John Bercow: “I’ve never liked little cliques”

An extract from Jemima Khan's interview with John Bercow, in which she talks to him about his journey from far-right attack dog to champion of parliamentary reform and civil liberties.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow
House of Commons Speaker John Bercow. Photograph: Getty Images

John Bercow was always a misfit. The son of a Jewish taxi driver from north London, grandson of a Romanian immigrant called Bercowitch, he was bullied at his local comprehensive for his precocity – while his friends scrapped, he would read the Times. At university, while his friends quoted Monty Python, he would quote Disraeli. He was bullied for being Jewish and for not being Jewish enough (his mother was a convert) as well as for his diminutive size and the teenage affliction of “really very severe acne”.

Today, in off-duty beige chinos, aqua floral shirt, blazer and brown leather brogues, Bercow greets me at the door to his apartment in the Palace of Westminster, his official residence as 157th Speaker of the House of Commons. There can be few grander addresses, and few grander titles. The Speaker of the House of Commons is one of the highest-ranking officials in the country, the First Commoner of the land, and holds one of the most important and best-paid jobs in politics. Bercow presides over parliament from the Speaker’s chair, which resembles a throne, wearing ornamental black-and-gold state robes with a train for ceremonial occasions. No member of the House of Commons, not even the Prime Minister, may speak without the Speaker’s prior permission and he has the power to punish members who do not obey him. It’s a nice two fingers up at the bullies, snobs and anti-Semites he has encountered in his life so far.

Bercow ushers me towards the sitting room. He is warm and scrupulously polite, but formal, talking in that peculiarly mannered style that makes an encounter with him at home feel a bit awkward, like running into the headmaster in the supermarket. We are overwhelmed in the corridor by Sally, his striking, blonde shiksa wife, who represents another two fingers up to those who teased him for being short, Jewish, spotty and unsuccessful with women. She is the opposite of him – a giantess, an outspoken Labour activist, a Twitter controversialist and apparently the bane of his political life. Sally bounds up to say hello and laughs, big and brazen, at our banter about troublemaking on Twitter. Bercow looks on delightedly. Then she’s off in a whirlwind, presumably to tend to their three children, who I can hear playing in a room nearby.

There has been an attempt to deformalise the immaculate, oak-panelled sitting room. There are framed holiday snaps of the family dotted around the room, sitting incongruously atop ancient furniture. But, rather like seeing the Speaker in his chinos, the juxtaposition of normal with formal feels a little unnatural.

Bercow settles into an armchair, tucking his feet up beside him, and muses on whether he is still treated as an outsider. “I’ve never been much given to little social cliques. And I’ve never been of that part of the Tory party that was given to dining in clubs and [saying], ‘Shall we meet for a few G&Ts afterwards?’ and that sort of thing.” Bercow is an Edgware boy made good and, like many Tories from that kind of background, he appears deeply suspicious of the “Tory toff” clique, led by the Eton-educated Prime Minister, whose father was chairman of one such club. “There’s still too much of an atmosphere of the club about this place, still this attitude of ‘He’s a decent cove . . .’” As a former Thatcherite who wasn’t public-school-educated and who didn’t go to Oxford or sit for the Bar, he feels there is a sense that the Tory party has been recolonised by the Macmillan-era old guard after successfully being opened up to folk like him under Margaret Thatcher. Though cautious of “being accused of having a chip on his shoulder”, if less so of looking like he is taking an implicit swipe at the Prime Minister’s posse, he concludes: “I would like to see more able people, more people from ordinary backgrounds getting on here.”

*

It obviously grates that one “down­market scribbler” wrote recently, in an article “laced with snobbery”, that, as the Speaker puts it, “the trouble with Bercow is if he’d gone to a decent school he would have turned out better”. This is a man who, despite his education at the local comprehensive, prides himself on his eloquence and his mastery of the Queen’s English, and who was branded a “pompous prat” by the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries for picking her up on her use of a split infinitive. Dorries tells me that Sally later confided in her that she had “almost divorced him for the same things. She told me he’s not like that any more.” The two have since made their peace after Dorries’s failed attempt to challenge his speakership.

Bercow recounts a shocking story of snobbery and anti-Semitism – which he insists is no more rampant in parliament than elsewhere – when he first entered the House of Commons. “When I first came into the House there was somebody who said to me, who shall remain nameless because it was a private conversation, ‘If I had my way people like you wouldn’t be in parliament.’ He was an aristocratic sort of character, and I said to him, ‘When you say people like me do you mean people like me because I’m lower-class or because I’m Jewish?’, to which he replied, ‘Both.’”

