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“I was born in London in 1966 – a good football year, though I’m only a vague Aston Villa fan. My constituency is only 30 miles from where my parents live in Berkshire.
My father is a recently retired stockbroker and my mother was a magistrate – good Tory stock. My mother’s grandparents were both politicians as well.
I have the most corny CV possible. It goes: Eton, Oxford, Conservative Research Department, Treasury, Home Office, Carlton TV and then Conservative Member of Parliament! It happened somewhat by chance, as I was always interested without ever being particularly active in politics at school or at university.
I enjoyed Eton – because you didn’t have to be particularly good at sport or brilliant academically, but could find a variety of outlets in music, drama or the fantastic art department. It was a big enough school for you to find your own niche, even if that was seeing your friends and misbehaving – though what I got up to is for me to know. Anyway, I wasn’t quite expelled and it’s all long in the past.
I went to work in Hong Kong during my year off in 1985 and travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway, all through Russia, Romania and Hungary. It was before the Gorbachev and Glasnost era of course, so it was an interesting time. I was mostly on my own and it was quite scary at times, especially in Russia. It was unforgettable to see a society that was so frighteningly controlled and repressed.
I studied PPE at Brasenose College, Oxford. I love my free time and can be quite idle – but I did work pretty hard as I loved my subject and had fantastic tutors.
I started off at CCO writing briefs for parliamentary debates on trade and industry and ended up as head of the political section which was doing research and speechwriting for the Chairman. I was then moved to 10 Downing Street to work for John Major on PMQs.
I worked for Major from '90-'92 and then went to the Treasury as a special adviser to Norman Lamont. Working there was a high point for me as the Treasury was full of fantastically bright and dedicated people, and I really enjoyed it.
The low point was being there on Black Wednesday, which was a hugely formative experience in my life. It wasn’t sheer panic but it taught me a lesson that I’ll never forget – that you must not have interest rates imposed on you that don’t fit your economy for any great length of time. We tried everything we could to make that policy work, but it wasn’t going to work. We should never let that happen again and never join the single currency.
I left with Lamont in '93 and went to work for Michael Howard at the Home Office. My main job was writing speeches, but even as a relatively junior advisor it was a great way of learning the system of government. The thing about politicians is that very often the ones the media thinks are the least friendly are often the nicest ones – like Michael Howard. He was one of the kindest, easiest people to work with – a really genuine nice guy.
After being a special adviser I thought it was time to have a real job and hopefully make some real money. So I went off to Carlton Communications where I started off doing government affairs. I ended up doing a whole range of stuff, including investor relations. I can’t say I learnt how to run a company, but I think I did get a good grounding in big business.
I fought the '97 election in Stafford and lost it – I went out with the tide. After another four years at Carlton, I fought and won Witney in 2001. I always dreamed of having the seat. My wife and I were both brought up nearby and I knew the area well. Shaun Woodward, with whom I’d worked briefly at Central Office, had been elected there in 97 and then crossed the floor in 99. The local party that I inherited, therefore, were feeling very let down. But once he went off to St Helens, the media interest calmed down and the campaign was reasonably ordinary. I put the majority up by about 1,000, which I was pleased by. I have really enjoyed every moment here, and have enjoyed the constituency work much more than I thought I would.
I have been married for five years and we have a 10-month-old baby, Ivan. He hasn’t been very well – he has epilepsy and so it’s been a very difficult year. He was diagnosed when he was about three days old, and hearing news like that is such an awful shock. You just have to take every day at a time.
The practicalities of having a sick baby and juggling life here are tough, but the whips have been very good and allowed me a lot of time off, mostly spent in different London and Oxford hospitals.
Obviously becoming a father changes you anyway, but I think becoming the father of a handicapped child changes you even more. You have to learn as you go along, but it helps to open your eyes to what other people are going through. I have learned so much from the people I’ve met through this job as well. We don’t yet know quite what effect the epilepsy is going to have on Ivan – but he will have developmental problems for sure.
Samantha is a designer at Smythsons, and we’re very excited about the new handbag she’s designed and is about to launch. It’ll give Prada and Gucci a run for their money!
I have almost come full circle as I now help prepare Iain Duncan Smith for PMQs – as I did for John Major. But of course it’s very different sitting in 10 Downing Street trying to come up with the answers to everything you could be asked, compared to trying to come up with the ‘killer questions’ at 7:30am on a Wednesday.”
David Cameron was speaking to Daisy Sampson. This interview first appeared in The House in February 2003
“What I would like on my gravestone is: ‘Tony Benn. He encouraged us.’ I’ve tried to understand what’s happening. In a way, I am a student. We are all born into a world we don’t understand, because it’s new, and we all die in a world we don’t understand, because it’s changed. I spend more time trying to understand now than I did as a kid, and then to explain, and then to encourage. Political history is not made by individuals, it’s made by a lot of people working together, so if you can encourage them and assist them you are doing a useful job.
I do think we are now in a political society where we’re managed, when democracy really is about being represented. There’s all the difference in the world between being a representative of your constituency and your convictions and being a sub-agent of the Millbank Tower Corporation, whose job it is to pass the message on to the faithful and tell people what to do.
As I’ve got older, the thing that has really come home to me is the democratic question. Are people spectators of their fate or participants in their future? And that’s an argument that goes well beyond the left or the Labour party. A lot of people now feel they’re being managed, and threatened, and told what to do all the time. That has the effect of discouraging people from doing things for themselves. I think democracy is what we do for ourselves where we live and work, and not what somebody will do for us. That’s my core political faith.
