No matter which side of the Brexit debate you may be on, and regardless whether you view the current Prorogation as a normal part of the Parliamentary year (my view), or as some kind of a dastardly Machiavellian plot to take Britain out of the EU with no deal; either way round, I hope that you will agree with me on one thing.
Parliament and its proceedings only work if they are respected, admired and understood by the people at large. Parliament is simply the “place where people talk” deriving from the old French ‘parlez’. Whitehall is where government work is done; Parliament is the place where we discuss what they are doing. If the public’s respect for Parliament is diminished, then we cannot hold the Executive branch to account as they would wish. Now that respect, comes - amongst many other things- from the age-old customs and structures; the building; the ceremony; courtesy and respect; and the primacy of Parliamentary procedure as laid down in the Clerks’ Bible, Erskine-May. If any part of all of that falls away, then it is a very short step to people starting to ask: ‘What is Parliament for anyhow’, and that way lies either dictatorship or anarchy.
John Bercow had some good instincts, and some achievements to his name. He has strengthened Parliament in some ways. But he has also diminished its standing, its procedures and traditions; the invisible mystery which gives it acceptance and respect by all. You may laugh at the funny uniforms, at the ceremony surrounding Monday’s Prorogation; at addressing each other by constituency and in the third person; at gravitas and decency and good manners in all we do; at a rule against clapping, which diminishes proceedings; at a Speaker who is impartial, at an Opposition which is ‘Loyal’; at a functioning Party system. But those things, and many more, are the invisible glue which holds our Parliamentary democracy together. They are the product of 1000 years of development; and we cast them aside at our peril.
That is why the events of this week are so worrying. The Speaker has become more and more blatant in his pro-Remain and pro-Labour bias. He has become ruder and ruder, more and more puffed up and dismissive of others; more and more bullying. On our busy final day’s business, how can he have allowed two hours of sycophantic ‘tributes’ to himself, at the expense of time, amongst other things to discuss Northern Ireland? It is alleged that he knew about, if not actually conniving in, the disgraceful scenes on Monday evening with Labour, Liberal and SNP MPs scuffling round the Speakers Chair; with his open defiance of Her Majesty’s Prorogation of Parliament; with posters being waved, Black Rod ignored, and the Red Flag being sung in the Chamber. These things do nothing to heighten respect for our Parliament in Britain or abroad, and Mr Speaker Bercow did nothing to stop them.
So one of the urgent tasks now facing us must be restoring that mystical, invisible, hard to define element of ‘Respect’ for Parliament. Mr Speaker Bercow’s departure, a General Election in November after an orderly departure from the EU in October, is the opportunity for that renaissance of the greatness Parliament.