Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dragging the Commons into the 21st Century

It was great to see Liberal Democrat MP Sandra Gidley drag (or more accurately gently push)new Speaker John Bercow to the Chair. This tradition is a relic of the time where Speakers ran interference between the Monarch and Parliament and were liable to end up either in jail or minus vital body parts. Given the lengths to which the Tories hate his guts, several hundred years ago, they would probably all have voted for Bercow in the hope that he would meet some unsavoury end. As an aside, let's hope that the Tories can be grown up and give the guy a chance in his new role. No, I don't think so either!

I found the actual process of installing Mr Bercow as Speaker quite fascinating and made my daughter watch it with me. It was quite low key - we had silly costumes but no trumpets but a fascinating lesson in how old fashioned our way of doing things is. It's not enough for the House to just elect a Speaker. Like everything else that goes on in the place, it has to be approved by the Queen. Now, of course, she's not going to say no, but the principle just completely sticks in my throat.

Clearly there was no way Her Maj was going to give up watching Today at Wimbledon, Holby City and Big Brother (I had thought EastEnders, but Andrew put me very firmly in my place on that one by tweeting to me: "Silly girl. Her Majesty has been watching WImbledon, then Holby and now getting ready for Big Brother - obviously") to traipse a mile down the Mall at 10pm to give her permission in person. To get round this a Royal Commission, comprising the leaders of the groupings in the Lords, chaired by Lord Chancellor Jack Straw, ironically. Even 20 years ago, shock waves would have reverberated round Westminster if an MP had been given a job that required him to sit in the Lords. Gordon Brown did it - but, unfortunately, this is as cutting edge and radical as he's been so far.

So it's quite strange that Jack Straw gets to sit in both houses of Parliament in the same day - but only in the House of Lords did he have to wear a very silly costume that looked like it wouldn't have been out of place in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera - a gold robe with a tri-corn hat which he and his fellow Commissioners had to keep taking off at irregular intervals. I wonder if they rehearsed it all.

The Official Hansard record of the ceremony is here so if you like that sort of thing you can enjoy the old fashioned language. the Commons part of the proceedings is here. It struck me as being as out of date as a woman promising to obey her husband at her wedding. Does anyone do that anymore?

The Official Record doesn't quite capture the whole occasion. Black Rod, on his first official outing since his appointment, was sent from the Lords - not with any frills and lace, though, because it wasn't a State occasion (another weird tradition) - to summon the Commons. Like at the State opening of Parliament, the door was slammed on his face. He banged on it with great vigger (his real name is Freddie Viggers, sorry, couldn't resist). In a sign that the Commons has perhaps moved on from mediaeval times, it has adopted one new tradition in the last 30 years or so - the dog's abuse given to Black Rod every time Black Rod goes in there by Dennis Skinner, the Member of Parliament for Bolsover, who pointed out that "it's a new one". What on earth are they going to do when he's no longer there? The Government of the day will have to appoint someone to fulfil that role!

MPs then duly all trooped through to hear Jack Straw (or the Lord Chancellor as we must call him when he's in that room) proclaim the Queen's approval.

John Bercow then accepted his Commission with the traditional words that I don't know if he'd managed to learn, or whether he had them written on his shirt sleeve:

"My Lords, I submit myself with all humility and gratitude to Her Majesty’s royal will and pleasure. I pray that if, in the discharge of my duties and in the maintenance of the rights and privileges of the Commons House of Parliament, I should inadvertently fall into error, it may be imputed to me alone and not to Her Majesty’s faithful Commons."

I'm not entirely sure, but I think that means that if he screws up, the Queen should only chop his head off and not the MPs'!

Bercow is going to have his work cut out for him. It's not whether the place should be reformed, it's where to start. There's the travesty that it has a shooting gallery and not a creche. There are faintly ridiculous traditions which are quite intimidating for most MPs because they are just ridiculed if they get them wrong. Personally, I'd rather an MP's mind was on what they were saying and how they were voting than whether they were standing in the right place or using the right form of anachronistic language.

Look at this exchange from last week's PMQs:

(David Cameron) Will everyone not conclude that if you cannot be straight with people, you are simply not worthy to be our Prime Minister?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Even though it is my last day, the Leader of the Opposition knows that the term “you” is not something that I approve of, and I think that the candidates at all these hustings will be saying that they do not approve of it either.

So, it's quite possible to be completely insulting and disrespectful to someone, but Cameron's mistake was to use the word "you" rather than the Prime Minister.

What worried me was Martin's comment that the new Speaker would most probably continue in the same vein. I doubt it would invoke a thunderbolt from on high if people were referred to by their names, or as you, rather than "the honourable member for (wherever)". Just like we learned that the earth wasn't flat, maybe it's time to learn that these rules make Parliament look very remote from ordinary people. No wonder they think what goes on in there has no relevance to me.

For the traditionalists, what I'm saying suggests civilisation falling around our hears. I'm suggesting you speak to each other as adults and use each other's names, not that you rap your way through your speeches while riding a unicycle.

Jo Swinson was talking about this kind of thing on Woman's Hour today and her contribution is worth a listen.

There are traditions that are part of the history of the country and a bit of ceremonial has its place, after all, we all love an occasion - but the Speaker's challenge is to get Parliament and the people closer together. Getting rid of everything that impedes that process is his first priority.

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1 comment:

Norman said...

Watching PMQs today I could not help but notice how Speaker Bercow was dwarfed by his chair. Was it Michael Martin's robes that filled it or was he just a much fatter b*&*&*d than Mr Bercow? Anyway, the nett result was that Mr B looked like Ronnie Corbett in the 'Two Ronnies' armchair. I understand he even had to be helped out of it afterwards. Perhaps part of his modernisation project should be to get a better armchair. Given the current expenses furore, it would have to be half-price from DFS of course.


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