Parliament is a mirror, and at the moment we are in a country which is being deliberately depoliticised, in a party that’s being deliberately demoralised. So people are encouraged to see the Prime Minister as the captain of a fairly successful football team that might do well in the World Cup. There is no role for them whatsoever. Now that is changing.
Looking back, I think perhaps what I am most pleased about is where I identified an issue before others did. For example I spoke in Trafalgar Square – and was bitterly criticised – in support of a well-known terrorist in 1964, and the next time I saw him he had the Nobel Peace Prize and was president of South Africa. I campaigned on the Lords all my life, and now we have some change. I campaigned for a Scottish Parliament years ago. And there was Freedom of Information, and lowering the age of consent. So I’ve planted a few little acorns and there are a few pleasing trees growing. That is a reflection of the way I try to see politics, to look ahead and to plant an idea.
I’ve made many mistakes – the idea that nuclear power was “cheap, safe and peaceful”. The only thing I would like to think is that I never said anything at the time that I didn’t believe, for preferment. I don’t mind at all being proved wrong, as long as when I said it, I believed it, and that’s what I tried to do.
My diaries reflect the non-conformist element in my life. My father had a book by Arnold Bennett called How to make 24 hours out of every day. Everyone is born equal because everyone has 24 hours in the day. My father felt he had to keep a record of what he had done. He kept an account book, which I had to do as a child. I got a penny a week pocket money and another penny if I kept an account of how I had spent the first one. He had a time chart of how he had spent his day. He took the view that work and sleep should equal 24, which ruled out conversation, meals, holidays and everything else. And he kept a diary, which I took on from him. It is the feeling that you have an obligation to account for how you have spent your life.
Then I discovered it not only gave you several bites at your experience, which is the only teacher, but also that while the media tell you what to think about today, and historians tell you what to think about the day before yesterday, yesterday is open for re-examination. My diaries have turned out to be columns of tanks rolling over the one undefended frontier of the recent past. Nobody defends the recent past. It’s been for me my university, really. Of course I don’t write for publication, and I don’t consider the impact. I’m so tired at night, I just put it down as it is. Truth is many sided, and you are entitled to keep you own record.
If I have any regrets, I did put my job first. I’m a political lifer, and my wife, who’s a teacher and writer, carried the burden of the children. How it could have been done differently, I don’t know. Caroline hasn’t been very well, and I’m a carer now, and in a strange way transforming yourself is very satisfying and she is marvellous about it.
I can’t say what I would be like if I was starting out in politics now. My views are entirely based on my own experiences. I was in the war; I was in London during the Blitz; I remember Hitler coming to power; I remember how terrifying war was. There is a funny thing about the Benns – they all move left as they get older. My father was a Liberal and ended up on the left of the Labour party; my grandfather was a Liberal who was well to the left of New Labour; my other grandfather was rather a conservative Liberal. My son Hilary worked for MSF for 25 years, was a councillor for 20 and then an adviser to David Blunkett. He’s come here with as much experience as I had as a cabinet minister. Five members of the family in four generations in three centuries now have been MPs, and we’ve all worked on the basis of our own experience. The first time I went to Number 10 was 70 years ago this year, as a five-year-old to see the Trooping of the Colour.
I was elected on 4 December 1950. I’ve fought and won four by-elections, which compares only with Gladstone and Churchill. That’s why I call myself the Great Uncle of the House.
It’s the teachers I remember. Galileo, Marx and Freud, they were teachers. Whereas people who held high office very quickly fade into the background. Fenner Brockway, Dick Crossman, they were teachers. Mrs Thatcher was a teacher. The real danger was not what she did, but the ideas she implanted in the public mind. She saw power as a pulpit for education, not just as a key to the executive. I’ve always tried to explain and to listen. It’s not legislation that I introduced that I would want to be remembered by, but maybe that I’d illuminated by my argument the territory through which we were going so that people could make choices about which road they wanted to follow. Politics is about life itself.
On my 50th anniversary as an MP, I want a party for everyone who works here – the cleaners and the security people and the secretaries and everyone, as a way of saying ‘thank you’. It would have to be a tea party, for all the people who inhabit this place, who’ve been so kind to me. If I had known what fun it was to be 75 I would have done it years ago. So for this birthday, I would like ‘the gift of eternal age’.
I didn’t realise it, but there is still a last temptation: to be a kindly, harmless old gentleman. I am kindly, I am old, and I could be a gentleman. But I’m jolly well not harmless.”
Tony Benn was talking to Ann Perkins. This interview first appeared in The House in April 2000
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“I absolutely love the role of Speaker,” says John Bercow. Sitting in his magnificent office overlooking the Thames, the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons is typically candid about how much he relishes his duties. Five years after he was first ‘dragged to the chair’, replacing Michael Martin in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, Bercow certainly isn’t standing still.
He’s busy preparing for the two big anniversaries next year – 750 years since de Montfort’s Parliament and 800 years since the sealing of the Magna Carta. And with his Digital Democracy Commission due to report in January and a brand new Education Centre set to open in the summer, he says he’s finding the day job “more rewarding than I ever thought it would be”.
But Bercow is also acutely aware that his critics are ready to pounce at any moment. “Funnily enough, you can’t win with everybody,” he says. “I remember one time somebody I regard as well disposed to me saying to me: ‘One of the criticisms of people less friendly to you than I am, John, is that you appear to enjoy it too much.’
“Well, you know, I enjoy it in the sense I think Parliament is important and it does matter. I would never enjoy one individual’s discomfiture or enjoy one person’s advantage over another. I don’t look at it in those terms. But I do think that Parliament is an important theatre for the exchange of ideas and for the championing of causes and for the resolution of differences.
“And it’s endlessly interesting. I don’t really regard it as hard work. Because I think if you are doing for a living what you find fundamentally stimulating and rewarding, I’m not sure that you think of it in terms of hard work.”
As much as he enjoys chairing daily debates in the chamber, Bercow is clear that it is his wider drive for reform that is central to his mission in the post. This week’s ‘Parliament Week’, a programme of events aimed at reconnecting the public with Westminster, kicked off with him opening the now annual session of the Youth Parliament. Having been elected to the chair in 2009, he hopes his tenure will straddle not just the previous and current parliaments, but also the next one.
“Whether I’m a good Speaker or not is, in the end, not for me to say. Obviously I think I can do the job, otherwise I wouldn’t do it and continue to enjoy doing it and wish to stay in post in the next parliament. But it’s up to people to form their own view.
“All I would say is that I am, in an age in which there’s a pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians, trying to do what it said on the tin. When I stood for election in 2009, I said I want to be a reforming Speaker: I want to catapult the backbencher from the stalls of parliamentary life to centre stage; I want to facilitate greater scrutiny; I’d like to modernise the operations of the House in the interests of better and more effective representation and engagement. And I think I have been doing that, though there is still more to do.”
One of the items on the Bercow ‘to do’ list is the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which is due to report in the New Year. Set up 10 months ago, the commission’s aim was to allow Parliament to keep with the “almost frenetic pace of technological advance”, he says.
“So rather than get government approval for a Speaker’s Conference, which may well have been a protracted enterprise, I thought ‘well, let’s set up something slightly more informal and flexible in which the method is the message’. A lot of the evidence is being taken online.”
The commission has been asking how Parliament can use technology to better scrutinise legislation, policy and spending, as well as help voters to engage with each other and their MPs. It has looked at the possibility of online voting for the public and electronic voting in the Commons, and neither idea is ruled out by the Speaker.
“My very particular concern has been that in this rapidly moving technological age, democracy has to mean more than simply the opportunity for people to put a cross on a ballot paper once every five years,” he says. “I’m not arguing for the replacement of parliamentary democracy with direct democracy. I’m not saying we can return to some sort of Greek city state in which the public can express a view and it will be instantly translated into action.
“But I do think that while preserving the important principle that MPs are there to use their judgement and to reflect on issues and to assess issues – not just to take an opinion poll on every issue and vote accordingly – nevertheless a better, more convenient, more ongoing dialogue between representatives and their voters is surely desirable.”
His main ambition is to improve the decision-making process and to give the public “a much greater sense that they are actually a part of it, they are not just on the receiving end of it”. The use of many more Urgent Questions to reflect topical issues, as well as the popularity of e-petitions being adopted for backbench business debates, is central to the process. “But I still think the dialogue between Parliament and public, between individual MPs and electors, is perhaps not as rapid or convenient as a lot of electors would want.”
Bercow says it would be “desirable” if the Commons held a debate on the commission’s proposals either at the end of this parliament or early in the next. “It won’t be revolutionary change; it will almost certainly be evolutionary change. The challenge is to operate…not by a single grand initiative. The truth is that remaining or becoming relevant, more interesting, more topical, more accessible, more inclusive is a work in progress.
“We need to be more relevant in terms of content – that means we should be debating and discussing the issues that people are debating and discussing in the Dog & Duck. I think we have made some progress by me granting large numbers of Urgent Questions by the backbench business committee granting debates on issues often spawned by e-petitions.”
While not a tweeter or Facebooker himself, the Speaker says he likes to “be kept abreast of” the way the Commons is being reflected on social media. “If something is running in a significant way on social networking sites that relates to Parliament, then I would want to be aware of that because that’s a corporate challenge to all of us, including – perhaps particularly – to me.” But he remains unmoved by the hurly-burly of Twitter trolls. “If you’re asking me do I follow what’s said about me, for example on Twitter – no, I have no interest in that. I just don’t think that matters.”
The rise of social media has led some politicians to see them as an alternative to printed newspapers. What does he make of the internet’s impact on political debate?
“I think on the whole it is a good thing that people can access material a bit more easily and get a straight feed on the internet rather than depending on the intermediary of quite an evaluative and opinionated media. I think it’s a good thing in many ways to have an evaluative and opinionated media but it shouldn’t be the only means by which people can access material or to know what it is that parliament has been talking about.
“In that sense I do think that the growth of social networking sites and of ready electronic communication between citizens is tending to diminish the significance of the conventional media. And of course fewer and fewer people are reading a daily newspaper on the whole.
“Do I think that’s a bad thing? Not necessarily, whether you think it’s a bad thing or not probably partly depends on how high quality you think our newspapers are. I think there are some quality newspapers but there are quite a lot of newspapers that couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be described as quality.”
Prime Minister’s Question Time often draws a huge amount of Twitter traffic, not to say broadcast attention. Bercow has long complained that PMQs often doesn’t reflect well on the House, and he shows no signs of giving up on his campaign. “When there’s an almost incontrollable cacophony, it’s a bad thing,” he says. “We are spray painting our shop window, because what most people see of Parliament is Prime Minister’s Questions.
“Although people who work on the beltway in Westminster often think it’s fine as it is, that it’s great – some members of the media would quite like there to be a fist fight in the chamber – actually, that’s not how the public sees it.
“And the impression I get from going round the country, and from what the limited opinion polling evidence is, is that although the public want there to be robust argument and inquiry, they don’t want there to be a ritualistic shouting match every Wednesday lunchtime.”
Bercow is characteristically pointed about the two party leaders’ previous pledges to change their conduct. “I remember early on his leadership Ed Miliband saying he wanted there to be a more rational discourse,” he says. “And even longer ago I remember the Prime Minister famously saying he wanted ‘an end to Punch and Judy’. It does seem quite a long time since the two party leaders made those statements.”
The party leaders may find it difficult to change their ways, but the Speaker sounds keen on the public taking part in their own form of PMQs. “I’m very open to that,” he says. “There is quite a precious principle that people speak in the chamber of the House of Commons in a normal parliamentary session if they are Members of Parliament and do not if they are not. To abandon that principle would be reckless and foolhardy. So no, we wouldn’t have a ‘PM’s Questions’ session in the chamber, or at any rate not as a formal parliamentary proceeding. But is it possible that we could have direct question sessions between the PM and members of the public on the parliamentary estate? Yes, I think it’s perfectly possible that we could do so.
“Whether it be David Cameron or Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg, perhaps to be chaired by me, or someone else, would I be up for it? Absolutely. I think we ought to be in the market for new ideas for building on what we’ve got.”
He stresses the way he’s tried to get more backbench contributions to oral statements. “We do get more people in contributing than in the past. And as people who were here in previous Parliaments know, my overwhelming preference in almost all cases is to call everybody when there is a Government statement to the House. That didn’t used to be the case. Frequently in the past statements were cut off for whatever reason now that very rarely happens today.”
“Is everything perfect? No. Can the Speaker ever expect to be blame free and uncriticisable? Of course not, people have their different opinions and that’s as it should be. I always make the point that whether I’m a good Speaker or not is in the end not for me to say.”
The Speaker points to what he sees as a contrast between the way MPs are seen locally and nationally.
“One of the things that is quite striking about people’s attitudes to politicians is very simply stated: on the whole people have got a low opinion of politicians. But equally on the whole lots of people think their own MP is pretty good.
“There is a mismatch there because I think at various times most colleagues have got together and exchanged stories and most of us have found that someone and often quite a lot of people in our own constituency will say ‘most of those mps are a complete shower, but you’re an excellent constituency MP. Now if that’s being reproduced in a lot of constituencies, it does suggest that we are doing some things well and not necessarily getting credit for them.”
Scotland’s independence referendum was a lesson in voter engagement, he adds.
And as well as changing the way the Commons interacts with the public, the Speaker says his Commission on Digital Democracy is looking at the language used in Parliament.
“It’s partly perhaps a question of looking at language, the language we use has the scope for change, might it be desirable for us to have a look at some of the terms that we use in parliament and to ask should they really be used. We have a number of quite old fashioned processes that the House could, maybe through the Procedure Committee or Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, usefully look at and decide whether to keep or change.
“I think the use of the word ‘strangers’ in the House still causes considerable misunderstanding and often resentment. That’s a pity, and I don’t think it’s necessary. There may be a case for looking at that.”
Is there also a case for changing the way MPs refer to each other in the chamber, perhaps allowing them to use each other’s names?
“Whether we stick with the terminology of Honourable Gentleman, Honourable Lady, Right Honourable Gentleman, Right Honourable Lady, or whether we move to a different and more modern system, I’m completely open minded on that matter. Would I seek in any way to block a consideration of that issue? Absolutely not.”
He goes on: “There are other things. In Westminster Hall…I think when ‘the Prime Minister’ is uttered from the chair and then the person that stands up is a government whip, it would be confusing to people and people think ‘wait a minute, that’s not the Prime Minister, that’s some unrecognisable government whip or indeed opposition whip, for that matter, taking part’. I think that some of those confusing procedures should be changed.”
Bercow wants the House to be more accessible literally, as well as linguistically. Next year, his dream of a new Education Centre becomes a reality. Building works have started in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the House of Lords, and it is due to open next summer.
“One of the things I’m passionate about in 2015 is the imminent opening of the Education Centre,” he says. “That is going to be a state-of-the-art, hi-tech facility. The thrust of it is simple: it is intended to chart the journey to rights and representation and to enable us to double the number of young people coming through Parliament and getting a flavour of our history, our operations and our future, including their capacity to be part of that future.”
With the Magna Carta and de Montfort Parliament anniversaries approaching, the Speaker is typically keen to use them as an opportunity to look forward as well as back. But alongside an Education Centre, he also wants more reform of the way the Commons conducts its own affairs.
“I think they’ve got to be more than a celebration of the progress we’ve made. They’ve got to be regarded as welcome anniversaries, but also wake-up calls more boldly to innovate and reform the way we go about our business. And the way we try to restore respect for the profession of politics.
“What in the journey of intended improvement should feature next on our agenda? I personally like to think in the next parliament we will continue the progress we’ve made; I hope that we might return to the issue of the need to establish a House Business Committee whereby all business is properly scheduled and timetabled.”
The Speaker points out that such self-government was recommended by the Wright Committee and was “very much a commitment” of the Coalition Government in 2010. “It’s the one major proposal that hasn’t yet been implemented. It was due to be implemented by the third year of this parliament. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened,” he says.
“It would be an opening up of the operations of the House to proper scrutiny and to inspection by media and voters alike, and that seems to me to be a good thing. It’s a great pity that more hasn’t been made of this issue, because it is a procedural matter and doesn’t immediately strike people as sexy.”
“I suspect there may well be an appetite for it to happen. And if so it’s quite possible that progress will be made on that matter in the next Parliament. It is one piece of unfinished business. A lot of people would say the Government is entitled to have a majority on the House Business Committee. The idea would be that there would be a committee of colleagues, it wouldn’t simply be the usual channels in rooms with closed doors deciding what was debated. The government would be substantially represented on such a committee, but so would the Opposition, so would the backbenches. Ideally it could be chaired perhaps by the senior deputy speaker and would meet in public.”
As for his own record to date, Bercow says it’s up to others to ultimately judge, but it’s clear he believes he’s lived up to that 2009 pledge to be a “reforming Speaker”. He points to not just his record in what happens in the chamber or committees, but also to “second-order issues”.
“I’m proud of the fact that for example we have got the first female – and, as it happens, the first black – Chaplain in the history of the House of Commons. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve established a nursery which MPs and staff can pay for; I’m very proud of the fact that we are establishing an Education Centre.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve insisted that everybody who works on the Parliamentary Estate is paid at least the London Living Wage. I’m proud of the fact that we are moving away from zero-hours contracts and saying to people ‘you can have a minimum-hours contract so you’ve got some guarantee of work’.”
The changes are beneficial in themselves and to those directly involved, he says. “Also, they say something about the DNA of the House: what sort of employer are we, what sort of organisation are we; are we more forward-looking or backward-looking? I think we are more forward-looking and inclusive than we once were. There is still a lot more to do.”
Bercow says that some polling evidence suggests the public think Parliament is holding the Government to account better. “But do people on the whole now think their politicians are great? They don’t,” he says. “And on the whole, sadly, they don’t distinguish in huge numbers between Parliament and Government.
“If Government is in bad odour, if the political party leaders are in poor odour, that does tend to have a knock-on effect for Parliament as a whole. So I certainly don’t suggest that we are in any sense restored to full health and vitality in the public mind. I do think that we are out of the emergency ward.”
The Speaker says that getting rid of the “outdated, overly generous, excessively secretive, patently indefensible expenses system” was a big step forward. MPs are working “extremely hard” on behalf of their constituents and this parliament has been more “lively” than its predecessor.
“I think this Parliament has been more topical, more lively, more interesting, more independent minded and more unpredictable than any Parliament I can recall. And that surely has to be a good thing.
“It’s partly because of the Coalition Government and divisions within the Coalition, of course it is. But it’s also because of the mindset of MPs coming in, far more independent-minded MPs, not least on the government side and on the Conservative benches in particular. It’s been a great many people who have just come to the House and decided ‘I’m going to say what I think and vote accordingly’. It’s perhaps been a whips’ nightmare, but it’s been, I think, good for Parliament.”
Bercow can’t resist adding: “And I think it is partly, if I may say so, because I have tried to facilitate the House in what the House wants to debate. And, by the way, certainly Members should be debating what they were expecting to be debating.”
Is he referring to the European Arrest Warrant and the anger expressed last week at the way the Commons was denied an explicit vote on the measure? “Yes,” he replies. “I’m in favour of transparency and straightforwardness. I was told about those arrangements in advance, through officials telling my clerks. The day before, a senior minister sidled up to me and said ‘well, this is how we are going to proceed’.
"And I said ‘Yes, I gather that there isn’t even going to be a vote on the European Arrest Warrant, which I thought was what everybody was expecting’. To which the reply came: ‘Well, there’s a series of measures that require transposing into UK law, there’s that package and the vote will be on that.’ And I said ‘well, I think you will be in for a lot of trouble’.” ‘Trouble’ turned out to be an understatement, given the subsequent backlash from senior Conservative backbenchers.
When it comes to chairing proceedings in the chamber, Bercow says that his rule is to seek out the pithy and the independent-minded.
“If people want to ask propagandistic questions or questions that are just really celebrating the merits of their own party and criticising the merits of the other, then as long as they adhere to basic rules of order, questions are supposed to be about the policy of the Government, then I have to allow that,” he says.
“However, what I can do is look out for people that I know to be independent minded and who I know will be putting a question entirely of their own volition and not something they’ve read off a brief. I do think I stand up for the Parliamentary characters on both sides, I have great respect for the really regular attenders at Question Times, not just PM’s Question Times.”
He namechecks a few examples. “On both sides of the House there are some people who are great regulars. On the conservative side somebody like Philip Hollobone or Philip Davies will spring to mind and on the Labour side, Barry Sheerman, Alison McGovern are real regulars, Paul Flynn, is someone who absolutely wouldn’t have a question scripted for him, he does his own questions. His party or the government for that matter can like it or lump it, I like to think I’m sympathetic to those people. I’m also sympathetic to those people who are splendidly succinct, John Redwood on the Tory side and Gisela Stuart on the Labour side - very pithy.”
One other piece of ‘unfinished business’ is of course the fate of the Clerk of the Commons. Referring to the new Committee on House Governance chaired by Jack Straw, he says: “I have expressed by own view on at least one of the matters that they are considering, the question of whether we should have a separation between clerk and chief executive. And I will as the Speaker very properly should and must rest content with what the House decides.”
As for his own future, Bercow points out that when he was elected in June 2009, he said he’d step aside after nine years. “I made a commitment that I would seek to serve as Speaker until 2018. Nothing’s changed.”
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the way the Speaker relaxes away from Westminster. He tends to read modern fiction rather than political tomes. He swims in a gym near Westminster, 45 minutes each time, four times a week – “you are using every muscle and I can think of all sorts of things when I’m in a swimming pool”. He watches Arsenal football club with his son – “perhaps a really good centre half, I think, would be useful”.
But for Bercow, his main passion outside politics remains tennis. He plays occasionally – “I had a hit with Nick Clegg recently which I enjoyed, a brief hit with him, and I’m keen to play him in a match at some stage” – but his real love is watching the game. And the person he loves watching most is Roger Federer.
“All people I work with know I’m an obsessive Federer fan. This year, I think Federer so far has played around 80 matches and I think I’ve seen 67 of them,” he reveals. “I regard him as the greatest player of all time. It’s quite a privilege to watch him.
“I went to talk to him at the O2 [arena] the other day. He’s incredibly gracious. He’s hugely popular; he’s very forthcoming; he answers questions very candidly; his play is very graceful as well as effective; he glides around the court apparently effortlessly. And he’s a great sport. Like most great competitors he hates losing, but when he does lose he’s gracious in defeat.
“I get the impression that although he’s nearer the end of his career than the beginning, I think he might be going for some while yet…while he’s still performing so well and he clearly loves it.”
Nearer the end of his career than the beginning, performing well and clearly loving his job. He won’t say it, but as John Bercow gets ready for another parliament, perhaps those words could equally apply to the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons.
BERCOW ON… HIS DIGITAL DEMOCRACY COMMISSION
“I still think the dialogue between Parliament and public, between individual MPs and electors, is perhaps not as rapid or convenient as a lot of electors would want.”
BERCOW ON… THE SCOTTISH REFERENDUM
“You couldn’t say there wasn’t buy-in to the process from the voters, because there was. I rather suspect that involving 16 and 17-year-olds was an important part of that.”
BERCOW ON… GOOD CONSTITUENCY MPS
“People have got a low opinion of politicians. But equally, on the whole lots of people think their own MP is pretty good.”
BERCOW ON… THIS PARLIAMENT
“I think this parliament has been more topical, more lively, more interesting, more independent-minded and more unpredictable than any parliament I can recall.”
BERCOW ON… A HOUSE BUSINESS COMMITTEE
“People have been looking at it for quite a long time; it would be very good if we got progress from ‘looking at’ to ‘deciding on’.”
Words: Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Parliamentary debates and jokes about pop culture rarely make easy bedfellows. Nothing illustrates a politician’s estrangement from the world outside Westminster like a ham-fisted reference to music or reality TV, even if it does produce an affected guffaw from a chamber with a pretty low bar for comedy. But just occasionally a shrewd politician comes up with the goods and delivers a moment of levity which not only prompts genuine laughter, but makes a crystal clear point and piques the public’s interest, too.
Twice in recent months Baroness Stowell has shown she does a nice line in the latter. First, as the Lords debated same-sex marriage, the then minister used a fantasy retelling of George Clooney’s love life to explain the technicalities of adultery law, even imagining the actor having a series of affairs with various male and female peers, including herself – “and who could blame him?” she coyly added. The second moment came this summer, as peers’ anger erupted over the decision to deny her full Cabinet status, and as – in the words of Baroness Boothroyd – “the gale-force winds” from the upper house were lashing at the door of Number 10. The new Leader of the Lords rose to her feet to assure a restive chamber that she would do her job as well as any of her male predecessors. “Noble Lords might want to think of me as the Beyoncé of the House. I am an independent woman – and a single lady,” she almost sang, her self-deprecating style going some way to cut through the tension and defuse the situation.
It was a perfectly pitched response to her delicate position, striking the right balance between acknowledging the House’s grievances, saving face and defending the Prime Minister’s decision – while dropping just a hint that perhaps her sympathies lay as much with her irked colleagues as her under-fire boss. And as the ‘Baroness Beyoncé’ headlines promptly topped almost every news report, it suggested the former Downing Street press office PA still knows a thing or two about securing a positive spin on a potentially damaging story.
It’s a maxim which has guided her ever since she started her first job selling cakes over the counter aged 14. “When I was growing up my great desire, the urgency I felt, was to get to work. Starting work was the same as being an adult, you know? And I wanted to start earning some money for myself,” she explains as we sit down in her spacious leader’s office behind the red benches, a world away from the Nottinghamshire bakery where her working life began. “So for me, whether I’m talking to teenagers in schools or whoever, if I can put the success I’ve achieved down to one thing – if other people want to define it as success – it’s very much that attitude to work, a desire to do my very, very best at whatever job I’ve found myself doing. Whether that’s been the most junior job I’ve ever had or this job now, it’s a desire to make the most out of the opportunities that I’ve been able to either seize myself or – in this case – have been given to me by the Prime Minister.”
But the circumstances in which this particular opportunity was given, and the row over the decision to deny Stowell full-blown Cabinet status, ensured her time as leader got off to a problematic start. To make matters worse, news of her non-Cabinet salary – a full £22,000 less than that received by her male predecessor – reignited concerns about the Conservatives’ ‘women problem’, stoked again in recent weeks when the Prime Minister became the only one of the three main leaders to decline to wear Elle magazine’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt.
Stowell – who replies with an enthusiastic “of course!” when asked if she considers herself a feminist – flatly rejects any suggestion that her leader has a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to women, and says the Conservative party, too, should “be judged on what we do, rather than what media commentators say”. “During the time David Cameron has been leader there’s been a huge effort within the party to encourage women to come forward into politics,” she says, pointing out that Cameron has recently given peerages to seven “incredibly dynamic women”, including Karren Brady and Joanna Shields.
But the women already involved in politics also have a responsibility to make some more noise about their achievements, she adds. “We need to encourage more women to come forward in politics, and the way to do that is for us to be clearer about what it is we do, what it is that we achieve through politics. We need to be able to show that there’s some real purpose to getting involved; whether it’s at the national level, being able to change the law in some way, or at councillor level, being able to say there is a real point in trying to get into local politics because you can really make a difference to people’s lives.”
And in her short time in the Lords, Stowell certainly has made a difference. Her assured performance in masterminding the passage of the Same Sex Marriage Bill through the upper house won her praise from all quarters, leading to both PinkNews and the gay rights group Stonewall awarding her their ‘Politician of the Year’ gongs and even sparking talk of the peer being a new ‘gay icon’.
While many supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage expected the more traditional second chamber to throw a spanner in the bill’s works, the respectful manner in which Stowell courted those with reservations, her shrewdness in tailoring her arguments and the good humour she brought to the debates – including those arch references to an adulterous George Clooney – ensured a relatively harmonious process. In the end, more Conservatives in the Lords backed the bill than opposed it – something which can’t be said of the Commons.
“It was important for me as the minister responsible to show huge respect to people who were unsure about their views, to give them the proper space to question the legislation, to know that they were absolutely legitimate in their position,” she says. “But if I was going to be successful, I had a real responsibility to explain what the benefits were – why people should support it. I wanted to be able to explain the importance of marriage, to be able to say it was about recognising people for who they are.
“What we were able to do in this House was to pass a piece of legislation which was very progressive, and do so in a way which minimised any divisiveness around any of our debates, because we were respectful in the way we debated it. It was a resounding victory for this House.”
The debate was the upper chamber at its best, she says, suggesting the amicable manner of the bill’s passing has even contributed to the bounce in public support same-sex marriage has enjoyed in the months since. “I think that’s in part due to the way in which we did that.” But it’s also a reminder, she adds, of the benefits of the Lords’ unique way of working, particularly “in an age when the public have concerns about the relationship between people and power”.
“I think it was important, the way in which this House was able to demonstrate to the public how it operates and the benefits of this House. The way we do our business here, it’s important that we do it in a way that’s different to the Commons. We bring an approach which is a little less political, a little less rowdy. It is more deliberative; it can be more thoughtful. But it is focused always to that point of serving the national interest and making sure that we are trying to deliver an outcome which is going to benefit the people outside,” she says. “I don’t think we should underestimate that our approach to our work, the nature of us being a self-regulating House, the way in which we conduct ourselves, is an important part of how the political system can start to rebuild its relationship with the public.”
If there is one thing that motivates her leadership, Stowell continues, it is her desire to ensure the House remains resolutely focused on proving its relevance to ordinary people’s lives. “In doing this job, my main concern is how this House serves the people outside – and I will always have the people outside as the main focus of my approach to my decisions, to the way in which I have to act as leader,” she explains. “Ideally, what I would love to think is that we as an institution, this great British institution which is the House of Lords, is seen as the most relevant British institution, working on behalf of the people outside, and is recognised as doing that consistently.”
And while her view is that the House “currently works well overall”, peers must continue to seek improvements “to make sure we deal with anything that might be perceived to dilute that commitment to the public interest,” she says, citing the successful bill brought forward by Dan Byles to allow retirement from the Lords and the expulsion of peers sentenced to more than 12 months in prison, as well as Baroness Hayman’s proposed Expulsion and Suspension Bill, which would tighten the sanctions regime and allow the suspension or expulsion of peers for misconduct. “I think it will be interesting to see the progress of that bill,” she says.
But with Labour now committed to replacing the Lords with an elected senate, and the reform-minded Lib Dems still hoping to hold the balance of power next year, Stowell accepts the debate over more wholesale change to the second chamber is likely to be reignited after 2015.
“Clearly as an appointed peer, I don’t have a democratic mandate myself to decide how this country should be governed. I am appointed,” she says. “But I think we have to acknowledge that all three political parties are committed to an elected second chamber. They differ on why, they differ on how and when to make that change; when it will come forward again, I don’t know. But all three parties are united in that principle.”
Those decisions on Lords reform will have to come from the Commons and the Government after 2015, she says, although she adds pointedly that she finds Labour’s pledge “curious”, given the party “already had that opportunity this parliament and didn’t take it”. But she says until that reform is agreed peers have a duty “to continue to improve our effectiveness, for as long as we are appointed”.
“I don’t think, just because the three main parties are all committed in principle to an elected second chamber, that should mean that while we remain appointed we shouldn’t work hard for the public, and also make the changes we think are necessary.
“What I want to ensure is that as leader of an appointed house, we are as effective as we can be. That means focusing all the time on serving the public outside. And if we focus on trying to do things that improve things for people outside this House, then actually we’re a long way towards my most ambitious of objectives, which is for us to be perceived as the most relevant British institution operating today.”
"I was not born into the Labour Party, I chose it because I saw it was the only party which believed in fairness, in standing up for ordinary working people who are not born with power, wealth or privilege, and in people acting together to achieve more than they can alone. I suppose the first issue which got me politically active was the anti-apartheid movement. I think the same sense of moral outrage and moral purpose which lay behind that movement fires most Labour Party members, and I am no different.
I think my political philosophy has crystallised over the years and I learned a great deal in Parliament from Neil Kinnock and John Smith. I believe strongly that it is within the family and the community that we learn the values of decency, self-respect and respect for others – British values that I believe the Labour Party shares.
Becoming Leader of the party brought home to me something I already knew – which is that Labour had a long way to go before it was once again thought of as the natural party of government. Many people are angry at the Tories and their betrayal over tax, which they promised to cut but actually raised by £800 a year, their betrayal over crime, which they promised to cut, but which has doubled, and their betrayal of homeowners by promising cheaper mortgages and instead reducing MIRAS. People are ready to look at Labour. They like what they see, but we have to deepen their commitment. That is our task. My judgement was that we did not need a series of minor adjustments but a quantum leap to make us electable. I wanted to continue the reforms, first made by Neil Kinnock and then by John Smith, that took us away from the dark days of the early 1980s when, frankly, we were unelectable, to the position we are in today. But, as I keep stressing, we have a mountain to climb, we have not won an election for 21 years and there is never any room for complacency in the Labour Party, however well we may be doing in the polls.
I do understand party members who feel the last year has been one of almost breathless change, but my judgement is that we needed to make those changes in order to put the party’s core beliefs in a modern setting, to update our organisation and structure. New Labour is not old Left and not New Right; it is a reinvigorated party of the left of centre. It is a forward looking alternative to the Tories, a radical party that rejects some of the bureaucratic solutions of the old Left and the market dogma of the New Right, which has been shown not to work, and instead forges a new agenda around our core values and our belief in building a strong civic society.
New Labour reclaims ground of which we should have never let go. Words like freedom, responsibility, family, efficiency; these are Labour words and we should never have let the Tories take them from us. It is right that with opportunity comes responsibility. It is right that we are the party that supports the family.
It staggers me that, after four election defeats, there are still one or two people in the party whose only criticism is that we are becoming a ruthless election-winning machine. I hope that is the case, because only then can we start to renew Britain. Only in some parts of the Labour Party could you be criticised for wanting to win power. That is one of the reasons why we haven’t. Too many people think, just as they have for the last 15 years, that is must be in the bag this time, or that if it isn’t in the bag that we should not change anything to win.
Let’s be clear. The British people have failed to elect us four times in succession and it would be an insult to turn up on their doorsteps at the next election and present them with exactly the same as they have been offered before. Life moves on, the world changes and we must change with it, otherwise all we can do is protest from the side-lines as the Tories run down our country.
The whole point about changing Clause Four of our constitution was not to abandon principle, but to reconnect the party to it. To state clearly and boldly what our fundamental beliefs are. People come into the party to attack poverty and discrimination, to protect the environment, to promote opportunity and to ensure that power wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many and not the few. That’s all in the new Clause Four. People aren’t joining the party in record numbers because we are giving up on our beliefs, but because we are connecting with them once again, only this time in a way that people think is relevant as we approach the 21s century.
We have a clear sense of what we want to achieve in government. I would like to think that we could put in place reforms that would radically reduce the levels of long-term unemployment and start putting the economy back on track so that we are investing for long-term success. I would like to put in place a revolution in schools standards; we can no longer tolerate failing schools and children not getting the best start in life. I would also like to replace the internal market in the NHS, so that doctors once again treat patients free from paperwork and patients can once more rely on the NHS.
I would like to think that my leadership is based on a strong sense of direction and purpose – it is for others to judge if I am a nice guy. The British people have had enough of rudderless, feeble leadership and want to feel they know where they are going and that they do not have to settle for second best. It is a great honour to be Labour leader and, even though I am now far more aware of what a difficult job it is and the strain it can put on family life, I don’t regret taking the decision to stand. So far my three children seem to have coped well with everything. My ideal way of winding down is to spend time with Cherie, Euan, Nicky and Kathryn, leading as normal a life as possible, or playing tennis with friends. Our first child was born nine months after I came in here, so they have always lived with politics in the background.
This is a very important conference for us. I want the message to be that by having the courage to change ourselves, new Labour is strong and more able to change Britain for the better. We are putting forwards a programme that contrasts strongly with that of the Tories. Few people want to vote Tory. After this conference I hope they are more likely to vote Labour because they recognise that we speak for their concerns and aspiration… for decent schools, for saving the NHS, for cutting crime, for cutting long-term unemployment and reforming the welfare state. In short, because we are a party that believes in giving everyone the chance to make Britain succeed.
I am never quite sure about those “What you like to be remembered for?” questions because I am certainly not thinking of leaving politics yet. My aim is to win the election. But when I do go, I would like to be remembered for serving my country well and helping to create a more just, united society."
Tony Blair was talking to Fiona Millar. This interview first appeared in The House October 1995.