Book Review – Unspeakable by John Bercow

This review was first published on the 16th May 2020 but was republished on the 27th April 2022 in light of the finding by the Independent Expert Panel into John Bercow’s behaviour as speaker.

In his decade as Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow became, without any doubt, the most controversial Speaker in modern parliamentary history. In the final quarter of his term as Speaker, it appeared that even any veneer of impartiality had began to fade. In this book the shackles of neutrality are completely off and the author appears to revel, at times far too much, in this newfound freedom.

Notably, the are parts of the book that make uncomfortable reading, with frequent character attacks that are unnecessary and to which many of the victims have no realistic right of reply. Frankly, there is just too much of this book that is self-serving. Whilst it remains extremely interesting from a constitutional standpoint – it is disappointing in other ways.

Bercow starts the book with an account of the prorogation crisis of September 2019, when Parliament’s prorogation was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court and was, eventually, deemed by the Supreme Court to be null and void. Bercow’s views on this at the time were certainly clear, but he makes clear very quickly exactly what he felt about the Government’s actions:

Only a government that has come to hold Parliament as an institution, and large numbers of Members as in individuals, in abject contempt could possibly believe that it was a proper way to conduct the affairs of State. It was a disgrace”

Bercow chooses to start with this because, ultimately, that is what his speakership will be remembered for – the clash between his stewardship of the legislature and the demands of the executive. Bercow tries, from the start, to show that, in all things, he was an advocate for the rights of Parliament.

Following the prorogation crisis, Bercow follows a largely chronological until he becomes Speaker – first detailing his early life and his years as a Backbench MP. Following this, the book reverts to focusing on certain issues, for example in a chapter of Prime Minister’s Questions and Bercow’s own beliefs on what it takes to be a Good MP (although, unfortunately, this chapter does not live up to its title).

Jon Bercow first became Speaker in 2009 and held the post until the 31st October 2019.

Parts of this book are marvellously insightful. For example, a chapter on PMQs gives an excellent insight into how the Speaker juggles a number of different considerations when deciding on who to call during each session. For example, Bercow describes how he considered factors such as: party balance, gender balance, geographical balance, regularity and also considerations such as events that had recently happened in the constituency. Notably, Bercow also freely admits to regularly calling on ‘dissident or maverick’ MPs.

Conservative MP, Peter Bone, was one of the mavericks who always seemed to be called by Jon Bercow in PMQs.

Despite these interesting insights, too often the book becomes a hatchet job and is replete with a consistent theme of character assassination. Discussing his fellow new Conservative MPs in 1997 he describes Philip Hammond as someone whose ‘principal concern was to get promoted’ and Andrew Lansley as someone who ‘had undergone a charisma-bypass at birth’. These are the first of a number of character critiques that add little to the readers understanding of Parliament or of Bercow’s career. What is perhaps even more noticeable is that the MPs who Bercow openly detested, like Andrew Brigden or Mark Francois, are not mentioned at all. You can almost feel Bercow’s glee while typing as he imagines them turning to the index, only to find they are omitted throughout. Frankly, the allegations against Bercow and the findings by the Independent Expert Panel do seem less out of place following reading the book. Following years as Speaker, it’s natural that there are certain issues and relationships Bercow would wish to clarify. Unfortunately, the hatchet comes out far too much.

Andrew Brigden, who had a furious row with the Speaker on his final day and was a clear nemesis, is seemingly deliberately omitted from any reference in the book.

Bercow spends the first chapters outlining his lower middle-class background and how the Conservative campaign of 1979 ignited his support for the party. His youthful experiences in the party were extremely different from what we would imagine based on our experiences of him as Speaker. He talks of being drawn to the Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration position and notably, he reflects on his decision in his youth to join the Conservative Monday Club as a ‘shameful and obnoxious’. Despite moving away from the farthest-right of the party while studying Politics at Essex University, in the 1980s Bercow remained an avowed Thatcherite. Following his time as a Conservative Councillor in Lambeth and a failed merchant banker, Bercow, like many future MPs, worked as a Special Advisor, in his case, in the Treasury and then Department for National Heritage.

In his youth, Bercow was a strong supporter of Enoch Powell, the controversial author of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

In the midst of Labour’s landslide Bercow was elected to the safe-seat of Buckingham in 1997, his third attempt to win a seat. Bercow freely admits that his attempts to win a seat were for himself and his own advancement, and not about improving Britain. He calls himself a ‘generalist’, with no real specialisms and labels himself a ‘party hack’, spending his early months and years taking the party-line and attacking the opposition from all angles. Throughout the early chapters of the book, Bercow chronicles his drift to the centre, particularly highlighted in social issues, including voting to equalise the homosexual age of consent, voting for civil partnerships and voting to abolish Section 28. Indeed, by 2005 Bercow admits to be openly courted by Labour to ‘cross the floor’. What is missing is, however, is some contextualization as to why Bercow drifted along the spectrum in his years as an MP. A more in-depth consideration thoughts on what led to what is a radical change, would have been an interesting addition.

