March 10, 2017, by Liz Cass
John Bercow: Parliament in an Anti-Politics Age and a cat called Order…
Speaking at The University of Nottingham the Rt. Hon. John Bercow outlined his work in reforming the archaic institution, making it more accessible and engaging for voters.
In the lecture Parliament in an Anti-Politics Age he addressed the 500-strong audience by praising the University’s ‘zest’, ‘restlessness’ and ‘spirit of innovation’, before explaining how frequently he used the word order.
He said: “I was asked that very question by a primary school child via Skype this Monday and I replied in the region of 20.
“But since I am in the company of friends I shall confess that was something of an understatement, and perhaps just one side of the ledger. That may be the frequency I use the word in the chamber but I also utter the word many times a day in the apartment above, which is where I live with my family.
“This is not a reflection of their behaviour but simply because we have a domestic pet, a cat, whose name, appositely, is Order.”
The Speaker also joked about his stature, commenting that while he is short he believed himself perfectly formed, before talking about his role in the Commons.
In his role, a position he referred to as an ‘impartial umpire of the political game, rather than a player in it’, he raised the importance of having a good memory.
“The first prerequisite is that the Speaker has to have a reasonable memory, there is an expectation that he or she will know the name of every colleague and the party that colleague represents… The Speaker is also supposed to know where members stand, which vantage point they come from, so they can facilitate the widest expression of opinion and views during a debate,” he said.
Since his election to the role of Speaker in 2009 Mr Bercow has brought about a renaissance of Urgent Questions (which require the relevant Government Minister to attend Parliament) and a change in the chairing of select committees. He has introduced a nursery on the parliamentary estate, an education centre to engage young people, he has ensured all working on the estate were paid the living wage and that no members of staff were on zero hours contracts unless they specifically requested them.
He said a back bench debate on Hillsborough led to chain of events which caused a reconsideration of what happened in 1989 and a ‘welcome, if belated, exoneration of those fans who lost their lives that day’.
But he acknowledged there was still more to be done. He said: “I believe the Speaker should get out a bit more, listen, communicate and engage. Doubtless in due course a successor will do things differently. But there is no point in dressing up and looking important and being completely inaccessible from the people who put us there.”
Do you court controversy?
Members of the audience put several questions to the Speaker following his lecture. One asked about whether he courted controversy or simply found himself in it.
He answered: “I don’t court it! The Speaker does have a long established role and locus and at times that requires an opinion. The concept of impartial opinion is tautologous. I see my role as keeping the best of our traditions and reforming the rest but you can’t be a reforming speaker without causing controversy. I try to do the right thing by Parliament and the country.”
When asked about how MPs can improve public levels of trust in them he suggested ‘promising less and delivering better’.
The Speaker’s visit to Nottingham was a follow up to Nottingham in Parliament Day, a University of Nottingham initiative in October 2016 which saw more than 100 organisations descend on Westminster, holding 45 events to promote the city.
Last night’s lecture also saw Mr Bercow reprise his role as quiz master for a game of University Challenge – with academics from The University of Nottingham taking on regional politicians. The match was a chance for academics to prove themselves after suffering a humiliating defeat to politicians during Nottingham in Parliament Day.
Thankfully, after answering questions on amino acids, Sir Peter Mansfield and beef, among other topics, the University team took the crown 120-55.
To find out more about who was involved and what the impact of Nottingham in Parliament Day has been, you can read the Impact and Review report.