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A Great Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons

Unlike the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, given the essential place and nature of debate in the Commons, is expected (procedurally at any rate) to be a kind of neutral referee in recurrently adversarial situations.

The Speaker of the House of Commons does not have to come from the party that wins the general election– speakers are elected by the entire House, and any MP can be a candidate in this election.

Historically, though no longer, the Speaker’s position has sometimes been deadly for its holders:  seven Speakers of the Commons have been executed.

Incidentally, some of my American friends, upon being informed by me of this piece of arcane Ukanian parliamentary history, and knowing that the US retains the death penalty, say this would be a fate befitting the recently retired Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives, the widely-denounced hypocrite Paul Ryan, and several others as well.

John Crace, the superb parliamentary sketch-writer of The Guardian, said in a recent piece that many Tory Brexiteers would have the current Speaker, John Bercow (a Tory who has been in this position since 2009), meet the same fate as his seven executed predecessors.

Given that their role is to enforce routine rules of procedure, Speakers of the Commons rarely have the chance to make momentous interventions.

In the last Commons debate on prime minister’s Theresa May’s nebulous Brexit deal, Speaker Bercow intervened in a way that had decisive constitutional import.

Bercow (incidentally an anti-Brexiteer), unilaterally and supposedly without precedent, allowed a crucial cross-party amendment to a tabled motion to be voted on.

The amendment, which was passed, forced May to come back within 3 sitting days with a Plan B if her Brexit deal is voted down.  She of course has no such Plan B.

May had ducked a vote on her proposed deal before Christmas, when she knew it was bound to be defeated.

One way to save her proposed deal is for May to run down the clock as Brexit Day—March 29—approaches, in the hope that her by-then panicked MPs will vote for it out of fear that the UK will crash out of the EU without any kind of deal.

Speaker Bercow’s ruling gave room for parliamentary debate about what to do next if May’s Brexit deal is voted down, as it certainly will be, but, more importantly, it also prised this run-down clock out of May’s hands.

The UK has an unwritten constitution, based on convention and precedent, providing guidelines rather than actual rules, and so for Ukania’s parliament neither convention nor precedent are absolute.

Parliament exercises its power over the executive by voting on motions, which is what Bercow permitted.

MPs are of course allowed to vote against the motion Bercow permitted, and if they deemed him to fail regarding the requirement of impartiality, procedures exist for remove him (if no longer by putting his head on the chopping block).

The alternative, sought by May in her overweening exercise of executive power, was to block any vote on an alternative to her proposed deal once it was voted down.

Many say that parliamentary sovereignty was upheld by Bercow’s ruling, after decades when both the Tories (Thatcher especially) and Labour (Blair especially) used their executive power to browbeat and sideline the legislature.

Bercow can have an irritatingly pompous air, and has a reputation for bullying subordinates.  A former right-winger, he is now a social liberal, so much so that there have been rumours of his defection to the Labour party. Bercow is the first Speaker who is Jewish, and the first Speaker not to wear traditional robes while presiding over the House.

In 2017 Bercow said that he would be “strongly opposed” to Donald Trump addressing the Houses of Parliament during his official visit to the UK, saying that “opposition to racism and sexism” were “hugely important considerations”.  Bercow was widely criticized for this intervention, on the grounds that he had breached the neutrality of the Speaker’s office, but he prevailed and Trump did not address parliament.

His constant championing of backbench MPs, as opposed to Tory frontbench ministers, has earned Bercow the support of many MPs.  Wide cross-party support has been crucial to his retention of the Speakership.

The Brexit crisis/shambles is a moment of critical constitutional import for the UK.

In making the executive accountable to the legislature in this one but albeit major constitutional regard, and thereby bucking an inacceptable parliamentary trend of recent decades, Bercow, his flaws notwithstanding, has shown himself to be one of the better Speakers of modern times.

Bercow has refused time and again to kowtow to the government, something of an exception in the UK’s long discredited parliamentary system.

In the UK’s unremittingly sordid parliament–  the hub of a corrupt patronage system predicated on bolstering privilege and dominated from its inception ages ago by unprincipled opportunists and craven toadies–  Bercow has emerged with much credit on his side.

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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