I seem to remember a poem by Ogden Nash that goes something like this:
Let us pause to consider the English
Who, when they pause to consider themselves,
Come all over reticent and tinglish.
Very amusing, but based on the prevailing myth of British stiff-upper-lip rectitude. My conclusion, after living among them for eleven years, was that such myths by no means apply to all the English; rather, my experience was that if one sat down in a bus next to a working-class English person, more often than not within five or ten minutes he or she would have told you all the main facts about his or her life, including what was wrong with the husband or wife, as such, what were their own main physical ailments, and the trouble they were having with their drug-addicted 25-year-old son.
I remember an occasion on which trans-Atlantic seamen went on strike. Since Montreal was their usual first North American port of call, at the height of the strike I went to Liverpool in search of their union headquarters. Eventually I discovered it upstairs from a smallish café down near the waterfront. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, and could hear a tremendous racket from above wafting down the stairs that sounded like a contentious strike meeting in a full hall was under way. Taking my courage in both hands, I crept up the stairs, hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be one of these unions that hate the press, in which case I might expect a rough reception. But I needn’t have worried. All I found upstairs were three or four people engaged in a passionate discussion about their local football team. So much for English reserve.
Yet, as I pause to consider the English in this epoch-making Brexit year, a good place to start would be with the Speaker of their House of Commons, John Bercow, a Conservative Member of Parliament who has held the Speaker’s chair since 2009, and who has made it known he will resign from that position midway through this year.
I think Bercow could be described, if I may use a vernacular phrase (and one that he would no doubt rule unParliamentary), as a mischievous little buggar. It is said that when he first got into politics he was an extreme right-winger, and when he first stood for the job of Speaker he won it without the support of many members of his own party, but he has since become the first Speaker since the Second World War to have been re-elected three times.
Speakers of the British House during my eight years as a reporter covering the House, tended to be of the stuffy, ultra-conservative mould, always, unless my memory betrays me, wearing the long white wig. Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, MP for the rock solid Tory constituency of London and Westminster, affected an advanced upper-class persona as he called the house sternly to order. And he was followed by the first Labour Party man elected to the office, Dr Horace King. I don’t remember anything especially interesting about either of them, except the way Hylton-Foster had of saying after holding the result of a vote in his hands, “I think the ayes have it, the ayes have it,” the use of the “I think…” being a slight affectation.
Anybody who likes a good show should Google John Bercow, who really puts on a performance, making longish statements to any member he is wanting to call to order for some reason, his statements peppered with all sorts of friendly advice, or admissions that he has known the member for years and has a great affection for him, but he is getting out of control and really must learn to behave himself. He is obviously a man of considerable wit, but also one who takes seriously his job of representing the interests of the House of Commons, and its members. On one of the brief sequances of him in action that can be found on the Internet, he leapt to his feet when a speech by the Prime Minister was being interrupted by shouts from seated members, and said in an ascending tone, “Order! Order!! The honourable member for X knows what high regard I have for him, and he usually behaves well within the standing orders of the House, but I must call him to order because he has been interrupting from a seated position. The Prime Minister must be and will be heard.” Then, catching out of the corner of his eye a Member who is standing in the hope of catching his eye, he says, “When I am standing, you are not. So sit down,” revealing a tradition that I did not know existed. It is a lot of fun, and he thoroughly enjoys it, it seems. On the other hand, not all Members take warmly to his lectures and to his rigorous judgements as to what qualifies and does not qualify as a Point of Order.
Just last week, against the wishes of the government, he allowed a Conservative party member, Dominic Grieve, a former Attorney-general, and one of the rare British politicians who, thanks to having a French mother, speaks French, an interest that has caused him to cast a carefully critical eye over his party’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, to move a motion which requires the Prime Minister, in the event of her losing the vote on her withdrawal deal (which she indeed lost yesterday) to return to the House within three working days with a Plan B. Bercow’s allowing this motion to be debated at all was treated by most Conservative commentators as tantamount to an arrogant takeover of the process by a Speaker who does not know his place, and with threatening the government’s control of the House. Bercow’s response, which I quoted a couple of days ago was to the effect that he was not there to ease the life of the Executive, but to defend the interests of the House of Commons, which I thought was a remarkable statement of a Parliamentary function based on the many generations of British political history.
Arrogance from Mr. Speaker, cried his critics, putting the Prime Minister into an unacceptable strait-jacket, giving her only three days to act when she had no doubt been looking forward to using all the time between now and March 29 --- the date of the implementation of the Brexit, to stitch up some sort of acceptable deal.
Mrs. May is not a woman given to compromise; in fact, as Bercow apparently has realized, the insoluble problem Britain now finds itself trapped in has arisen entirely from the manner in which she has approached the deal-making with Europe, laying down first her so-called “red lines” that were non-negotiable, and then arrogating to herself a sort of mystical connection to “the will of the British people” as expressed in the 2016 referendum.
Bercow’s allowance of Grieve’s motion has, within days, proven to have been a master-stroke, providing at least an apparent route forward in a process that appeared to have run into a brick wall.
I can still remember Bercow yesterday on receiving the vote. “The ayes to the right 202, noes to the left 432. .So the noes have it the noes have it,” he intoned.
Then he shouted “Unlock.” This arises from the fact that when a vote is called, Members have eight minutes to get into the right lobby for the vote. A bell sounds across the Parliamentary estate. Party whips stand at the entrance to each lobby, attempting to direct their flock through the correct door and intercept and dissuade members going the wrong way. After eight minutes the Speaker cries, “Lock the doors,” and thereafter any Member who has somehow strayed into the wrong lobby is irrevocably caught.
Meanwhile at the exit to each voting lobby, tall wooden desks are slid into place at which clerks sit, ticking off the names of members as they file past. One teller from each side now heads to the exit of each lobby. The job of the tellers is to count members leaving the lobby. They do this out loud, without the aid of technology. The results are first announced by a teller for the winning side, as the four tellers line up before the /speaker. They then hand the paper to Mr. Speaker who, repeats the result and then shouts, “Unlock!”
These are the arcane, but somehow reassuring rules of Parliamentary voting procedure, which twice within two days have produced remarkable votes in the mother of Parliaments.