The House of Commons, it turned out, was not so different from the school playground and Bercow was subjected to the same cruel gibes. The Labour MP Stephen Pound joked in the House of Commons that rather than know all the facts, like the then-unmarried Bercow, “personally I’d prefer to have a sex life”. Even after he reached the pinnacle of his career and became Speaker of the House, the public taunts continued. Simon Burns, then a Tory minister of state at the Department of Health, called him a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”. The much-repeated legend has it that the Prime Minister then turned this into a joke, telling a room full of lobby journalists that Burns’s driver had inadvertently backed into Bercow’s car in the par­liament courtyard. Cameron supposedly said: “Bercow told Burns, ‘I am not happy!’ to which Burns replied, ‘Well, which one [of the Seven Dwarves] are you?’”

He insists that gibes about his height have never worried him, though he says that at first Sally was “a bit bothered about it”. But he considers it “really low-grade” to make comments implying that a person is “inferior because he or she is shorter or . . . because that person is especially tall. It’s pathetic.”

The taunts about his acne, however, were more painful, and made him feel “very, very self-conscious”. They persisted throughout his years at the University of Essex, where one left-winger squashed a pizza to the student union noticeboard and labelled it “Portrait of John Bercow”.

The resulting insecurity he felt as a young man may, he says, partly explain his first poli­tical act – one that he says he “will regret to my dying day”. Aged 20, Bercow joined the extreme-right-wing Monday Club and, once there, he became secretary of the immigration and repatriation committee. It advocated a scheme of voluntary relocation of blacks and Asians and the scrapping of the Race Relations Act 1976, which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of “colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins”.

The decision to become a member of the club seems inexplicable for the grandson of a Jewish immigrant from Romania who had been offered a new life by the United Kingdom. Bercow now readily concedes that a Jewish person “shouldn’t have been setting foot in a Monday Club meeting”. With a disarming willingness to introspect – “I don’t want to navel-gaze, but . . .” – he ruminates: “Possibly the fact that I was physically quite feeble, a relatively short little fellow, attracted me to that idea of a very authoritative and aggressive version of Conservative politics.”

He adds: “I’m not saying that I had an inadequate Adam’s apple, but I think that sometimes people who aren’t fully formed and fully confident in themselves can be attracted to something which appears to give them a bit of meaning and a sense of purpose. Maybe going to some of those little cliquey meetings made me feel quite important.” The Monday Club offered him a sense of belonging and perhaps a sense that he had become a fully assimilated British citizen, 60 years after his grandfather Jack Ber­cowitch, the Romanian immigrant, had taken the oath of allegiance.

Bercow’s interest in the Monday Club was sparked by a conversation he’d had with his father after Enoch Powell appeared on television. “Dad said, ‘Well, he’s a much-maligned man, Enoch Powell. He’s a very honourable man and of course he speaks the truth as he sees it and there is a real problem of mass immigration to this country.’

“I don’t wish to speak ill of my late father, who was a good father, but I used to think that no Jewish person could be racist and that’s not strictly true . . . He genuinely did fear that the large influx that had taken place by the Seventies threatened social cohesion.”

The young Bercow came to agree, and was “mesmerised” by Powell’s oratory. “I went off and heard Enoch [speak] at one point, and I was very, very impressed. I read about what a brilliantly educated man he was, I read books of speeches of his, and so on. My father tended to take the view ‘let him explore and find out things’, but I wish he had said to me, ‘Hold back on that, son.’”

Inevitably, once he joined the Monday Club, Bercow encountered, “surprise, surprise, people who were anti-Semitic” and he promptly left. Years later, in 2001, by which time his journey from extreme-right-winger to social liberal was almost complete, he supported the ban on Tory MPs becoming members of the Monday Club and a number of Monday Clubbers were forced to resign their Conservative party membership.

A year earlier, he had apologised, at party conference, for the Tories having been “at best indifferent and at worst hostile” to black or Asian people. Today, he laments that there are so few “black and Asian faces in senior positions in the House” and has commissioned research to find out why.

To read the full version of Jemima Khan's interview with John Bercow, buy a copy of this week's New Statesman, on sale today