How would you characterize the past thirteen years of Labour government?’ Bercow’s eyes flit towards his political advisor and back to me before both begin to laugh in a rather forced fashion. ‘I’m not going to get in to that, it’s too – it’s a very political question. A perfectly legitimate question for you to ask, and I know politicians have a reputation for ducking questions. I, on the whole, answer more than quite a lot of my predecessors, but I’m not going to get into that because, as you can see, if I start to answer that question then immediately I am breaching my impartiality, and I don’t think I should do that’.
Much of my interview with John Bercow, MP for Buckingham and recently elected Speaker of the House of Commons, followed this pattern. Perhaps more than most politicians, and with better reason than most, Bercow is extremely cautious with his choice of words and maintains an evenness of opinion that guarantees he will not be the source of any controversy. Of course, many modern politicians are accused of being empty suits whose only apparent skill is an uncanny ability to dodge questions. John Bercow, in his modern incarnation as Speaker, at least has an excuse if he comes across as evasive. As he explains: ‘As soon as I was elected (to the Speakership) I had to resign my membership of the Conservative party. My predecessors resigned their party membership because that’s the model of the British Speakership’.
In British politics the position of Speaker is ‘characterized by absolute political impartiality’, accordingly Bercow is now officially politically neutral, he is no longer a Conservative MP and in the coming election will stand as ‘the Speaker seeking reelection’.
“In recent years heavily party political activity has not been my staple diet”
This explains his reticence to my question about his opinion on the Blair/Brown Labour government, his job is to be an ‘impartial referee and to chair dispassionately the proceedings of the House and not to take sides’. This drastically limits what he is allowed to say in public: ‘I wouldn’t make party political speeches anymore because it would be totally inappropriate to do so. I would be very unwise to get embroiled in a partisan row between one party and another on the state of the health service, or the means by which to sustain our economic future’. He is, however, eager to remind his constituents that he is ‘absolutely free to speak publicly on anything which affects my constituents’ and that he does not intend to fight his reelection campaign in Buckingham, which is being contested by the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, ‘with my hands tied behind my back’.
“I don’t think that I’ve got anything particularly original to contribute to the national debate about the economy or the health service”
For many the idea of an apolitical politician might seem to be a contradiction in terms. What purpose do politicians serve if not to engage in national policy debates and try and score party political points? But far from being frustrated by his new found neutrality, Bercow seems to revel in it. In terms of policy making he modestly states that ‘I don’t think that I’ve got anything particularly original to contribute to the national debate about the economy or the health service. I did take part in those debates for years, but if you’re asking me do I hugely miss doing so: not especially, no’. Likewise Bercow shows no sign that he misses the rough and tumble of party politics: ‘In recent years heavily party political activity has not been my staple diet. So does it feel really odd or awkward or burdensome to leave the party fray and take up responsibilities on behalf of Parliament? The honest answer is no: I enjoy it’.All this makes Bercow a peculiar breed of politician: one who openly professes to having little to add to policy debates and who has little time for Westminster politicking.
Then again, Bercow has had quite an odd political career. When he says that he has ‘shifted over the years from very much the right of the Conservative party to the centre left’, he is perhaps understating the extent of the transformation of his political beliefs. Bercow began his political career as the Chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) which was abolished by Norman Tebbit in 1986 for being too right-wing: the FCS had supported such causes as the Contras in Nicaragua and some of its prominent members had sported t-shirts with the slogan ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’. However, by 2007 many Conservatives questioned his Tory credentials amidst rumours of a potential defection to the Labour party and his growing commitment to concerns that were regarded as lying outside the purview of the Conservative party. Even his election to the Speakership was rumoured to have taken place without Conservative support; by some accounts only three Tory MPs voted for Bercow to be Speaker.
“The Tories must learn from what Blair has done”
In person Bercow claims that he has always been committed to Conservative principles such as ‘free enterprise, individual liberty, the rule of law’ but that he also ‘believed very strongly in social justice and an overwhelming need for equality before the law’. He cites his commitment to voting in favour of legislation that promised equal rights for homosexuals – except for when he was ‘briefly on the front bench and I voted with the Tory party in favour of Section 28’. Bercow admits that his political opinions and his shift from the right to the centre left have attracted ‘mixed reactions, some people say: “Oh, you’ve seen the light” and other people say: “Don’t trust him, he’s a traitor”‘. Ultimately Bercow explains his political shift as ‘partly philosophical and partly pragmatic’ and argues that such a shift was required for both him and the Conservative party if it wants to ‘capture the centre ground’, he even goes so far to say that ‘We (the Tories) must learn from what Blair has done’.
The past is now more or less irrelevant to John Bercow. The Speakership is, theoretically, a position for life and he is now safely above political intrigue. It is perhaps this privileged position which allows Bercow to be more philosophical than most politicians with regards to his past and more secure in his ambitions for the future. For him ‘the yardstick of success is whether at the end of my tenure of office the position of the back bencher in Parliament has been strengthened. At the end of my time I will ask my self, and I expect other people will ask: did he strengthen the back bencher? Did he make for a stronger Parliament? Did he allow Parliament to assert itself more effectively? And if the answer to those questions is yes, I shall finish a happy man’.