Yesterday the Speaker for House of Commons, John Bercow, spoke to say that he would not welcome President Trump to speak at Westminster Hall. It’s stirred up quite a controversy over the past couple of days, with the Speaker for the House of Lords saying that Trump could still be invited to speak elsewhere. I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m a fan of John Bercow, and think he’s made an excellent Speaker. He’s been a balanced Speaker, and he’s put his neck on the line in order to give both sides of the House a fair hearing. It was only in 2015 that there was a tory led coup to remove Bercow from the Seat for allowing too much discussion in the House of Commons. (You can see an excellent speech by Charles Walker about the attempted coup on YouTube)
The most obvious response to Bercow’s recent comments would be one of outrage. The Speaker should be impartial and above partisan politics. (In Bercow’s case, he’s married to a Labour MP and there have always been rumours that he might swap sides. If he gets promoted to the House of Lords then he’ll conveniently dodge that bullet and get to sit as a Crossbencher, which is about as obfuscatory as he can get on the issue.) There are those on the far right wing of the Conservative Party and UKIP who see this as a partisan move to silence a major politician. At first glance this view seems to stand up to scrutiny, but on looking more closely at Bercow’s words we can see what’s really going on:
An address by a foreign leader to both Houses of Parliament is not an automatic right, it is an earned honour… Before the imposition of the migrant ban I would myself have been strongly opposed to an address by President Trump in Westminster Hall. After the imposition of the migrant by President Trump I am even more strongly opposed to an address by President Trump in Westminster Hall… As far as This Place is concerned I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism, and our support for equality before the law, and an independent Judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.
These words were met largely with cheers and even applause (although the House was heavily biased towards the Opposition benches at the time.) Then Dennis Skinner (another personal hero) responded with a Point of Order consisting entirely of “Well done!”
The points raised by Bercow seemed to increase in credibility as his speech progressed. At first I was skeptical, with him raising the migrant ban as his first point. Nearly everyone finds the migrant ban insane and unjust, but there are still parties who would like to see a similar ban imposed for entry to the UK, so Bercow starts by treading on delicate ground, especially in the wake of the EU referendum result. He then continues by railing against the sexism and racism exhibited by Trump, and while I agree that these have no place in party politics or in the House of Commons, it’s a bit hard to square this with the role of the Speaker. That’s a position that goes back centuries, so the Speaker should not be leading the House of Commons with views, he should be listening to the House. Bercow has been a modernising Speaker for sure, making special effort to keep up with changes to technology and ensuring that petitions to the Government get a good hearing, but that doesn’t give him free reign to make criticisms of the majority party which is still largely white and male. I’d rather see MPs put their own House in order before the Speaker gets involved! Even so, an attack on the tories, especially from one of their own, is always welcome, even if it’s a little cheeky.
However his main point was that of the independence of the Judiciary. This is where we see a real contrast between the UK and the USA. For all our pomp and tradition, there is still respect for the Judiciary in our process. Our constitution is so opaque that it doesn’t actually exist, but we still adhere to the guiding principles, especially when times get tough. Nobody wanted to see the constitutional questions we faced go through the High Court and then the Supreme Court. It was a mammoth waste of times and resources in what turned out to be a straightforward decision. When eleven of fourteen of the finest legal minds in the nation agree on a position, one can have confidence that it’s clearly the right decision. The Daily Mail aside, the whole nation fell in line and supported the Courts and their decisions. That’s how to deal with contentious constitutional crises (or May could have just brought the matter to the Houses of Parliament to begin with, as she obviously should have done.)
What we are seeing the USA is the polar opposite. The Executive Branch has overstepped its constraints without any cross branch liaison or consultation. May wanted space to consider options and waited long enough for a court case to be brought forward. When she disagreed with the outcome she pursued an appeal through the normal legal avenues. Trump barged through with an unconstitutional Executive Order. When his own acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, spoke out against the migrant ban as being illegal, she was dismissed by Trump. That happened within a matter of hours. It’s not hard to see why this may have made Bercow feel deeply uncomfortable. Eventually the Department of Homeland Security decided not to obey the Executive Order, and now Trump is pursuing a legal challenge to have his way.
In a system with an explicit written Constitution, I find it terrifying that things can move so quickly in such a dangerous direction. Let’s not forget that this follows a gag rule being applied to scientists across the USA, as well as huge swathes of text being removed from the Whitehouse website. To make matters worse, Trump has been openly hostile and critical of many media outlets. These are, of course, the hallmarks of a fascist régime. Attacks on the freedom of speech, on academia, and on the Judiciary cannot be tolerated. Say what you like about the divisive and disgraceful way politics have played out in the UK over the past twelve months, but throughout that time the media have been able to have their say, the academics have weighed in, and the Courts have been allowed to deliver their opinions. At the same time both our major political parties have had fair leadership elections (albeit with awful consequences.) As we face our worst crisis since world war two, we are still following the word of the law, and that is what Bercow was defending with his comments. It’s hard to find a better defence of democracy in these volatile times.