“Write as you speak” is the advice Saul Bellow gave to Allan Bloom. It had been passed on to writers both before and since, but after Unspeakable: The Autobiography it is clear that a caveat should be added: “Unless you are John Bercow.” Only weeks after retiring from his position as Speaker of the House of Commons here he is back, in book form, writing with those same ticks, ingratiations and sub-Gilbert and Sullivan witticisms that we might have hoped would have disappeared with the last Parliament.
On page one we discover that “In Parliament, naturally and properly, everything said is recorded and published verbatim.” A page later we learn that “predictably, and perfectly properly, the Attorney General said…” Two pages on and we can read of how “I therefore intervened good-naturedly, saying ‘I do not normally offer stylistic advice to the Attorney General, but his tendency to perambulate while prating is disagreeable to the House.’” A witticism that I am sure readers will (both good-naturedly and perfectly properly) be grateful to the former Speaker for capturing between hard covers.
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The audience for this book is anyone eager to relive the glory days of the 2019 Parliament: anyone keen to reminiscence about what happened when Parliament was prorogued and then de-prorogued. The difference this time is that it can all be refracted through the lens of John Bercow’s own personal views, which had previously been a mystery.
So the reader can be reminded of that day last year when Parliament reconvened and Geoffrey Cox referred to a matter that “in advocacy terms” is “what we used to call a ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ question.” But here we have an added editorial. Of this comment Bercow writes, “The reference to the ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ question rightly went down extremely badly in the House, especially but not only with female colleagues.”
While examples of others’ verbal malpractice abound, it is to the author’s credit and the reader’s good fortune that an example is always on hand to showcase best practice. Through tense times our guide remains resolute. “What I was not prepared to do was to behave hypocritically,” he informs the reader. “The abuse of power was foiled, but make no mistake. That is precisely what it was: an abuse of power.” And again, “It was never any part of my role to serve as a nodding donkey or quiescent lickspittle of the executive branch of our political system.”
Happily Unspeakable is not just a blow-by-blow account of last autumn. It is also the story of how John Bercow came to be the man he almost is. We learn of his parentage, of how his maternal grandmother was said to have had a brief affair with “a local toff” who “promptly scarpered, offering not a penny piece to support her in the raising of my mother, Brenda.”
We learn of his schooldays, of how young John played the recorder “without distinction” but excelled at tennis and politics. How different the history of politics — not to mention recorder playing — might have been had such talents been reversed. We also learn of how, at Finchley Manorhill, the young Bercow was struck down by acne. “At first, it was a modest affliction – I would apply a cream and the problem would go.” Later gels and “liquid solutions” were proffered, but the problem did not go away. “It festered. It intensified.” Rarely has a work’s better subtitle hidden in such plain sight.
It is with a certain inevitability that this youth found his way into 1980s party activism. The combination of ambition and resentment hurtled him into the Finchley branch of the Conservatives, where perhaps his zeal was a tad overzealous. He describes how in January 1981 he “made a fateful political choice” and “the most shameful decision I have ever made. I applied to join the Monday Club, a hard-Right Conservative pressure group that had been set up in the 1960s.” The group’s policies included support for minority rule in what was then Rhodesia, a stance with which the Thatcher government — “I later came to believe, both justly and wisely” — disagreed.
Yet whatever the missteps, the ambition made up for them, and by the time the decade was out the thrusting young Right-winger was on the up — only for the fates to choose this moment to take a run at him.
At “a large dinner” in Nottingham around the time of the 1992 election, organised by the Conservative Students conference, Bercow met a tall young blonde woman “who was looking more than a little bored”. This lady who he feared was “way out of my league” turned out to be one Sally Illman. Unfortunately she was already moving to the Left and rejected his early wooing attempts, reportedly viewing the young Bercow as “far too staid”. Over the ensuing years he worked on two uncomplementary projects: one was advancing within the Conservative Party. The other was advancing on the woman who would become Sally Bercow.
Although he occasionally tries to suggest there were hurdles, during these years the party’s support for Bercow was remarkable. Its desire to find him a Parliamentary seat was so considerable that before the 1997 election he was actually helicoptered from one constituency association audition to another. This worked, and in 1997 he ran as the Conservative candidate in the safe seat of Buckingham and retained the seat for the party.
But in the wider country the Blairite era had begun. And as the mores of the time changed and the wellsprings of power shifted, so Bercow’s politics strangely shifted too. The former firebrand of the Monday Club became obsessed with Left-wing social justice, racial issues, LGBT equality and the importance of “diversity”.
Having alienated the leadership of his own party throughout the 2000s, he made the wise decision to suck up to any and all members of the party opposite, which happened to be the party of government. His questions to the government benches became positively adoring.
