On the 1st of February, John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, gave a public lecture in the Curtis Auditorium.
The main focus of Bercow’s lecture series was on Parliament and its role in modern democracy. It took place as a part of Newcastle Universities’ INSIGHT public lecture series, where this particular lecture forms a part of a series of lectures running from February to July 2018.
The lecture was an especially popular one, with Alistair Clark, a senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University, mentioning on Twitter that it was the largest public lecture audience in twenty years.
Bercow can frequently be heard roaring “Order! Order!” at squabbling MPs
John Bercow is the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons and was elected in 2009 and has since been re-elected three times.
The Speaker plays a uniquely important role in the House of Commons. This is because, whilst still being an MP, the Speaker is expected to stand above ordinary party politics and hold the executive to account as well as mediating debates within Parliament. This is particularly clear during Prime Minister’s Questions when Bercow can frequently be heard roaring “Order! Order!” at squabbling MPs.
Even though Bercow was a Conservative MP, as Speaker he must be neutral towards party politics.
The role of Speaker is almost as old as Parliament itself and dates back to the Middle Ages. However, since becoming elected he has overseen significant reforms to the House of Commons and subsequently changed some of its outlook. For instance, Bercow aims to broaden the appeal of Parliament by engaging heavily in outreach work to schools, colleges, and universities across the UK, which has greatly increased since he was elected.
Bercow helped to ensure that MPs on select committees were to be elected by secret ballot instead of by appointment
As he mentioned in his lecture, he usually does multiple talks with schools via Skype, and recently visited a secondary school in South Shields.
Previously, as he mentioned, some older Members of Parliament thought the job of outreach was beneath the office of Speaker. It was clear from the size of the audience at the lecture that this attitude has changed for good.
Bercow has also sought to change the way Parliamentary business is conducted and has sought over his tenure to make Parliament more accountable to the public and to make Parliament more representative of the UK.
Bercow helped to ensure that MPs on select committees were to be elected by secret ballot instead of by appointment from the government of the day.
This means that MPs are more independent in their decisions and approaches and under less influence from the governing party.
He also championed the notion of backbench MPs being able to decide what debates could take place in parliament, rather than the order of business being chosen by the government.
These debates, as Bercow noted in his lecture, have brought about changes in policy, such as the decision to hold an enquiry into the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
Bercow also noted the previous existence of a shooting gallery in the Houses of Parliament, and during his tenure ensured that it was replaced by a nursery in 2010 to help MPs’ work-life balance, especially young women MPs, noting “there were plenty of places to buy a beer, but nowhere to put a baby.”