The Speaker of the House of Commons is an important position within British politics. The Speaker’s primary role is to facilitate debate and keep order, and as such, they are the highest authority in the Commons. As noted by Jenkins et al (2019, p.164):
‘Speakers of the House of Commons are generally experienced MPs who can claim the respect of MPs on all sides of the House. The speaker arranges parliamentary business with the leaders of the main political parties, ensures that proper procedure is followed and presides over debates…’
Furthermore, Speakers are also able to discipline MPs and suspend them for disorderly conduct. Most of these offences are relatively minor, such as the recent incident (July 2021) when Dawn Butler was removed from the Commons due to using ‘unparliamentary language’ (by stating the PM – Boris Johnson – had lied, and thereafter refusing to retract the comment). Others incidents include MPs not returning to their seat when instructed or being rather brash and handling the ceremonial mace (in 1988, Ron Brown went as far as throwing the mace on the floor, which earned him a 20 day suspension).
The Speaker can also suspend the sitting of Parliament if they believe it is needed, due to fear of ‘grave disorder’. This has happened in recent decades due to protestors coming into the Commons to make a scene, as was the case in 2004 when Tony Blair was pelted with flour-filled condoms from the campaigning group Fathers4Justice.
The role of Speaker stretches back over the centuries and a key aspect is to act as an impartial facilitator. This is shown with the Speaker giving up their party loyalty when becoming elected. This position was outlined by former Speaker Michael Martin:
‘…a Speaker has a clear duty to every section of the House, especially to Back Benchers. It is the Speaker’s duty to serve the House, not the Executive…’
The image of Speaker has changed in recent decades. In 1992, Betty Boothroyd became the first woman to serve as Speaker, and in recent years the official style of dress – with silk stockings and wig – has been discarded. John Bercow preferred to wear a suit with a gown, thereby saving the full ceremonial dress for more important occasions. Thankfully, some of the other silly parliamentary ceremonial features remain, such as the dragging of the newly elected Speaker to their chair.
The position of Speaker has seemingly become more visible in recent years. In 2009, Michael Martin was the first Speaker to be forced out of office in 174 years, due to his handling of the expenses scandal. His successor, Bercow, was heavily criticised for his vocal involvement in debate and chastising of MPs. Bercow has been noted as allowing more back benchers to get involved in parliamentary business, however, his actions during the Brexit debates led to accusations of becoming too partisan. Bercow’s successor – Lindsay Hoyle – stated that he would be a ‘transparent’ Speaker, and that ‘this House will change, but it will change for the better’.
In summary, the Speaker’s role is needed to ensure that Parliament functions in day-to-day business. It is difficult to consider how the Commons would be able to operate without somebody chairing discussion and debate. Furthermore, the underpinning of the Speaker being an MP is also vital to ensure that the Commons maintains its autonomy. However, the recent changes to the dress of the Speaker suggests that it will continue to modernise in a visual sense, and it is arguable if Bercow’s more vocal involvement will set a trend for successor Speakers, especially during an age of the growth of partisanship. In the meantime, I shall enjoy the understated role of Speaker in bringing “order” to the Commons.
Very useful! Thank you
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