And so a decade after his eyes first locked level with her knees, Bercow finally proved himself worthy to marry Ms Illman. Of his own attractions he remained clear-eyed: “I am not good-looking, but rather rat-like and somewhat intense.” Yet he is generous enough to recognise his own virtues: “I do not panic, get tongue-tied or descend into umm-ing and ah-ing in responding to questions.”
In 2009 Michael Martin stepped down and it was the Conservatives’ turn to nominate a Speaker. Labour were more than happy to elect to the post someone from the Conservative benches who they knew was loathed by his own party. So to the Speaker’s chair Bercow was dragged, and there he sat and reigned for 11 glorious years.
All humiliations behind him, today he stands at the summit of national and international affairs, a vantage point from which he is able to pass judgement on the whole carnival that has passed before him. Doing his bit to earn out his publisher’s advance he declares David Cameron to be “insubstantial”, an “opportunist lightweight” and “a 24-carat snob”.
William Hague he calls “impersonal, mechanical, an upmarket, efficient hack – and an ex-teenage nerd who as a schoolboy had pored over parliamentary debates”. Terms in which the teenage Bercow could never be described.
Now that the modernising speaker’s gown is off, the venom is continuous and one-directional. He claims that Toby Young’s views show him to be “a misogynist who also held deplorable views about gays, the disabled and the poor”. He describes Theresa May as “wooden as your average coffee table, a worthy public servant but as dull as ditch-water”. Michael Gove is “oleaginous” while Boris Johnson is variously described as “disingenuous”, guilty of being “accused of bigotry” and “at his occasional best, a passably adequate politician in an age not replete with them”.
Newspaper editors who ever ran anything critical about the silly and self-destructive Sally are dismissed as “snobs and chauvinists”. By the book’s end Bercow is lashing out in all directions like a schoolboy in the playground trying the “windmill” manoeuvre with his arms circling wildly against larger foes. He dismisses the Conservative party membership who gave him his career as being — in their totality — “elderly and extreme”. Anyone who ever expressed criticism of him ends up being dismissed as “bigoted”.
His positively pontifical reviews of world leaders who spoke in Parliament during his tenure extend to an actual Pope – Benedict XVI. He quotes Sally’s criticism of the former Cardinal Ratzinger that he had among other things been reluctant “to come clean about his involvement in the Hitler Youth as a young German”.
Nevertheless one learns a number of things from Bercow’s exegesis of Benedict’s Westminster speech: “The Pope’s stance – which of course reflected that of the Catholic Church…” On Benedict, Bercow continues, “Perfectly reasonably, he spoke in English, but his delivery was uninspiring.” How sad that neither Sally or John chose to give a pep talk to the pontiff.
Perhaps all this makes Bercow sound ungenerous, and yet he is reliably effusive in his estimations of his self. Frequent examples are given of his own witticisms. “Sometimes I would just say, ‘We have got the gist’, ‘I think a question mark is coming now’, or ‘The abridged rather than the War and Peace version would be appreciated’.”
“Whether I was a good Speaker is not for me to say,” he concedes at one point. But analysing the various pros and cons of his years in the chair, on balance he writes “It is only fair to recall that, alongside the complainants, many constituents professed themselves perfectly happy… I could not please everyone but I must have been doing something right.”
Any time that Parliament has an opportunity to praise the Speaker the results are quoted. “Of all the Speakers who have sat in the Speaker’s Chair since I was elected, he is the best” is one quote from Harriet Harman that Bercow feels compelled to save from the dustheap of Hansard. He also unexpectedly finds himself innocent of all bullying charges against himself, including one about which he writes, “In my opinion, the disagreement between us did not constitute bullying in any way.” Which — perhaps predictably and even properly — must surely constitute an end to the matter.
Unspeakable is an autobiography and so charges that it is self-serving are unfair. But the work does provide an opportunity to survey and summarise for ourselves — as all autobiographies must (look how addictive this style is) — whatever the life of its subject amounts to.
To this observer it is clear that perhaps there once was a John Bercow. An ambitious, thrusting, embittered person he became an avatar of ambition for whatever age he found himself in. In one era he thought it advantageous to believe one thing. When the mores changed the same person found himself hammering his fists just as vociferously for another cause.
The best evidence of his fundamental absence lies not in his actions but in that one constant give-away: his language. Not just the caveats and quibbles or the odious, affected flourishes and archaisms, but a whole language and manner into which the man so deeply dug his life that he eventually stood no hope of extracting himself.
There is footage somewhere online of Bercow caught by a reporter in the streets of London last year. Bercow is in his civvies. Yet he immediately slips into that strange register into which his life has become caught: all menacing jollity and forced, frustrated badinage.
After reading his life story the reader is left with an impression of a man who has spent his life doing an impression of a man. Whatever else once existed long-ago disappeared in a small puff of unwise, and probably improper, self-regard.
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