In praise of Sally Bercow

The Speaker’s wife has opted to be controversial rather than dutiful. And we should celebrate.

Sometimes in life, you have to take a side. Today is one of those days. I like Sally Bercow.

The woman does not give a damn. Some people court controversy. She ravages it. Some stand up to the man. She wades into him with a knuckleduster. Some flout convention. Sally Bercow batters it into submission with a blunt instrument.

Imagine. Your husband is elected to a position that requires, above all else, the perception of political neutrality. So you start piling into the government of the day on Twitter. You are criticised for being too high-profile. So you seek refuge in the studio of Have I Got News For You. You're accused of being a "binge-drinking ladette" who "downed two bottles of wine a day and had one-night stands". So you strip naked, drape yourself in a sheet, and splash yourself all over the Standard, breathlessly exclaiming, "I never realised how sexy I would find living under Big Ben with the bells chiming."

There's been an "ooops, she did it again" tone to the latest "Bercow Blunder". Oooops? "Hey, this isn't the WI meeting; and you're Ian Hislop! Damn, I meant to tweet, 'Aren't the courage and humility of the Egyptian people affirming', but it came out, 'David Cameron's just a merchant of spin'."

Sally Bercow may be many things, but she's no accidental tourist to Westminster controversy. Each of her "gaffes" is too neatly aligned with personal criticism. They're her rebuttal strategy.

She needs one. Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail's (usually) brilliantly acerbic sketchwriter, wrote: "The duties of hostess weigh heavily on 'Sally the Alley', as she was known in her days as a loose-knickered trollop." If you're drawing that kind of fire it calls for more than an ability simply to turn the other cheek.

Mrs Bercow's critics feel she's been showing a little too much cheek. They fall into three camps: "She's using her husband's position to shamelessly promote herself", "She's embarrassing her husband" and "She's embarrassing his office, and without the office of Speaker the heavens will fall".

It's true that if Sally Bercow wasn't married to the Speaker of the House of Commons we probably would never have heard of her. Attractive, ambitious, publicity-savvy women rarely make headway in British politics, never mind the Labour Party. And her successful career in advertising would also have counted against her. Had she been, say, a miner, she may have been in with a shout.

The charge of encircling the Speaker in uncharacteristic controversy also carries some merit. John Bercow is universally admired on all sides of the House. The understated, unfussy manner in which he manages proceedings has won plaudits from former political friends and foes alike. The health minister Simon Burns, the Conservative Chief Whip, Patrick McLoughlin, and the backbench Tory MP Mark Pritchard are just three of those to have praised his deft management of Commons business.

Even David Cameron is said to welcome the firm but fair way he repeatedly interrupts him just as he is about to deliver a killer riposte to Ed Miliband. It is against that background that Sally Bercow's perceived indiscretions must be judged.

In fairness, many of those who criticise the Speaker's wife do so not from malice, but out of a genuine desire to uphold respect for her husband's office and the role it plays in underpinning British parliamentary democracy. Here, for example, is what Quentin Letts says about John Bercow himself, "one-time ultra-right-wing fusilier of the Nelson Mandela-taunting brigade, now an ostentatious and gloopy champion of diversity, abortion and all things politically correct". OK, but here are his views on the previous incumbent, Michael Martin:

Up stands the Speaker to bring clarity to proceedings and within minutes the Commons is bickering and a-boil, MPs shouting at the old purple proboscis, urging him for God's sake to go.

Right, well. And this is what he thought about Martin's predecessor, Betty Boothroyd: "her record betrays timidity rather than temerity, and inactivity rather than industry".

Sally Bercow is a parliamentary infidel. She has entered the very inner sanctum of this cloistered world. What's worse, she has done it not on merit, but on the arm of her husband. What's even worse than that, he's a diminutive husband, with a slightly cocksure and arrogant manner. And what's worst of all, she's got a slightly cocksure and arrogant manner herself – a combination of Victoria Beckham, Cherie Blair and Caroline Flint.

The Speaker's Wife. Not a Wag but a Swag (that's "speakers' wives and girlfriends").

And frankly, good luck to her. It's great that she's opted to be controversial rather than dutiful. I like the way she's chosen to be demonstrative, rather than demure. It's refreshing, if a bit kinky, that she doesn't sit quietly in the corner, but swings from the chandeliers while the bells of Big Ben are chiming.

Sally Bercow is fighting the power the best way she knows how. Ultimately, there can be only one winner. But she'll keep fighting to the end.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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