John Bercow is unlikely to receive a peerage, but he is the only Speaker with a bricks-and-mortar monument. Parliament’s nursery, built on the site of what was one of Westminster’s many bars, was one of his first projects as Speaker and, as with so many innovations, many of its beneficiaries have forgotten its origins. Only the other day I chatted to an MP with their beautiful baby in tow: that is to say, they talked while I cooed over the baby. As they headed off, they made a disparaging remark about the departing Speaker and how they had “disagreed with everything” he had done in office. Not quite everything, clearly.
That’s Bercow’s story in microcosm. Allegations of bullying mean that his entry into the House of Lords may be blocked. So how did a Speaker who presided over a series of reforms and boosted the power of backbenchers against the executive leave office with quite so many MPs convinced that they were at odds with him? How did he manage to depart with his legacy intact and largely beloved, but his own role in it forgotten? Unspeakable is not the story of how that happened, but it does provide part of the answer as to why, in part because of what the book fails to do.
Bercow started out in politics as a young Conservative whose support for the anti-immigration Monday Club and the repatriation of ethnic minority Britons put him way out on the far right. By the time he ran for Speaker he was regarded as the most left-wing of Tories – indeed, as he reveals in the book, by that time, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, including Ed Balls, would intermittently try to encourage him to defect. The Bercow of this book occupies a position that would be comfortable in the cabinets of either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown: supportive of redistribution of wealth at home and abroad, but still of the belief that the UK “is not at heart a socialist country. It is really centrist – a social democratic or even ‘wet’ Tory country.”
That political development ought to be fertile ground for a great book. But instead, Bercow’s engagement with his own thought is frustratingly perfunctory. He describes himself as once “excessively and absurdly influenced by Enoch Powell”, but he freed himself from that influence long before he entered parliament, and there is little about why. He castigates his younger self for being “blind to the moral arguments against [Powell], blind to the contradiction of someone of my heritage supporting such an objectionable prospectus and blind to the horror and outrage my behaviour provoked among my fellow pupils”, but this would be a more satisfying work if we heard more about how he came to open his eyes.
If you were hoping that Bercow’s enjoyment of reading political philosophy at university and his clear admiration for a powerful speech might form the spine of his memoir, then Unspeakable is not going to be your sort of book. It’s firmly for his supporters’ club: the people who liked seeing him browbeat MPs for being too rowdy, or the Remainers who saw him as their trump card in the parliamentary rows over Brexit. It’s for those who are not particularly politically engaged and want to know more about the Speaker himself, rather than anyone looking for a lengthy statement of values or a fly-on-the-wall account of his political career.
Is that intentional? I’m not sure. It felt frustratingly reminiscent of his major weakness as Speaker: which was not the conclusions he came to but his general reluctance to explain them more than once. As a close observer of Bercow’s decisions long before what he calls in this book “the Brexit imbroglio”, I can honestly say that none of his rulings were particularly surprising or diverged from his longtime political mission of giving parliament, not the government, the final say.
However, he often seemed to regard it as an unfair imposition to explain his decisions in the round – to show how his approach to one vote followed on naturally to the next. When he did, he often lapsed too easily into rhetorical barbs at the expense of his critics in the chamber.
A similar lack of reflectiveness pervades the sections on the accusations of bullying made against him. Bercow is at great pains to emphasise that the majority of his staff worked with him for close to a decade. Those with whom he clashed, he writes, “disagreed honourably” about the direction and running of the Speaker’s office. There is no real attempt to explore whether what to him was simple disagreement may have been – as many of his critics in parliament contended – too much for some of his staff.
That lack of reflection – and an unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to take others with him on his intellectual journey – made him more enemies than his record deserved as Speaker, and makes for an unsatisfying memoir of his time in office too.
Unspeakable: The Autobiography
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 464pp, £20
This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose