It’s time for John Bercow to go

The Speaker is becoming a caricature of himself – he needs to step down

John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, first took the chair in 2009. We had a Labour Government, Gordon Brown was the (doomed) Prime Minister and Michael Martin had resigned the position under the cloud of the expenses scandal.

Upon his election, Mr Bercow promised that he would serve 9 years in the position – a term that comes to an end in June of this year. However, he has recently recanted, declaring his intention to serve another 5. This has served to annoy many MPs, some of whom cannot stand him. He has been a consistently divisive figure among members, but at least there was always a deadline for his departure.

Baroness Boothroyd, a popular ex-Speaker, has given her reasons why she thinks he should step down, most of them to do with practicality and courtesy. I fear she may not understand Mr John Bercow very well.

My support for Mr Bercow is on record. I said last year, “He has no shame in making sure the government is held to account, with a record number of urgent questions granted, and he makes sure the minister responsible damn well turns up to the House to answer them. He takes a dim view of junior ministers showing up to defend a question, and will often keep granting questions until the minister shows.”

“…he is keen to ensure that the House is presentable to the public and, knowing that PMQs is pretty much the only time the public are watching with any regularity, tries to discourage bad behaviour.”

I still stand by this. I make no bones of the fact that I think he has, on the whole, been good for the Chair, the House and for the wider public. He is a champion of the backbenches and a firm defender of the Commons against the Executive. This is important in a Parliamentary democracy, the chamber should never just become a yes man to the whims of the government.

All of this may be so. But here comes the ‘however’.

The criticisms I made in that post also still stand and have become more tiresome and frustrating since. He has added other issues, issues that were completely avoidable, but that show him as a caricature of the worst elements of his personality. That he cannot seem to avoid showing everyone that the MPs who hate him have a point, seems to indicate that he has no control over himself. Why does he insist on playing up to this reputation he has of being partisan, over zealous with his interventions and hostile?

Like a referee in football, he should never be the story. And yet he can’t help himself. Too often, he makes the headlines, he talks the most during PMQs, he has to have the last word with some silly little ‘zinger’ to a minister. Why? This is a common and legitimate criticism of him, yet he will not back off. By all means call the House to order, but then sit back down. He far too often interrupts what could be a horrible pressured moment for a minister and takes all of the momentum out of it.

Take this from Lloyd Evans as an example. He describes the moment where Theresa May had attempted to deflect some of the Windrush heat onto Yvette Cooper, who then was invited to speak:

“This sparked a furious counter-attack from Ms Cooper. She got to her feet and awoke the drowsier members of the Commons with a bombshell. She hadn’t planned to mention immigration but Mrs May’s disingenuous use of her remarks had provoked her to respond. Her delivery was thunderous.

‘Do not try to hide,’ she stormed at the prime minister. ‘Do not try to hide behind me! Do not try to hide behind the Labour party!’

“She said it three times, knowing how well the simple parade-ground thump-thump-thump can work.

‘Do not try to hide behind … ’

“She was halted by the Speaker, a noted expert in rhetorical sabotage, who stood up and called for quiet, and then sat down again. Quite needlessly.

“Ms Cooper resumed her attack but its impetus had been destroyed by Mr Bercow. Once again, he did the hecklers’ work by silencing an orator on their behalf.”

This was a classic example of it. He cannot just let the battle happen, he has to intervene and make sure he’s on the news during this little snippet. His over zealous interventions would be one thing, but the time he takes to drone needlessly on make him look like he is craving the attention. All that needs to happen, if anything, is for order to be called, to wait until the House quietens to an acceptable level, and then to bring the member speaking back in. No more, no less. But he won’t do it.

He has also had some lamentable lapses in judgement regarding his impartiality. Another thing that he continues to do and of which he will not learn the lessons. Now, this applies whether he is saying something you agree with, or whether he isn’t. But it is resolutely not for him to be giving his opinions on anything, and especially not while he occupies the Chair. In giving his opinion, he opens himself up to completely legitimate attack, and deserves whatever he gets.

