The Sunday Magazine

Speaker John Bercow reflects on 10 years of keeping British parliamentarians in line

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons during one of the most volatile periods in British parliamentary history, is stepping down this month.

John Bercow says people either think of him as a 'fearless champion' or a 'terrible bugbear'

John Bercow is stepping down this month after 10 years as Speaker of the U.K. House of Commons. (Submitted by Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament)

After presiding over the most volatile period in modern United Kingdom politics for a decade, Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow will soon have his last day on the job. 

With his booming voice, quick-witted comebacks and wicked sense of humour, Bercow has become an international political rock star of sorts, through online videos and memes.

The long-serving member of Parliament for Buckingham announced in September that he will step down from the Speaker's chair on Oct. 31, or when the current session of Parliament is dissolved, whichever comes first. 

After being elected for four consecutive terms as Speaker, and serving under four prime ministers, Bercow is exiting at a time of high drama and tension in the U.K. He describes Brexit as the nation's most difficult political issue in the post-war period. 

"At the moment, there is great anger, and to some degree … mutual incomprehension," he told Sunday Edition host Michael Enright. "One side of the argument simply cannot understand how the other can think as it does." 

Two weeks ago, when tempers in the House were particularly volatile, he made an impassioned speech, calling the internal culture "toxic" and imploring lawmakers to treat each other as "opponents, not enemies."

"Whether it was the angriest the House has ever been, I can't say," Bercow said.

"It was different and worse than anything I'd known in the last 22 years." 

Union and EU fags flutter outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, where Bercow has worked for the last 22 years. (Niklas Halle'nAFP/Getty Images)

'Order! Order! Order!'

Though the Brexit era may represent a high watermark for incivility, imploring MPs to behave civilly and follow the rules has always been an essential part of Bercow's job. 

His style is unique and memorable. He's known for shouting "Order!" — often many times in a row. During a chaotic Brexit vote a few months ago, Bercow hushed a simmering House by urging members to show "Zen. Restraint. Patience."

In another instance, he bellowed at MP Michael Gove: "Behave yourself. Be a good boy, young man!"

He has also been known to respond to those who disagree with his style that he does not give "a flying flamingo" what they think.

He described his job as a continuous work in progress, in which he urges MPs to listen before replying and to keep their tempers in check. 

"You don't achieve order and keep it permanently. You have an orderly situation and then there can be a conflagration over something," he said.

"I try to be fair and I try to be humorous, and I think I've got better at it over the years.... But, you know, I sometimes get it wrong."

A 'Marmite character' 

One thing Bercow says he didn't get wrong was his decision to reveal that he had voted Remain in the Brexit referendum. 

"I knew in my heart as well as in my head that I'd been scrupulously fair in the chamber between Brexiteers and Remainers," he said.

"So the idea that it would cause me to be excoriated and that people would say, 'Ah, this is proof of his bias' didn't at the time occur to me."

Though the disclosure prompted criticism from Tory MPs that Bercow had betrayed his bias, he says he stands by his choice despite the "minor grief" it has caused. 

Bercow captured during a heated moment during the Brexit debate in March. (Reuters)

"I didn't think there was anything objectionable about saying in the referendum, as a private citizen, this is how I voted."

Writing in the Guardian earlier this year, political correspondent Jessica Elgot said that Bercow had inspired "more fear, anger and adoration than any other [Speaker] in the role in recent history." 

Bercow acknowledges his bombastic style isn't everyone's cup of tea. 

"I am something of a Marmite character," he said, referring to the salty British spread that people typically either love or hate. 

"People must make their own assessment as to whether I've been a fearless champion of the rights of parliamentarians individually and Parliament institutionally, or whether they think I'm a terrible bugbear of whom they can't wait to be rid." 

What comes next? 

One of his missions, he says, has been to interest and excite young people in the machinations of government. Bercow speaks regularly to students and he is the first Speaker to preside over the U.K. Youth Parliament in the House of Commons, something he has done annually over the past decade.

"I feel that if we want — as largely middle-aged [politicians] — ever to be respected by young people, we must show some respect for young people," he said. 

As for what's next, Bercow says he's "keen still to make some contribution to British public life in the future, and to be able to speak up on big issues." 

Still up in the air is the possibility that Bercow will be elevated to the House of Lords — the traditional next step for House of Commons Speakers. 

"We shall have to see whether that happens," he said.

For now, Bercow is content to close this chapter of his career as an MP and Speaker, which he describes as "the greatest privilege and honour of [his] professional life."

"Although I've no plans to die tomorrow, if I were to die tomorrow, I would die happy," he said. 

Written by Kate McGillivray and Talin Vartanian. Produced by Talin Vartanian.



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