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How bad is Bercow? The neutral functionary is a myth: Speakers have always been colourful political players

Credit: Niklas Halle'n - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Credit: Niklas Halle'n - WPA Pool/Getty Images

March 21, 2019   4 mins

“COULD John Bercow be the most treacherous Speaker ever?” That was the question posed by the Daily Express after the Speaker refused to allow the Prime Minister to put her EU withdrawal agreement before Parliament for a third time. Simultaneously a hero and a villain of democracy, depending on your Brexit stance, but certainly not neutral.

Yet a glance at the history of Speakers of the House of Commons shows that being the most treacherous ever is quite a big ask: they have, after all, been associated with regicide, rebellion, insurgency, and defiance of the monarch.

Speakers, it turns out, are not dull functionaries or bland chair people. Instead, they are colourful political players who as often as not are willing to invent or tweak the rules to support or undermine whatever political side seems to them in the best interests of the country – or in their own best interests. Neutral doesn’t come in to it.

Take William Lenthall, for example, Speaker from 1640 until 1660. Lenthall was in the awkward position of being Speaker of the House of Commons just as its conflict with King Charles I reached such a pitch that the English Civil War would ensue.

In theory, the Speaker’s role was to carry news about legislation from the Commons to the monarch. However, Lenthall, a puritan, saw the Commons as able to repel “invaders of the church and commonwealth” (Catholics) and thus free the king “from the interpretation of misdoing”. This was a sturdy attempt at impartiality, but Lenthall was soon under fire for being biased.

On 9 January 1641 Sir Henry Mildmay blamed him for letting too many speak during a debate, and on 9 March he was accused of partiality in a squabble between members. But the real challenge came when on 4 January 1642 when King Charles attempted to arrest five members of the Commons and one of the Lords, entering the House of Commons in search of them. Of course, he found that the birds had flown. Quickly, Lenthall fell to his knees before his king and said:

“May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this is to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.”

This courageous and clever response combined a defence of the Commons with deference to the King – but Lenthall was also making it clear that he was not going to give away the whereabouts of the men the monarch sought.

He held on to his difficult task as parliament became the executive ruler of the country (having executed the King). Like the current Speaker, Lenthall had to resist popular pressure. In the summer of 1647 he was impeded by a London crowd that included apprentices and disbanded soldiers. Lenthall announced that votes in the Commons had been forced, making them void in his judgement: the crowd, he claimed, had “jostle[d], pull[ed] and hale[d] the Speaker all the way he went down to his coach”.

Lenthall – through deft political manoeuvring in first supporting the idea of a Cromwellian monarchy and then being one of the founders of the Restoration of Charles II – managed to garner a peerage and considerable wealth despite his critics. Whether Bercow receives the same honour remains to be seen, but there is speculation that his perceived anti-government bias could make him the first Speaker in 230 years not to be offered a position in the House of Lords.

Other Speakers have suffered worse fates. Thomas Thorpe, for example, a Speaker during the Wars of the Roses, was strongly Lancastrian. Speaker for just one year from 1453 to 1454, he had an adventurous life. In 1450 he was denounced by Kentish rebels as a supporter of the Duke of Suffolk. When the court confronted the Duke of York at St Albans on 22 May, Thorpe – along with the Duke of Somerset – was said to have failed to prevent the battle because he intercepted conciliatory messages from the Duke to King Henry. Thorpe was among those subsequently accused of having fled the field, leaving his armour behind like a coward.

Captured in 1460 after the Battle of Northampton and brought back to London as a prisoner he escaped, but was recaptured. Sent to the Tower, he then escaped a second time. But on 17 February 1461 he was caught by a London mob in Harringay and lynched by beheading.

As well as the animosity of the crowd, Speakers could also face the rage of the monarch, since it was their responsibility to deliver the bad news that the Commons had not liked his or her proposals.

The first Speaker, Sir Peter de la Mare (1376), was imprisoned as a result of his work. Presiding over the Good Parliament of the same year, it was his support for a coalition of interest groups excluded by the corrupt regime of King Edward III that got him into trouble – the king and his courtiers took against his efforts to inform them about disenfranchised merchants and dodgy deals favouring the King’s mistress. Sir Thomas More, Speaker in 1523, was executed in 1535 for refusing to swear the oath declaring Henry VIII to be the head of the church.

And then there is Edmond Dudley, whose nominal crime was that during the last illness of Henry VII he had ordered his friends to assemble in arms in case the King died, but who was actually hated for his corrupt financial wheeling and dealing. Along with another former Speaker, Sir Richard Empson, Dudley was executed on 17 August 1510 on Tower Hill. (His son was also executed for treason after his attempt to install Lady Jane Grey on the throne.)

Speakers, then, have never been grey functionaries, but protagonists with their own agendas and interests. In this sense, John Bercow is not destroying one of the great traditions of the eccentric House of Commons. Instead, he is doing exactly what his illustrious predecessors did. If our Speakers ever do become the kind of completely impartial functionaries that some newspapers appear to seek, our country will be much the poorer for it.

Diane Purkiss is a professor at Oxford University. Her book, The English Civil War: A People’s History, was published by HarperCollins.

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