As I said last year, “If he wishes to give his opinion, he should be absolutely free to do so…the second he resigns his office. There can be no other way.”

“His office affords him immense privileges. He is a member of the Privy Council, he can give private counsel to the Prime Minister and he can also give private counsel to the Queen. The key word here is private.”

Nadhim Zahawi, a vocal opponent of the US President, Mr Trump, had this to say about Bercow’s unwise pronouncements on a potential visit: “For the Speaker to talk in the language of bans only opens him up to accusations of partiality and hypocrisy, particularly when he has extended invitations to President Xi of China and the emir of Kuwait – both of whom have values clearly at odds with those we espouse in the UK.”

Bercow’s position was backed by Owen Jones in the Guardian. What a surprise. If you are unwilling to defend the principle here, then don’t come crying to me if a future Speaker gives an opinion on something that you don’t like. Crying ‘impartiality’ then will be the height of hypocrisy, and I eagerly await the opportunity to shout it.

Because surely this is the point? He is supposed to be impartial. You can’t want to hear his opinion on something, even if you agree with it. For instance, he openly discussed the fact that he had voted for Remain in the referendum. Barely a batted eyelid. Now, imagine he’d declared proudly that he had voted Leave. Would Mr Jones be writing a similar article? I hardly think so.

The crowning jewel of all of this was the sticker spotted in his car. The sticker read ‘bollocks to Brexit’. This, frankly, was an absolute disgrace. A disgrace to him, a disgrace to the office of Speaker and a disgrace to the institution of Parliament. The most partisan issue of our time, the most divisive and poisonous campaigns we’ve seen, the issue that continues to cause pain and anguish, the issue that won’t be resolved for many years, and the Speaker has taken sides. And he didn’t even hide it. It was on his car (registration B13 RC0 – are you starting to get the measure of the man?), the car was in his parking space.

Tom Goodenough got it spot on: “This latest transgression is arguably more serious. It also comes at a time where Bercow is under pressure on a number of fronts. The Speaker is facing allegations that he bullied a female staff member (Bercow denies the allegations). Given this, a wiser speaker would recuse themselves from any debate on the topic of bullying. Not Bercow. When MPs gathered to discuss the subject in the chamber yesterday afternoon, Bercow sat in pride of place in his chair.

“The calls for Bercow to go are growing and this latest matter makes it hard to disagree with those who say the Speaker’s time is up. In 2009, Michael Martin resigned ‘in order that unity can be maintained’. Perhaps it is time to Bercow to listen to his immediate predecessor, if not the wise words of Lenthall. After all, if Bercow does feel so strongly about Brexit then he is entitled to his view. But so long as he remains Speaker it isn’t his place to say so.”

That was in March. It’s now May.

And now we have further allegations of bullying and harassment. He apparently has a bit of a temper. He, of course, denies this. I’ve left this as a footnote as I really resent the idea that allegations should be enough to ruin anyone. I shan’t comment on this unless and until proven. There are enough reasons for him to fall on his sword or have it inserted into his back without mere allegations adding to the fire. Whether they are true or not, he is plainly and demonstrably unfit for his office.

“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” said speaker William Lenthall. This noble tradition is being trampled upon by the current occupant of the Chair.

Mr Speaker, it’s long past time for you to go.

Labour reaps with Munroe Bergdorf what it sowed with Toby Young

Do we really want to play this game? Trawling our social media histories can’t end well for anybody.

There’s a storyline in the TV show ‘The Thick Of It” in which the main characters are subject to an independent inquiry on the subject of ‘leaking’. Leaking had become one of those practices that everyone did, everyone knew was going on and just got on with it. Whether it was a genuine scandal, or just the way the government worked, everybody knew that it wouldn’t look good with a full media glare shining on it, despite the fact that this was exactly how the media got their stories.

So when one of the parties (the party of government at the time) announces an inquiry in order to gain some political leverage, the whole thing looks like it’s going to collapse. Ollie, a special adviser almost crumbles at the news. “An inquiry into all of leaking – all of leaking! We are so…! We are so screwed.”

To which Alastair Campb…sorry, Malcolm Tucker replies, “He’s done it. That chinless horse-fiddler. Our f***lustrious PM has opened Pandora’s f***ing Box and curled a massive steamer right into it.”

Which is to say, well done mate. We’re all going down now. And if I am, I’ll be dragging you down with me.

Both parties are constantly trying to one-up each other, looking for any tiny crack in the armour to ram a sword into and prise power. But they both know there are some roads that they can never start down, because they know the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and take them all out.

It’s starting to feel like the modern day version of this is what the Spectator have started calling ‘The Digital Inquisition’. And Labour and the Left generally must be starting to regret opening this particular Pandora’s box and curling a…well, you get the gist.

Only recently, the journalist and director of the New Schools Network, Toby Young stepped down from a new advisory position that he taken up in the Office for Students following an unprecedented campaign against him that was based on a trawl of his social media history. It turned out that he had said some unpleasant and shocking things in the past, and this was brought into the full media spotlight for all to pick over.

He was jumped on – Angela Rayner, Jess Phillips, Owen Jones, all took chunks out of him and the government for this apparently unwise appointment. I saw plenty of it from my own friends and connections on social media. Petitions, campaigns and reposting of his old tweets were paraded around for all to sign, join and despise.

Now, I’m not (here, anyway) taking a position on this. You’re welcome to make your own mind up on whether Mr Young was an appropriate choice for this post. My point here is that this tactic is not something that will only hit one side of the political divide. This has been proven in the last week, as Labour found themselves caught in their own net.

The transgender model and campaigner Munroe Bergdorf had been appointed to the Labour party’s LGBT advisory board, but stepped down after a similar campaign showed some highly unpleasant comments that she had made in the past on social media.

I’ll be completely honest, in my opinion this person is a deeply unpleasant individual with some shocking, awful opinions. I’ve heard her speak where she can give as much context as she like to her views, and I find her to be ill-informed and spiteful. She is, as far as I’m concerned, an idiot.

What I don’t like, and will defend her as much as I will defend anyone on this point, is the stripping of context around something that someone has said and presenting it as the whole truth. This is something I will come back to in a future piece, but for now let’s just say that whenever you see a small quote, especially when used to attack or smear someone, ALWAYS look for the context around it. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve read something, thought “well there’s no amount of context that could give that any credence”, only to click the link and find it more understandable. So please, when you read anything about what Munroe has said, read it in its full context. And do yourself a favour and do the same for Toby Young, Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else you’ve taken a dislike to.

I really don’t want to play this game where any appointment is followed by a trawl of their history. We will have to get to the point where we’re going to have to see our past selves in the context in which they were said, and give each other a break. Can any of us really admit that we’d be happy for anyone to trawl back into our archives before we’d had a chance to do so ourselves?

It doesn’t help that everything we have ever said on social media is presented (if you search for it now) in the modern UI (user interface) – that is, whatever Twitter or Facebook looks like now. Imagine we could see a post from 2010 in the UI that 2010 Facebook had. It would already put it into its context effectively. Old photographs and videos are black and white – it gives them context immediately. If we could put them all into full HD colour, we’d subconsciously be applying our modern biases and culture to an age that didn’t have them.

If you want to do this, then fine, but it’s going to take us all down. I promise you, though, it isn’t a fight worth having, and it’s up to all of us to take responsibility as individuals to start giving people a break. This starts with your enemies. Because I can assure you, if you don’t apply the same rules to those on your side as you do to your enemies, you will be open to justifiable attack.

And you can’t say you weren’t warned.

The predictability of opinion – what makes people interesting

What makes a person interesting? Can I predict your opinion? Yes? Then you’re not interesting.

 

Let’s take an issue to start with: gay marriage.

