shadow ministers on the other side of the House – the "backbenchers" in the language of Westminster - making sure that they fully participate. I am a strong believer in the importance of topicality of subject and inclusion of all Members in all we do.

Second, there are numerous areas where the Speaker can exercise informal influence. It was no secret at the time of my election that I favoured sweeping reforms in the procedures of the House of Commons and while I certainly could not and would not force my fellow MPs to vote for such a programme of change I could and did press ministers to ensure that the House would have the chance to vote on such a prospectus, which it duly did in March 2010. The result was agreement that in future all Select Committee chairs would be elected by the whole House of Commons with individual members chosen in a secret ballot within their party caucuses, that a House Backbench Business Committee would be created and elected to oversee that section of the parliamentary timetable which belongs to ordinary MPs, to be followed in the near future by the introduction of a House Business Committee to examine how that share of the schedule currently dominated by the government should be organised. The House also voted to extend the democratisation of the speakership by adopting the direct election of the three Deputy Speakers who assist me in the running of the Commons. I have also been a staunch advocate of the House adopting new technology to make our proceedings easier for outsiders to follow and to encourage public participation in our work.

Thirdly, I have fundamentally changed the external role of the Speaker of the House of Commons. As I have hinted previously, the Speaker has historically been seen as an internal figure within Westminster with no significant exposure to the rest of the world at all until first radio microphones and then television cameras were allowed into the chamber. I have no desire to be a prisoner of Parliament. I have seen public advocacy as crucial to my functions. This is partly achieved by a higher media profile but mostly through an intense round of talks and visits throughout the United Kingdom with a particular personal focus on addressing disadvantaged groups within society and those who feel marginalised from politics. I also strive to address universities. This occasion is one of what will probably be ten or more such university engagements in 2012 and I always invite and even attempt to answer questions. As I indicated earlier, I recognise that in this respect the UK is belatedly following South Africa's good example. After all, your country's Guide to Procedure stipulates that the Speaker shall act as representative and spokesman for the Assembly and for Parliament to the outside world.

It is my absolute passion that the Speaker should be an Ambassador for Parliament and an Ambassador for Democracy internationally, condemning the abuse of human rights in places such as Darfur and Zimbabwe and encouraging free and fair elections in Burma. I was absolutely delighted that Aung Sang Suu Kyi, for years a heroine of mine whom I had never met, chose to make a historic address in the Westminster Hall section of Parliament in June. This is certainly not the traditional part which my office has played but I believe it to be essential. The Speaker of the House should be neutral within Parliament but he should not be neutral about the value of parliamentary democracy be it within the UK or anywhere in the world.

I am, I concede, an unusual Speaker of the House in a number of respects. I was elected at a comparatively young age (46), after by historic standards a modest number of years as a member of the House of Commons (12) and by a completely new method of selection. The differences between our offices, though, are fundamental and they rightly reflect our quite different histories. We still have much to share and to compare. I am a strong enthusiast for the argument that modern parliaments, whether they be, for instance, the Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom or the South African one beyond it, have much that should interest and intrigue us. To that end, in another innovation, I now sponsor a series of lectures in Speaker’s House annually where MPs and peers speak to a common and important theme. In 2013 I am organising a set entitled "Parliamentarians on Parliaments" which will allow MPs and peers with a specialist appreciation of other legislatures around the world to set out their thinking on them. South Africa will certainly be on that list of parliaments.

Both of our democratic assemblies are prominent players in the Commonwealth family of Parliaments where there is constant exchange of ideas and learning from each other. We clearly have many lessons to learn from you and the capacity of the House of Commons to combine continuity with change is perhaps an invaluable lesson we can export to others. The evolution of the office of Speaker is, I think, an interesting recent example of this and one worthy of reflection. Political reinvention is often the effective secret of political relevance. I hope that I have made the case for it. It has been an honour to address this esteemed audience. Thank you for listening to me and I look forward to your questions.

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