“May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”
Those famous words, spoken by Mr Speaker Lenthall to Charles I in 1642 (the last time a monarch entered the chamber of the House of Commons), have been cited thousands, probably millions, of times to describe the Speaker’s role. He does what the House wants, not what he wants. He is its servant, not its master.
Mr Bercow has thrown all that aside. In telling the world that his personal dislike of the President of the USA will lead him to refuse to allow the President to address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, he is, in effect, saying he is no longer the servant of the House: he thinks himself much grander than that.
Let me say, at once, that this has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of President Trump. I well understand why Mr Bercow has taken against the President. Lots of other people have as well. Nearly two million people, who apparently had no problems with vicious dictators making state visits to the Queen, have signed a petition demanding that the President of our most important democratic ally should have his invitation withdrawn. Many others of us are worried about the President’s approach to relations with Russia, his threats to NATO, his eagerness to abandon free trade and, yes (though we have less right to complain about a domestic policy), his plainly unjust arbitrary refusal to allow people from certain Muslim countries to enter the USA, only, as far as I understand it, ever done by one President before him – President Obama. I also understand Mr Bercow’s complaints about the President’s “sexism”. He does seem to have said an awful lot of rather disagreeable things about women. Actually, sorry to be outspoken, he strikes me as being a thoroughly vulgar and, in many respects, misguided man.
Despite all my personal reservations about Mr Trump, despite my thanking God I have never been given such an awful choice as the voters of the USA were given in their recent election, I can’t understand why Mr Bercow and all those adolescent British protesters have convinced themselves that it is in our interests to go out of our way to offend the President rather than to do our best, with quiet diplomacy, to try to tone down some of his more objectionable foreign policies.
But, I stress, the point of this piece is not to applaud or to attack the President. Neither is it to say I disagree with Mr Bercow’s personal opinions on him. I have a much more important case to advance.
Because of the high office he holds, Mr Bercow should never speak publicly on controversial political subjects unless he does so at the direction of the House of Commons. That may be irritating for someone who started out as a politician. But it is the price he has to pay for his elevated position (a price which all his predecessors have willingly paid).
As it happens, the House is due to debate the proposed state visit and the possibility (it only remains a possibility) that the government may wish him to be invited to address both Houses of Parliament. It is possible the House may vote against an address to both Houses (though it must be unlikely). If it does, Mr Bercow will claim to have been vindicated. If it does not, what will the Speaker then do? Will he confirm his disavowal of his eminent predecessor’s message to the King in 1642 and decide to disobey his masters? Or will he grudgingly change his decision to comply with the wishes of the House? My own guess is that he will say he is above the House and his personal opinions must prevail. That, no doubt, will give great pleasure to the adolescents (not all of them are adolescents) on the Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat benches, but it will be a disaster for the office of Speaker.