Bercow skips through the variety of Shadow Government posts he held, in which he made no notable successes and thereafter returned to the backbenches, where becoming Speaker became a growing ambition. Unsurprisingly, the book really gets interesting from Page 145, which begins to account Bercow’s campaign to become Speaker and then subsequent speakership.

Bercow was a modernising speaker and became a ‘champion for backbenchers’

Bercow was undoubtedly a modernising Speaker. He oversaw the large-scale implementation of the Wright Report, which saw a partial re-balancing of the power in Parliamen, with backbenchers given more mechanisms to scrutinise the executive. He also dramatically increased the number of Urgent Questions granted, to the frustration of the government ministers who had to abandon their plans and turn up at the House of Commons! In total, Bercow granted 685 Urgent Questions as speaker, an astonishing amount. Bercow spends a good few pages discussing the factors he considered when granting Urgent Questions and this makes interesting reading.

Behind the scenes Bercow is rightly proud of the steps he took, in his words, to ensure the ‘House has been dragged into the 21st Century’. A nursery for staff and members, the introduction of proxy voting and encouraging greater diversity in appointments are achievements and which he notes. Bercow prided himself of ‘championing the rights of backbenchers’. He talks, with seeming pride, that his selection of a number of backbench debates and subsequent Conservative rebellions on holding an EU referendum pushed David Cameron towards a pro-referendum stance. Bercow interestingly highlights three areas where he think further reforms could be made in Parliament:

  • Parliament should take control of the organisation of Government business to place limits of the legislative power of the Executive.
  • Parliament should reform the way that Private Members Bill are dealt with, particularly by moving them from Fridays (when most MPs have gone home to their constituencies) to a more prominent midweek slot.
  • Parliament should have the power to recall itself from recess without the consent of the Prime Minister.

It remains to be seen whether the the progress of reform continues under Lindsay Hoyle, but it is interesting to see where Bercow believes his efforts should be placed.

Bercow also deals with the unsavoury allegations made against him of bullying his staff. In truth, Bercow’s account of these events is quite compelling, but without seeing the evidence from both sides, it is of course impossible to make a judgement.

Whereas Bercow’s dealing with bullying allegations is convincing, his defence of his intervention over the issue of Donald Trump’s state visit is unconvincing at best.

Bercow writes “I remain unapologetic. I said what I meant and I meant what I said”. Bercow will argue his statement was simply limited to the issue of whether Trump should address Parliament, something which he was a clear stakeholder in. However, there is no doubt that his statements went beyond that, he gave a clear political opinion on an issue of importance, contrary to his duty as Speaker. One suspects Bercow knows this too, but, as the rest of the book shows, he is not in the habit of recanting on much at all.

Perhaps the worst chapter in the book is ‘How to be a good MP’. After a few statements that a new MP might find helpful, the chapter turns into a a mix of heartfelt epithets and recriminatory attacks. The chapter should really have been entitled ‘How to be an MP I like or I don’t like’. Its uncomfortable, but you don’t want to stop reading. Sadly, and this is shouldn’t be the case given the expectation of neutrality, the characters and which side of the line they fall into, are quite predicable.

Bercow’s rulings, such as citing precedent from 1604 to prevent a further vote on Theresa May’s Brexit Deal, were always going to lead him into conflict with the Executive. Bercow clearly gives his impression on the Prime Minister’s he dealt with in no uncertain terms:

Cameron: “What did he achieve? One coalition government after which voters were poorer. That was followed by an election victory and almost immediately preparations for a referendum he did not have to call, the result of which profoundly divided the country and that seems set to leave citizens poorer, politics nastier and the United Kingdom more vulnerable…in the pantheon of great leaders, the name of David Cameron will never feature. In a list of opportunist lightweights, it will be at the top.”

May: “..decent but as wooden as your average coffee table, a worthy public servant but as dull as ditch-water, courteous to everyone but lacking in an ounce of small talk with anyone, honest but lacking in any original convictions, as capable as the next politician of reading a script, but devoid of any spontaneity or natural fluency, let alone charisma.”

Writing this book, he is no longer Speaker and free to make these comments without the shackles of parliamentary convention. However, as a former Speaker, someone who has hosted President’s and Pope’s, you still cannot help finding it unbecoming.

David Cameron and Theresa May both come off badly in the book

Bercow deserves immense credit for overseeing the most reformative and progressive speakership in living history, perhaps of all time. Under his speakership backbenchers were empowered and the executive was held accountable to the legislature. In sum, democracy was better served under Jon Bercow than his predecessors. Despite the many controversies, one hopes that this will be his legacy, because it is a deserved one.

The book is at its best when Bercow is recounting the elements of Parliament that are hidden from view, for example when explaining his rationale for grating Urgent Questions. The book is at its worse when the author seeks to address scores that could not be settled under his former cloak of impartiality. The book leaves the impression of someone who has left the Chair angry and embittered. This makes it at times a difficult read, but a book you will find yourself wanting to carrying on reading nonetheless.

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