You’re in favour? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-choice’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re in favour of ‘gun control’
  • You read the Guardian
  • You hate the Daily Mail
  • You’re broadly pro mass immigration
  • You voted Remain
  • You, shall we say, ‘display negativity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re in favour of legalising marijuana
  • You don’t want any private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re in favour of proportional representation of some kind
  • You would abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly right wing
  • You are against the death penalty, even for heinous criminals

Oh I do beg your pardon, you’re against gay marriage? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-life’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re against ‘gun control’
  • You read the Telegraph or the Mail
  • You hate the Guardian
  • You’re broadly anti mass immigration
  • You voted Leave
  • You, shall we say, ‘display positivity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re against legalising marijuana
  • You don’t mind private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You don’t want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re against proportional representation of some kind
  • You would not abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly left wing
  • You would favour the death penalty for heinous criminals

 

Now, these things are all very different issues. Some of them are moral questions, some political, some social. Some would reasonably require a lot of thought to come to a solid conclusion. And yet, with most people, just knowing their position on one of these things is a solid predictor of their opinions on the rest. Why should this be? I question how much anyone really understands the issues they have taken such a line on.

The neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris sums it up best: “Knowing one person’s opinion on any political issue allows you to reliably predict their opinion on other issues. This shouldn’t happen because these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s view on guns be predictive of his view on climate change, or immigration or abortion, it shouldn’t be but it is. This is a sign that people are joining tribes and groups, it is not a sign of clear thinking.”

Having a conversation with such a person is, for the most part fruitless and dull. It will inexorably end in subject changing, whataboutery and appeals to emotion, because they don’t understand enough about the issue. If their opinions are predictable, they are not interesting. The briefest trawl through Twitter will tell you this. Such people are not interested in listening, changing their mind, or accurately capturing their opponent’s position.

Listening to some professional women’s rights activist sound off about gun control is painful, particularly when they come up against someone who knows the facts, the stats and can back up a pro-gun position. Similarly, watching a right wing businessman chat on about immigration or ‘the lies about climate change’ can be made to look idiotic by a scientist with a full grasp of the facts.

You can tell instantly when a person clearly doesn’t read or even acknowledge anything on the opposing side. It’s painfully obvious when a Guardian reading Corbynista has never even seen the Telegraph, glanced at the Mail on Sunday or picked up a copy of the Spectator. It renders their arguments incomplete and turns them into an intensely vacuous shell. You’re not arguing the issue – you’re defending the tribe. I use an example from the Left here, simply because that’s what I experience most, and the Left is the side that claims dominion over fact, logic and reason. But if you can’t make your opponent’s case for them, you don’t understand it well enough. So how can you claim you understand yours? And where does yours come from?

Some of this is understandable. A high level belief that ‘big government’ is bad and that individual freedom is paramount will inevitably lead to a grouping of some issues under the same banner, because any misgivings at that lower level would be overcome by an overarching principle, in much the same way that the US constitution overrules many smaller changes in law because it is the overarching agreement that American citizens have with one another.

But what is really fascinating is when you come across a person whose views on some issues deviate from their home crowd. These people are much more interesting to listen to, because the only way they will have come to this deviant view is by thinking carefully and forming a solid conclusion. To express it in public would have required a complete conviction in their process and their argument.

It’s exciting, because when somebody puts a question to them, you have no idea what their response might be. But whatever comes, it will surely be well reasoned.

There are brilliant examples of these people from across the political spectrum. Liberals who voted Leave and vice versa is a good place to start looking. There are also shining examples of those dull, lifeless crowd followers all over the place as well.

Think of Farage – I could probably predict his opinion on everything. Similarly with Owen Jones. What fashionable lefty cause has he not jumped all over and furrowed his brow in that sincere way while appearing authoritative about it? It’s just so boring. He gave a perfect example of what I’m talking about during the referendum campaign when he penned a piece putting forward the case for a ‘left wing Leave’. This lasted all of 5 minutes before he retreated back into his herd, now consistently sounding off against Leave voters and Brexit itself.

Indeed, the whole tone of the piece should have foretold this. It opens with “at first, only a few dipped their toes in the water; then others, hesitantly, followed their lead, all the time looking at each other for reassurance.” Does this not show just how little he has really thought about it? He’s essentially saying ‘I’ll go if you go’. How courageous.

