I liked John Bercow as Speaker of the House of Commons. You need only compare him to Sir Lindsay Hoyle his anodyne, lugubrious, gloomy successor to see Bercow is a star. He is a guy at the opposite end of my political spectrum but with whom I would happily exchange anecdotes in the pub. I liked him all the more when he wore his heart on his sleeve. He is what English refer to as ‘a good egg’.
Only now and again would his unselfconscious right-wing outlook on life irk the hell out of a Scotsman. He did not attend Eton or Harrow. He was educated at Essex University, but soon acquired the mental and verbal ticks and accoutrements for acceptance to the Conservative Party.
Presiding over the pigswill that is the House of Horrors, I thought him smart, courageous, more amusing than Grande Dame Betty Boothroyd, and not in the least corrupt or wayward as some of his predecessors who sat on the seat facing the baying mob.
His autobiography tells you he enjoyed the attention. The physical position of the Speaker’s chair suited his vanity. He was the umpire at the rowdy cricket match.
He genuinely cared about protecting the democratic procedures of his parliament much to the annoyance of a great many of his party. For being as even-handed as he could possibly be, some of his Tory colleagues wanted his head of a salver. He survived.
I bought his autobiography – Unspeakable, the madness of the act I attribute to lock-down cabin fever. My real excuse is, I knew the book contained acerbic descriptions of parliamentary colleagues. I was curious. It does a Scotsman’s heart good to read of a Tory politician’s rise and fall by their own frailty. The tales Bercow has to tell do exactly that, give us the skinny from his perspective, and in fine detail etched by a sharp kitchen knife, served in the good mannered way only Englishmen can muster.
Unspeakable is what the sports commentator calls a work of ‘two halves’. The first half is all about his youth until he became a parliamentarian, and then his early days as an MP, the ups and downs, plus a spell of resignation over a principle, and passages on the debates on the Iraq War. It is dull, pedestrian, the tale of a fast forming Colonel Blimp. With the exception of wooing and marrying a woman much taller than himself – understandable, a lot of women are taller than Bercow – there is little of political intrigue to fill ten minutes small talk.
Though decently written, clear and concise, Unspeakable is a tad too egocentric for its own good. The first person singular proliferates every paragraph of every page like hundreds and thousands sprinkled on a sponge cake.
There is compensation for the first half of Unspeakable being something to read for the duration on the toilet. The reward of reading it lies not in discovering great revelatory political moments, he does not have that insight, but in enjoying an autobiography devoted to revenge on colleagues who got the better of the author. The narrative contains a few arrows fired to right a perceived injury. Yes, as I hoped, the second-half is delicious gossip and character assassination of a very high order.
As Speaker, Bercow was a reformer. It did not take him long to get rid of the frilly ruff and wig of his office. He fought for and got, facilities for MP’s children, and for regular school visits. Against abuse from party colleagues, he also got use of the House for debates by the Youth Parliament. He was fair to backbenches who stood to speak.
He was ordered and honest in his dealings with MPs and staff, any accusations of bullying most likely issuing from a pugnacious character rather than ill will. He respected the procedures of his parliament and enforced them, notably when Boris Johnson tried in vain to prorogue parliament into oblivion. He is also as human as one can be being a Tory, he bleeds when wounded.
Bercow’s “order, order!” the last word stretched out until it snapped “oooooorderrr!” became a household favourite, repeated by publicans at closing time, and shouted by harassed parents at their noisy children. Above all, he has a keen eye for the ridiculous in parliamentary behaviour, with the descriptive ammunition to wound an adversary if he felt like it. There are any number of examples to highlight, but with essay length limited, I choose the best for readers to enjoy. If nothing else, it saves buying the book.
Bercow has little to say about Scotland, a huge omission when you think about the times in which he found himself. He’s a tennis player, after all, local club, Wimbledon, not a huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ chap. In fact, he seems oblivious of Scotland, a disease that afflicts a lot of Englishmen until faced with a man wearing a kilt and talking in a strange language, whereupon in order to understand the ‘foreigner’ better, he belittles his attire and accent to lower his level to one over whom he can feel superior.
In general, Bercow is non-judgemental when mentioning the SNP. He certainly has a lot to say about Scottish MPs and cabinet ministers of which there were many in his day before a Scots accent in Westminster was considered a separatist sect, ultimately despised by the rise of the petty English nationalist whose patriotism in unable to countenance other nations as equals.
For obvious reasons I have picked out prominent Scottish politicians but I’ll begin with Vince Cable because of the time frame of people’s memories. Cable was a man who enjoyed a degree of celebrity for predicting the bank crash of 2008 but dissipated his stock rapidly when in coalition with the Tory Party. Overnight he appeared a clod-hopper and doddery. Cable, together with Nick Clegg and the over-enthusiastic Saint Bernard at a children’s party, Jo Swinson, probably helped condemned the Liberal-Democratic party to the Negev Desert sands for a decade or more.
Please note, the quotations are abridged where necessary.
The Gospel According to Bercow
Vince Cable, Liberal-Democrat
“Cable is intelligent, measured and responsible. Yet for all his experience, weight, sincerity, and modest brand of politics, he had very little impact as leader of his party. He was far more effective as his party’s Shadow Chancellor before the 2010 election, and more influential as Business Secretary in the coalition government. As leader, he was unable to rise to the challenge.”
Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative
“Iain Duncan Smith had a calamitous first ten months as Conservative leader, with poll ratings in the toilet and my party looking to be light years away to return to government. Iain made the bizarre decision, never debated in the Shadow Cabinet, to oppose the government’s move to allow same sex parents to adopt children. He was immovable. I announced my resignation. I received a lovely gracious letter from the Leader of the House, Robin Cook. Iain was supremely unwise to make it a party policy and a whipped vote. Ian’s leadership of the party continued to be weak. His performances in the chamber were poor and, increasingly, colleagues felt he had shrunk rather than grown into the office as leader. With his bald head and poor speaking ability he was a dull, grey man. At PMQs, Iain looked terrified and sounded it. He was forever clearing his throat to speak. In a party vote, he lost and accepted his defeat with good grace and the way was clear for the profoundly unattractive Michael Howard.”
Gordon Brown, Labour
“In the Chamber, at prime minister’s question time (PMQs), Brown was nowhere near as formidable as some, my self included, had expected. The contrast between specialist and generalist was stark. As Chancellor Gordon Brown reigned supreme. He knew his briefs backwards. He mastered, even monstered, successive shadow chancellors, Lilley, Maude, Portillo, Howard, Letwin and Osborne. None were able to lay a glove on him. Yet at PMQs he was less assured and was far from convincing. He could not anticipate the range of subjects that would be raised, and, inevitably, could not produce the conclusive responses. Unlike Tony Blair, Brown did not carry a bag of different tools. He had one weapon – the sledgehammer – and used it indiscriminately. With a slip of the tongue in the aftermath of the bank crash he said his government had “saved the world” and was mercilessly ridiculed for saying it. He wanted to be prime minister for well over a decade but didn’t seem to enjoy the role at all.”
Menzies (Ming) Campbell, Liberal-Democrat
“As foreign affairs spokesman from 2001 to 2006 Menzies Campbell was knowledgeable, urbane, fluent, widely seen as a statesmanlike figure, even by those who disagreed with him. But as a leader, he bombed. He lost confidence, suffering stage fright and was ill at ease with the welter of domestic issues he had to address. At PMGs, he raised the plight of old people, prompting the Tory MP, Eric Forth to heckle “Declare an interest!”, causing MPs to burst out laughing. A cruel jibe that highlighted the truth, Campbell was lacking in vim and vigour.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative
“It is no secret some of my allies, people who subscribed to my agenda, were from the Labour Party. Yet for much of my Speakership some were from the Conservative Party. One such was Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative MP for Est Somerset, less affectionately referred to as the member for the eighteenth century, a reference to his traditional views, manner and speaking style. Jacob is a one-off, a singular specimen of humanity. Jacob sits sideways onto the chamber, usually one leg over the other. In order to speak he does not so much stand up as uncoil. Overwhelmingly he speaks without a text or notes, and he addresses the House in perfect English. He does not hesitate, um or ah, but develops a logical argument with admirable fluency. He plays the ball not the man or the woman, exhibiting unfailing courtesy. He has a good sense of humour and is content not only to be teased but to take the mickey out of himself.”
