“I would not wish to issue an invitation to President Trump … our opposition to racism and to sexism, and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons”
These comments don’t come from a member of Labour, the Greens, or the SNP. Instead, it comes from the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. The ramifications of his comments are graver than the now regular peal of condemnations that have been flung across the Channel. They come as a crack of thunder in the menacing storm of Britain’s relationship with the US. They threaten May’s diplomatic detente and, more importantly, his own political independence.
It is the latest in a string of blows to May’s charm offensive against the US. It lies in tatters, as it becomes clear to the new US administration that the May doesn’t have the political strength to stand behind Trump. On top of the petitions, comments from opposition MPs, and protests, May seems weaker and weaker to an administration in America that seems to value strength and loyalty. This criticism is the most obvious, that it damages British diplomacy. But it is also the most short-sighted, and least important. He is still one MP among 650, however prestigious his position. But was he within his rights to make such a statement? And was he right to do so?
As Speaker of the House of Commons, it is Bercow’s responsibility to issue invitations to speak at the House of Commons. So Bercow has the technical right to do so. By making these comments he has effectively denied Trump this prestigious opportunity during his upcoming state visit. But the strongest criticism of his conduct is that he has infringed upon the speakers’ political neutrality.
The speaker of the House of Commons “must be politically impartial”. Bercow has most obviously transgressed in this regard. Calling Trump a “racist” and a “sexist”, whilst backed up by a copious amount of evidence, clearly places Bercow on a political battleground he was meant to stay well away from. Whilst he may have the power to veto Trump’s address, in reality, much as the Queen does, he ought to eschew making statements of such an overtly political nature.
Bercow’s statement was greeted by cheers from Opposition MPs. Most likely they were agreeing with Bercow’s damning judgement of Trump, rather than lauding the other ramifications of his comments. For the Houses of Parliament rely on a speaker to mediate debate, as all Parliaments across the world do. Without one, chaos would ensue. Yet a partisan speaker is almost as bad. It creates fears that one political view is favoured above another, that one party is a victim of another, and that the constitution being misused and undermined. These all damage the legitimacy of the position of speaker, of Parliament, and of democracy entirely. And here lies the consequence of greatest importance.
This is perhaps a tad hyperbolic, British democracy, famed for its resilience to extremism is under no such immediate threat. And Bercow has been an accomplished speaker for most of his tenure. His decorous manner, his light wit, and his commanding presence during debates has graced the chamber for eight years. Despite the protestations of some Conservatives, he has until now shunned partisanship or political intervention, and ensured healthy criticism of the government. Yet this should not permit us to overlook his lapse in judgement.
As is the depressing norm, we have only to look across the channel to see the ultimate ends of a politicised speaker. These chambers are home to many issues that clog their proper functioning, yet a partisan speaker more worryingly drains the legitimacy of the institution he speaks for. The Senate and Congress, assemblies whose activities are locked in a partisan mire, routinely bend (far stricter) constitutional rules to ensure ‘correct’ procedure. Take Elizabeth Warren’s dismissal from the floor of the Senate earlier this week over the application of an obscure and inconsistently applied rule governing criticism of senators. Last year, the Senate Democrats staged a 25 hour sit-in over Gun Control, having been shut out of debate by the speaker.
A further criticism of the Speaker is that he is purporting to represent all of 650 MPs and 805 Lords, or at least the majority of them, by objecting to Trump’s invitation. In reality, it is doubtful that the cheers heard following Bercow’s statement reflect more than a select number of opposition MPs. The government certainly does not agree. For many MPs, this is the most grievous insult, that he spoke for those that vehemently disagree with him. Pity more the Lords, who were open to Trump’s address, and whose speaker rebuked Bercow for his comments. Calls for Bercow to step down from a select few of them are, however, exaggerating the punishment due an offence of this scale. It’s not even clear that Trump, whose oratory has never been a particular strong suit, would have wanted to address Parliament in the first place. Nor is it clear when, or indeed if, the state visit will take place. These discussions may turn out to be moot.
As always with constitutional matters, it is rarely the action itself which most damages our democratic edifice. It’s the precedent, precedent that can be invoked to push further and further from what was once considered the margins of politically acceptable behaviour. However distasteful, however vulgar, however despicable you may find Trump, it’s clear that Bercow was not the one to voice such criticisms. The Government, opposition MPs, the Lords, the media, the public – all of these, all of us, are better placed to make such a comment. Bercow, who had the right to speak out, was not right to speak out.
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