I draw your attention to this article about the current row in Britain about the government’s plans to restrict housing benefit. But not because I want to discuss the proposed legislation (yet)… No, I want to comment on one sentence in the Guardian article:
It is understood that Labour will try to force Pickles and Duncan Smith to respond to an urgent question on this in the Commons chamber on Monday. But it is up to the Speaker, John Bercow, to decide whether to accept the move.
The Speaker of the House of Commons is a traditional and very undemocratic post. The Speaker is chosen in a very light-hearted, “all mates together” type vote of MPs (Members of Parliament). All very cosy. And then the winner of the vote takes on the title and becomes perhaps the most powerful officer in Parliament. He decides who can speak, when, and about what. He keeps the House’s debates from getting too rowdy (by ordering our elected representatives to shut up!); and he administrates House clerical and procedural business. He also gets to live in the Parliamentary estate, where he has Big Ben for an alarm clock.
The undemocratic nature of the post was made clear when the previous Speaker, Michael Martin (2000-2009) refused to publish information about Members’ expense claims despite the huge public interest on the matter. He was eventually forced to release details (with many redactions) after the secret documents were leaked to the press. Michael Martin is now Baron Martin of Springburn, a life member of the House of Lords from where he still takes part in ruling the nation. How “democratic” is that?
The Speaker is traditionally non-partisan, meaning he doesn’t get involved in the political rows. But I don’t think that’s really possible. And even if the Speaker really doesn’t take sides, how can our “modern democracy” work effectively when one man makes such important decisions? Shouldn’t this business be taken care of openly by a group that more accurately reflects the electorate?
I might not be able to collect the prime minister’s scalp; but maybe I’ll take the Speaker’s instead. So here’s the rallying cry: Down With The Speaker!
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