Separating Private from Official

John Bercow has the celebrated title of Speaker of the House of Commons.  He is, if you like, the chair of the Commons, the elected chamber of the UK’s legislature.

The Speaker is supposed to be politically neutral.  This is the only way because the MP that holds the role stands unelected should a general election be held.  Which prevents a few thousand electors participating in the election which can’t be a good thing…

Anyway, Bercow has been causing waves recently.

First – chronologically – he made comments about the UK leaving the EU, ‘Brexit’.

Bercow said that he didn’t and hadn’t supported the leave vote.  He gave his reasons for this and did so quite concisely.  This upset people, predictably those who voted to leave.

“Can he really be neutral when the Commons is debating Brexit?” they ask.  “He shouldn’t be saying anything about it,” they cry.

Then he has made his opinion about US President Trump, especially his policies which are seen as racially or divisively motivated policies.

In the Commons, from the Speaker’s seat, he questioned whether some of Trump’s policies met the standards of UK expectations on equality.  He has since gone on to say that, when Trump visits Britain on a state visit later this year, he would veto any plans to allow Trump to address the Commons.

Again, this caused controversy.  Is this something a ‘neutral’ Speaker should be saying?

Yesterday a “conservative blogger” was on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1.  This great expert made her thoughts clear from the start: a Speaker shouldn’t share her/his opinion on anything remotely political.

Well, why not?

As far as his Brexit comments go, they were given a long time after the referendum; they were made outside of Parliament, and they were a personal opinion.

Yes, the process of Brexit is on-going.  There is no doubt that Bercow will preside over debates on the subject in the Commons.

However, to suggest that he would not be neutral because he has an opinion on the subject is stupid.

Everyone who is able to think has opinions.  Bercow has opinions on many subjects, no doubt.  Anyone who acted as Speaker has to have opinions on everything that is debated in the Commons.  Either they can separate their personal opinions from the debate or they can’t… and, if they can’t they shouldn’t be the Speaker.

The fact that Bercow has made his opinion known makes no difference.  He should still be capable of doing the job.

As far as the Trump issue goes Bercow has a direct say in who is allowed to address the Commons.  It is part of his role.  Is there a reason he shouldn’t be making his intentions clear?

It isn’t as if UK politicians haven’t already made their thoughts on the abysmal Trump known.  From Prime Minister Theresa May down, they have criticised his mumblings and policies.  Why is Bercow saying he’s considering blocking Trump addressing the Commons so different?

The thing is, Bercow isn’t a popular Speaker as far as Conservative MPs are concerned.  They are either annoyed that he has been remarkably neutral, to the point of not putting up with nonsense from Conservatives – the party he was originally elected to represent.

Alternatively they simply dislike the way he approaches the role, protecting speakers from either side of the House, from any party, and taking no nonsense.  Too big for his boots, perhaps.

As with anything to do with politics, if you do something that leaves you open to attack, you’ll be attacked.  From that point of view Bercow made mistakes.  But the fact remains that nothing he has done means he can’t act properly as Speaker.

What it boils right down to is that there can be absolutely nothing wrong with anyone in any official position giving a personal opinion about a subject.  It simply means that person has to do even more to maintain a separation between personal opinion and the office they hold.

Should that separation fail, then people have the right to sanction the person. Until that separation fails, there isn’t a problem.