“The more leftwing opponents of the EU come out, the more momentum will gather pace and gain critical mass.”

“The case for Lexit grows ever stronger, and – at the very least – more of us need to start dipping our toes in the water.”

Except the second he dipped his toe, he saw it was freezing and promptly wrapped himself in a towel. Thanks mate, the rest of us who swam out into the deep are so grateful for this bravery now that the sharks are devouring us. Hope it was worth it.

True courage lies in expressing thoughts that you know full well will get you ostracised by your side. Others simply occupy their own space, not bothering to cultivate a base in a camp in the first place. I raise the example of Mr. Jones only because, having read his column for a while and getting bored of its predictability, I suddenly glimpsed a light shining through it. “This will get him into trouble – how exciting. How will he push through?” Alas, he didn’t, and his column has been as predictable as ever, ever since. It’s a real shame, because he is likeable, writes well and has a significant following.

On the other side of things, let’s take the Hitchens brothers as an example. Christopher, the darling of the Left – Peter, the darling of the Right. Neither, when you really look, deserves the title, nor would they want it.

Christopher, who sadly died in 2011, was one of the so called ‘Four horsemen of the Atheist apocalypse’ alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (this was later expanded to be the 5 horsepeople, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the group). He exploded into public consciousness with his book ‘God is not Great: How religion poisons everything’ and was a vicious polemicist against religion. He was adored by students, atheists and left wingers.

But looking a little deeper, things aren’t as clear as they might be. He was an avid proponent of the Iraq War, never ever shying away from it. He blasted the Clintons (one of the most painful things about his death is not being able to see what he would have made of the 2016 presidential election), believed firmly in Israel’s right to exist (albeit with criticism of the Israeli government), thought that men should be the providers and breadwinners for their wives/partners and had serious reservations about abortion.

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.”

Well, quite.

His brother Peter has a similar style, yet finds himself on the opposite side of most things. As a Mail on Sunday columnist and self-declared Burkean Conservative, you may think you could predict him. He hates Tony Blair, strongly opposes drug legalisation, believes criminals should be punished with prison, would reinstate the death penalty if certain judicial criteria could be met, is a fervent Monarchist, opposes mass immigration and believes the UK should leave the EU.

So how, then, does such a person also find more hatred for the Conservative Party than any other? David Cameron is a ‘slippery HR man’, Thatcher ‘overrated’. He would renationalise the railways ‘immediately’, did not vote in the referendum (indeed does not vote in elections), believes the UK should stay in the Single Market, that there should be a strong welfare state, that the Iraq War was a disaster (not difficult now, but opposed it when it was unfashionable to do so in media circles), that Trident is a ridiculous and out of date weapon that we should rid ourselves of and that Jeremy Corbyn is a good thing for the Labour Party.

These are the kinds of people you always want on your side, but they can never predictably be so. Simon Jenkins, Germaine Greer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Murray (Matthew Parris recently said of him “[he] writes so well that when he is wrong he is dangerous.’) – these are the people you want to listen to. Not even necessarily to agree with them, but to see that they have thought clearly, express their view and sod the consequences. Some of the most interesting talks you can hear are broadsides against your firmly held beliefs, spoken by a heavyweight intellectual from the other side in firm and weighty tones. Who could fail to be stimulated by that? Dullards and cowards, that’s who.

The greatest joy is meeting someone in the flesh who can argue against your view with rigour and persuasion. A small group of us had a wonderful knockabout during the referendum campaign, a time that I look back on as a period that sharpened my thinking, forced me to back up what I thought and, in some cases, change my mind. They argued passionately for their side, and they could very well see what motivated my side.

That’s all disappearing. In this new world, tribes are king. There is simply no reasoning with most people. There is no ‘I disagree with you, but still like you and enjoy hearing your arguments.’

Well, screw it. I think what I think. Come at me. Let’s have it out. I promise you – it will be more fun than you think.