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Reviewed: Mr Speaker - the Office and the Individuals Since 1945 by Matthew Laban

The voters’ champion.

Mr Speaker: the Office and the Individuals Since 1945
Matthew Laban
Biteback, 302pp, £20

John Bercow, the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons, has become a familiar figure to politics buffs as he begs MPs to stop behaving like immature public school boys. Older aficionados will remember the “hwyl” of George Thomas and the stentorian tones of Betty Boothroyd, the first and only woman speaker. Yet few are familiar with what the speaker does. Nor are many aware of the great an tiquity of the office, whose first occupant, Thomas Hungerford, became speaker in 1377.

As Matthew Laban shows in this outstanding book, the first holders of the office were regarded as servants of the king, not of parliament, and nine early speakers were beheaded or met other violent deaths for offending the monarch. It is because they once led such a precarious existence that speakers still put on a show of reluctance and have to be “dragged” to the chair by their fellow MPs.

In 1642, William Lenthall, who was speaker at the time, broke with tradition and insisted that he was the servant of parliament, not the king. When Charles I sought to arrest five members and inquired where they were to be found, Lenthall replied, “May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

Given the centrality of the speakership to the Westminster system, it is surprising that so little has been written about it. The last serious study was published nearly 50 years ago, in 1964, by Philip Laundy, librarian of the Southern Rhodesian parliament. Yet Laundy’s book resembles an official compilation in being innocent both of personality and of politics. Reading it is like eating too many dry biscuits.

Speakers, after all, are human beings, not automatons. It is one of the strengths of Laban’s book that he realises this. Mr Speaker analyses the career of every postwar speaker. Some have proved ill-suited to the office. Of Horace King, the first Labour speaker, from 1965 to 1971, one of his successors, Bernard Weatherill, said: “Dear old Horace was under the misapprehension that sherry was a non-alcoholic drink.” King became an alcoholic. On one occasion, he was too drunk to climb the steps to the speaker’s chair. “You’re a disgrace, Horace,” Bob Mellish, Labour’s chief whip called out, “and I’ll have you out of that chair within three months.” King replied, “How can you get me out of the chair, Bob, when I can’t get myself into it?” He was gently eased into retirement in 1971.

Speaker Bercow has been criticised, unfairly, because his wife remains a committed Labour supporter and local government candidate. Yet King’s wife continued her Labour activism as an alderman on Southampton City Council while King was speaker and he was never criticised for lack of impartiality.

In my opinion, Laban overrates Speaker Thomas, who, behind his amiable exterior, bore numerous grudges and was cordially detested by most of the officials who worked for him. He became far too close to Margaret Thatcher, buying birthday and Christmas presents for her children and wishing her in a private note, “Every blessing – in your heroic efforts to put our country back on its feet. You deserve to succeed and I hope and pray that you will.” Speakers ought not to get so close to prime ministers and it is hardly surprising that Thomas was accused of bias.

The speakership reached its nadir, however, under Michael Martin, who presided over the Commons during the expenses scandal and became, in 2009, the first speaker to be driven from office since 1695. Martin saw himself as the shop steward of the Commons and wasted large sums of public money in a failed attempt to persuade the High Court to prevent the release of details of MPs’ expenses. He seems never to have understood that he owed duties not only to MPs but also to the public that elects them. The speaker, as Peter Riddell has pointed out, must be not just “an apologist for MPs” but also “a champion of voters”.

Laban gives much higher marks to the speakers Weatherill (1983-92) and Boothroyd (1992-2000). He perhaps underrates Selwyn Lloyd, who, despite having been foreign secretary at the time of Suez and a controversial chancellor of the Exchequer, proved a successful and impartial Speaker between 1971 and 1976. On Bercow, whom Laban labels a “controversial reformer”, the jury is still out.

Whatever the weaknesses of individual speakers, the tradition of impartiality and fairness that the speakership embodies make a vital contribution to the working of parliamentary government. Mr Speaker is both stimulating and scholarly, the product of immense research and numerous interviews. It will undoubtedly become a standard source.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem