On the 10th of January, Prof. Nicholas Allen announced that the recently resigned Speaker of the House of Commons would be gracing the hallowed halls of Royal Holloway with a talk by the name of ‘A Tale of Two Parliaments’.
The day of his highly anticipated appearance at Holloway started at 7:58am when Prof. Oliver Heath notified students that Bercow would be joining the Politics International Relations and Philosophy Department, and ended with a crowded lecture theatre of nervous starstruck smiles and raucous laughter.
Whilst the announcement was expertly timed on the morning of Bercow’s talk by Prof. Oliver Heath, it left students from across the ideological spectrum shocked, outraged and ecstatic. And why wouldn’t we be? Adore or despise him, he is an icon of British political discourse. Like many other giants in British contemporary politics throughout the last 10 years: from Cameron to Johnson, it is difficult to ever imagine one joining the faculty of your university outside of the gilded corridors of Oxbridge. Let alone a man who stood toe to toe with four Prime Ministers with the power and precedence of Parliament at his fingertips. Bercow has never shied away from the spotlight, never retreated from a fight for Parliamentary sovereignty, and never backed down when peers deemed his numerous outreach schemes as ‘below stairs’. Away from his fiery determination and historic standoffs, his rise in British politics has been widely regarded as powerful and inspirational. Across campus shock and excitement were expected, whilst certain parts of his speech were not.
John Bercow walked into the Shilling Lecture Theatre with an exuberant smile on his face. The audience’s joy at his arrival made it seem as though they were none the wiser of his political shadow and cheered once his grey hair appeared in a sea of PIR committee members and PIRP lecturers at the entrance. Though, the tension from these brewing events was palpable to anyone aware of politico twitter. The moment Prof. Nicholas Allen introduced him, the applause was raucous and long-lasting and Bercow’s smile was Cheshire-like. He began with an anecdote regarding the elephant in the room, his height, and continued playing the humours of the audience with his innate command of language and his jolly spirit. Once the audience was at ease after the ice-breaker and the nervous awe began to wear off, he addressed the accusations of bullying.
‘I have never bullied anyone, anywhere, at any time…’
Bercow spoke of his strong manner in Parliament but assured the audience that he was not guilty of any allegation of bullying. He spoke candidly and passionately, questioning the lodging of the complaint within the political narrative since his departure from the House of Commons. He spoke of hope for the future and new challenges as a Professor, youthful in his giddiness, before moving on to his tale of two parliaments under his term as Speaker.
The details of the story were familiar to the audience but the perspective was unique and fresh. The Tory Prime Minister’s trust in Nick Clegg to prevent a Brexit referendum result, the splitting of a kingdom, and the ensuing chaos. Unlike many who would have the U.K. remain, he accepts this country’s impending fate as the 31st of January looms closer, but clarifies to the audience his true opinion on Brexit.
‘The biggest foreign policy blunder in the post-war period’.
Final point delivered, he continued on to discuss what he saw as the confusion of the government under the Rt Hon. Theresa May in deciding what Brexit truly meant, the hung election of 2017, Corbyn’s rise as opposition power, and how a Brexit at any cost would impact the UK. His perspective was one that was not uncommon held by the public during the trying past years but took on another life when he, a man who had witnessed true Parliamentary chaos from an elevated position, told his story to a room full of rapt students and academics.
‘A vivid imagination would be required to imagine Brexit being better than remain’.
From Brexit chaos to parliamentary reform, he then began to explore his lasting impact on the House of Commons. Mocking the old shooting galleries and acknowledging that in many respects he was not as privileged as many of his peers…
‘I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, let alone a silver trolley service’.
Stating further that claims to social mobility from those with impoverished backgrounds were the strongest claims, and when questioned by a student, went on to say that public institutions need to focus on how they help people from a range of backgrounds.
It is clear to say that he did not regret his lasting impact on parliament, from the addition of a creche to his calling on 17th Century procedure to prevent May’s government taking a third meaningful vote on Brexit when he felt it was the right thing to do. Though controversial at times, exampled by his public outrage over Johnson’s prorogation of parliament from his sunbed in Turkey, he seemed to regret little to nothing during his time as Speaker. One can only aspire to the level of joy and contentment a man like Bercow can have after a long and stressful career, to laugh along with students as he gave spot-on imitations of peers.
When students were allowed the chance to ask this parliamentarian titan questions, he touched on the last of the political demons that snapped at his heels, on the prompting of the Despatch Box Editor-in-Chief: the peerage. He began with a preamble where he was aware that once a Speaker’s term concludes there is a certain convention in the house to push the Speaker away from the politics of parliament. He understood the rationale but clarified that the impression was made that 230 years of precedence would be followed, and a peerage would be offered. When Bercow discovered that was not the case, he had resolutely decided to not lose any sleep over it. Since then we all are aware that Labour expressed the intention to nominate him for a peerage, one would guess to spite the Conservatives, and Bercow agreed to be nominated
The Ex-Speaker finished by touching on the freedom to debate backed up by the Bill of Rights, parliamentary spending issues, impartiality, and checks and balances on government. Finally, Bercow finished telling his epic tale, imparting his final knowledge and lessons learned as if Brexit were simply one of Aesop’s many fables. Goodness knows many would prefer this to be a cautionary tale.
The event ended with many smiles and pictures in the excess, and though Bercow was not in parliament anymore, he was beaming at the future of a Professorship as opposed to a peerage.
Written by Jessica Lee