While the speaker of the United Kingdom‘s Parliament has become something of a social media celebrity thanks to his bark of “Order, Order!” to quieten MPs, historians will evaluate John Bercow as having had a more sober impact on British democracy.
The uncompromising Bercow was uncharacteristically on the verge of tears on Wednesday as MPs paid tribute to a character who has become a symbol of parliamentary sovereignty now stepping down after a decade in the role.
That did not stop incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson firing valedictory barbs at his fellow Conservative, saying he had acted “not just as an umpire” but “sometimes as a player in your own right” in a bid to characterise Bercow as biased.
Johnson, like many in the ruling party, has viewed the speaker as a thorn in the side of Downing Street’s efforts to push forward Brexit with the minimum of parliamentary scrutiny.
However, this may misrepresent the role Bercow has played in shaping the Brexit debate as crude impartiality – even though the speaker stoked anger when he revealed he had voted against leaving the European Union in the UK’s 2016 referendum.
“John Bercow was never impartial – but his partiality was towards protecting parliament, not to any particular party and he should be remembered for that,” said Mark Shanahan, head of the politics and international relations department at the University of Reading.
“His legacy will be as a reforming speaker – but it won’t be an unsullied legacy. He did much to change the way that parliament operates.”
Marc Geddes, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Edinburgh, said Bercow can be evaluated in particular in terms of how he presided over the House of Commons in a shifting political landscape.
“He has allowed more backbenchers to speak, so his appeal has always been that he would be the backbenchers’ champion and a lot of people do think that he has done that,” Geddes said.
He added by allowing more procedural “fluidity”, in particular by allowing amendments to motions that would formerly have been left untouched, Bercow has had a “long-lasting impact”.
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His main legacy will be the consequences of allowing MPs to ask hundreds more “urgent questions” than his predecessors and to launch debates on issues of the day.
It was this that resulted in the Benn Act – a key law Bercow allowed to be fast-tracked that forced Johnson to seek an extension to the October 31 Brexit deadline against the prime minister’s wishes.
Geddes said: “John Bercow has allowed substantive debates on issues that paved the way, for example, to pass the Benn Act – so that’s one area where he has probably changed the course of Brexit specifically, but also changed parliamentary procedures.”
A characteristic feature of Bercow’s tenure was the relish he took in his power to interpret procedures, possibly reflecting his understanding of how the speaker’s role has changed, according to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London.
“He realises that the job of the speaker in the 21st century in a ‘post-truth world’, if you like, has changed and that were he simply to do what others had done before him, parliament would be outmanoeuvred every single time by a government that is not prepared to play by the normal rules.”
Some observers attributed Bercow’s frequent run-ins with his own party to the “ideological journey” he appears to have made away from his roots on the Conservative hard right to the political centre.
However, Bercow himself insisted he had only one allegiance, once stating: “If I’m biased, I’m biased in favour of parliament.”
This commitment to the speaker’s role as a champion of parliament has played out at a time of growing strains between the legislature and executive as Johnson – and his predecessor Theresa May – have sought to minimise scrutiny of their Brexit plans.
It was much in evidence in Bercow’s reaction to Johnson’s decision to “prorogue” parliament through a five-week suspension in the critical run-up to the original October 31 deadline.
With characteristic vigour, the speaker branded the move a “constitutional outrage” to gag MPs, reinforcing protests across the country against what some called a “coup”.
The son of a taxi driver, Bercow, 56, was first elected as a Conservative MP in 1997, eventually being chosen by parliament as speaker in 2009.
He was the first person in the role since World War II to have been elected to the post four times and to have served alongside four prime ministers.
Despite the respect he gained for being a champion of parliament, other aspects of his career linked to how he managed parliamentary administration were less admired.
He was accused of bullying staff and an inquiry in 2018 identified a culture of harassment in the House of Commons “cascading from the top down” in a clear nod to the speaker.
Geddes said: “John Bercow is probably associated with that and that’s a very negative legacy and I think a lot of people are overlooking it.”
Shanahan said Bercow was not successful in changing some entrenched attitudes in parliament.
“His time in the speaker’s chair will always be marked by his reputation as a bully and as someone who never quite stamped down on the ‘public school boys club’ culture of Westminster.”
At the same time, Bercow made parliament a much more gender-equal environment – creating a creche, for example, and changed the way clerks operate to remove a lot of the “fuss and frippery”.
Those who know Bercow point to a quick-witted, intelligent man, and many residents of his Buckingham constituency, such as Shanahan, said he is an effective local MP.
“Personally I get on very well with John who is my MP and has been brilliant to my students. Professionally speaking, I always found him very open, courteous and good to deal with.”
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