Charles Kennedy, Liberal-Democrat
“In 1999 Paddy Ashdown was replaced as Liberal leader by Charles Kennedy, who hailed from that bastion of Liberal Democratic strength, the highlands of Scotland. He was known as a skilful debater who enjoyed a joke and a drink but was often thought of as lazy. Doing programmes such as BBC’s Have I Got News For You has played to his talent for humour, but in the formal world of Westminster, had done nothing for his reputation as a serious politician. Although I disagreed with his policy on Iraq, he was the only leader to speak explicitly and unhesitatingly against the conflict, what he called an illegal war. Kennedy grew in self-confidence and stature as a leader. He led his party to the left-of-centre voter alienated by the Labour government’s decision to go to war in Iraq, notching up to 62 seats in the 2005 election. Eight months later, after struggling with alcoholism, Kennedy was forced out of the leadership, but there’s no denying that he made a mark.”
William Hague, Conservative
“William Hague was a deft debater, who, with a turn of phrase or a joke, could get the better of the prime minister of the day. He had us rolling in the aisles with his jokes. At one stage, when Labour was torn as to who should be chosen as candidate for mayor of London, Hague cheekily suggested that Tony Blair could divide the job into two, Frank Dobson as day Mayor and Ken Livingston as nightmare. However, although his debating skills and wit shaped him as leader, the public did not take to him, and the Conservatives polls trailed way behind Labour, and specifically not for Hague.”
Theresa May, Conservative
“Three features of her resignation speech struck me. Theresa May talked about the need for compromise, as though that was what she had offered, [the EU] though she had done nothing of the kind. She had cobbled together a policy that neither satisfied the Brexiteers nor the Remainers. She offered no concessions at all. A second feature of her resignation speech was her attempt to describe her policy legacy. It was laughable, for there was none. Theresa May had not only failed on her Brexit agenda, she had on almost everything else she promised to tackle, poverty, knife crime, the crisis in social care, and racial attacks. Finally, a prime minister who had become notorious for her absence of empathy and her robotic reiteration of vacuous mantras, suddenly displayed raw emotion about giving up the leadership of the country she loved. [England.] There was tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat.. I could understand how upsetting it must have been for her, but, candidly, I could not feel much sympathy. There was no such emotion over the victims of Grenfell Tower, those affected by the Windrush scandal, or the daily misery endured by the homeless and those dependent on foodbanks that have mushroomed alarmingly across the UK over the last decade. She was tearful only when adversity affected her.”
Robin Cook, Labour
“The best debater – quickest-witted, sharpest and most formidable in argument – was the late Robin Cook. He was simply brilliant.”
‘Unspeakable’ – Volume 2?
Could there be a second book to follow? There are enough curious omissions from Unspeakable to conclude that there might be another book in the throes of creation, no conspiracy groups, intrigue, drunken behaviour, or porn on computers?
Unspeakable offers the impression Bercow is that dying breed, an old-fashioned one-nation Tory, but with far too much of the unreconstructed Thatcherite in his genes. For one thing, he thinks well of the repellent dissembler Michael Gove, one of Scotland’s worst exports, the phoney Englishman. For another, he rebuked the SNP when they applauded one of their members speeches, a habit borne out of Holyrood practice. “We do not applaud here”, he said. Later he allowed a standing ovation from the House when Tony Blair left parliament, for good, one hopes.
As I finished Unspeakable a wave of melancholy washed over me. Cameron had offered Scotland its freedom on a plate, no strings attached, its wealth given back and, one supposes, full sovereignty to do with as we please. Yet here I was reading a book about a far-right Tory administration ensconced in Number 10 Downing Street, ruling the UK in blunderbuss fashion, hell laying before Scotland unless we rise up and seize the day.
I thought Bercow the last Speaker of whom Scotland had to take note. I thought wrongly.
Unspeakable – John Bercow: the Autobiography, Widenfield and Nicolson, £20.