Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Speaking of Speakers...

In perhaps the most cringeworthy moment of yesterday, soon-to-be Speaker John Bercow imitated Tory grandee Sir Peter Tapsell’s reaction to his candidacy:

You're not just too young, you're far too young, given that in my judgment the Speaker ought to be virtually senile.

Bercow is indeed young: 46, compared with Michael Martin (who was 55 on taking the chair), Betty Boothroyd (62), Bernard Weatherill (62), Viscount Tonypandy (67)… and so on.

To find a younger Speaker, you have to go back to Charles Shaw-Lefevre, 1st (and only) Viscount Eversley, who on 27 May 1839 was elected to the Speakership at the slightly tenderer age of 45 (and indeed by the narrower margin of 317 votes to 299; Bercow beat Sir George Young by 322 to 271).

Did Shaw-Lefevre’s relative youth prove a handicap? Apparently not: the Encyclopaedia Britannica records that during his 18 years in the chair, he acquired “a high reputation in the House of Commons for his judicial fairness, combined with singular tact and courtesy”.

Now, I bet you didn’t know that there’s Hansard online going back to 1803. So, on that May evening in 1839, in putting forward his candidacy, Shaw-Lefevre said:

any qualifications which I may be thought to possess for the office of Speaker, cannot in any degree bear a comparison with those of that right hon. Gentleman whose recent retirement from the Chair has now become a subject of universal regret.

The responsibility which in ordinary times, and under ordinary circumstances, is inseperable from the laborious duties of the Chair, is of a sufficiently grave and anxious character. But in these times I regret to say, and in the present excited state of political feeling, that responsibility is immesurably increased. Entertaining, these opinions, it may not unreasonably be thought that I am presumptions in allowing myself to be placed in nomination as a candidate on the present occasion.

I yield to no one in a desire to maintain the honour and dignity of this House, in a strong sense of the importance of protecting its privileges from being in the slightest degree trenched upon, and in a firm determination to exert all the energies I possess in the discharge of any duty which the House may impose upon me. With these observations I cheerfully submit myself to the pleasure of the House.

Plus ça change: the panegyric to the outgoing Speaker (a Scot, who apparently “was not very successful in quelling disorder” and quit the chair for a peerage and a fat pension); the laughably false modesty; the concerns about “the present excited state of political feeling”; the hailing of “the honour and dignity of this House” – but of course.

But “protecting its privileges”? Don’t think that would go down so well these days…

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