Call to order

The new Speaker of the House must ensure that MPs mind their Ps & Qs before Britain’s once-proud debating culture sinks further into a mudslinging free-for-all. Benedict Spence wants decorum back in Parliament

April 21 2020


With any luck, the highlight of Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s time as Speaker of the House of Commons will be the day of his accession; may his fame gain no more gravitas than what little it currently holds.

That is not to be snide, or in any way to check his ambitions or downplay his character or ability. But a great many of us have had enough of the office of Speaker.

His predecessor, John Bercow, has much to answer for. A controversial choice from the outset (backed by Labour MPs for the sole reason that, even then, he was roundly disliked by his fellow Tories), he left with his reputation for rudeness, grandstanding and pomposity much enhanced.

Many may shrug their shoulders and ask, “So what?” British politics has always had that element of the bear pit – more akin to a school debate, with victory measured as much by the volume of guffaws that greet a barb, as by the rectitude of a point. Why should the Speaker not be as vicious as anyone else?

Curiously, the reason why Bercow, as ringmaster of this circus, did the nation a disservice in leading this behaviour starts with his most positive achievement. Under his tenure, backbenchers were encouraged and given more space to let themselves be heard, in a manner not previously seen for quite some time. This was a strangely prescient move – we were, though he would not have known it, rapidly approaching an age of political engagement through social media, where an MP’s voice could not only be heard, but amplified from the Chamber through the internet, and deposited directly into people’s feeds. Bercow gave backbenchers a new kind of power – and my, how they used it.

For quite different reasons, Bercow’s tendency to indulge the lowly MP also proved prophetic as again, unknowingly, it came in the run-up to the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU – a vote, fundamentally, on how, and by who, the public is represented. At the very moment that discontent at a lack of true representation began to really simmer, Bercow gave the world a window into the performance of MPs – how they could (mis)use their voices, what they chose to talk about, and what power, if any, they really had.

It is what has happened since the referendum that will really stick, however.

We all know about Bercow’s questionable positioning on matters of precedent, ripping them up or following them as it suited him. There is little point opining on it here – it was wrong, partisan, and did more damage to his reputation, and to that of Parliament, than perhaps even the expenses scandal a few years ago. Sir Lindsay, Bercow’s deputy throughout this torrid episode, would have seen up-close what that behaviour has done. There is little to suggest that he will venture down the same dark path.

But something that often escapes, amid the outrage at Bercow’s lack of impartiality on Brexit, is how the culture he encouraged in the Commons fuelled the febrile atmosphere the nation has found itself in.

In a realm where insults reign, and where ideologies, increasingly, are diverging from one another at a far greater rate than normal, wit inevitably and quickly gives way to wrath.

That is what we found in the Commons over the chaos of 2019. Gone were the days of droll banter; they were replaced with red-faced bellowing from all sides of the aisle, drowned out by shrill accusations of racism, sexism and other frequently hollow insults, with positions irreconcilable and politicians furious that it should be so. At the centre of it all? The man appointed to keep the peace, preserve civility, and do more than just shout about “Ordaaaaahhh”.

As the Commons behaves, so the nation reflects, and there is little doubt that the rhetoric of our politicians, some of whom really ought to know better, has become emboldened and inflamed by what the outgoing Speaker has allowed.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle has a thankless task ahead, but for the sake of his office and the wider country, he needs to rein in these odious tendencies in Parliamentary discourse.

This will mean leading by example, and not using his platform as a stage to write his own name in the history books. After what came before him, there could be no greater commendation than if history chooses to say very little of Sir Lindsay at all.

Benedict Spence is a writer and TV commentator on global politics and current affairs