Thursday, May 10, 2007
Mr Speaker Defends the Fragile Sinews of Democratic Debate
As I grow older I find myself increasingly drawn to the obituary columns as people with whom I'm familiar drop from their perches. Usually they are fairly routine accounts of life and career plus a few anecdotes but the obit of Bernard Weatherill, by Ed Pearce was more a fascinating essay on the office of Speaker during the eighties.
Mr Speaker began in the 14th century as the conduit of the wishes of the House to the King. The bearer of unwelcome news is always in a risky position and nine of the early speakers were executed; this explains the ritual show of reluctance when the Speaker is inaugurated. Over the centuries the office became non-partisan- a 'referee' ensuring fair-play in the emergent game of democracy which was evolving in its unique British way. Usually the succession to the office has been non-controversial but with Maggie Thatcher few things remained so. Pearce claims George Thomas, a famed Speaker whose 'Order, Order!' is still heard regularly on Today in Parliament, had been promoted above his ability by Callaghan and that:
Thatcher, with her combination of gush and command, was a bright flower to his worker bee, and he had become her creature.
Weatherill, a former Saville Row tailor and mild mannered 'liberal' Tory, who had been sacked as Deputy Chief Whip by Maggie for voting in favour of PR for Euro-elections, viewed the suborning of the Welshman as bad for democracy in the House. He believed the Speaker's annual acceptance of Private Notice Questions(PNQs), disliked by government for their ability to throw surprise spokes in departmental wheels, was a good barometer of how the House maintained its independence. He deplored how their number fell from about 60 a year, under Selwyn Lloyd to less than ten under the Maggie friendly Thomas.
As the Conservative government became increasingly triumphalist, the former tailor sought to redress the balance by being scrupulously fair to the Opposition. Eventually, in 1988, enforcer Tebbit was despatched to threaten that the 'dogs' would be let loose on him if he allowed a particular PNQ to be asked. Weatherill showed him the door. Nor would he be intimidated by Thatcher in the Commons and had the courage to demand withdrawals from her when her rhetoric strayed beyond parliamentary bounds of propriety.
The 'dogs' took the form of a whispering campaign against the Speaker in the press that he was not up to the job. In response he appeared on Weekend World to politely insist that he was indeed up to the job and that:
'My absolute intention is to ensure that everything that goes on in our nation is exposed in our House.'
Weatherill was an unsung hero of democratic debate, the delicate sinews of which are just as important as a free press or other tenets of our political system. In a context where his own party exercised hegemony he had the courage to resist and to fly the flag for those modest but essential British values of courtesy and fair-play. My favourite story about him was told by himself to the House when he confessed that after first appearing in the chamber after the 1964 election, he retired to a toilet. As he sat anxiously in a cubicle he heard the well known voice of an MP colleague say: 'I don't know what this House is coming to-they've even let my tailor in this time'. No wonder he always retained sympathy for the underdog.
I'm rather a fan of the present Speaker who, in his quiet way, has blown some much needed fresh air into the Commons. That his appointment drew scorn from old fogies such as Simon Hoggart and Quentin Letts only helped to convince me that MPs had chosen well.
Your anecdote is a reminder of the snobbishness of a certain sort of Tory MP now happily a little rarer than then. However there are still several who continue to think it the height of wit to shout 'steward' whenever the DPM heaves into view to remind him of his humble origins and that, unlike they foolishly imagine themselves to have been, he wasn't born to rule...
Thanks. I agree that Michael Martin has grown into the office and that earlier critics have been silenced. Also that the yobbish tendency on Tory backbenches has not been expunged anywhere near.