John Bercow – Statement on Abuse Against Anna Soubry

Below is the text of the statement made by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, on 7 January 2019.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, with which I entirely identify. I am happy to take other colleagues’ points of order in due course, but there is nothing that the hon. Gentleman has said to which I object in any way. I share both the sentiment he has expressed and his strength of feeling on behalf of colleagues about this matter. Naturally, I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of his point of order.

I have indeed been made aware of recent incidents involving aggressive and threatening behaviour towards Members and others by assorted protesters who have donned the yellow vests used in France. When I refer to “recent incidents”, I am more specifically referring to reports I have had of incidents that have taken place today, in all likelihood when many of us, myself included, have been in this Chamber. The House authorities are not technically responsible for the safety of Members off the estate—that is and remains a matter for the Metropolitan police—but naturally, I take this issue very seriously and so, I am sure, do the police, who have been made well aware of our concerns.

Reflecting and reinforcing what the hon. Gentleman said about peaceful protest, let me say this. Peaceful protest is a vital democratic freedom, but so is the right of elected Members to go about their business without being threatened or abused, and that includes access to and from the media stands in Abingdon Green. I say no more than that I am concerned at this stage about what seems to be a pattern of protests targeted in particular—I do not say exclusively—at women. Female Members and, I am advised, in a number of cases, female journalists, have been subjected to aggressive protest and what many would regard as harassment.

I assure the House that I am keeping a close eye on events and will speak to those who advise me about these matters. I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman for doing a public service in raising the issue. I do not want to dwell on it for long, because we have other important business to which we must proceed, but if colleagues with relevant experiences want to come in at this point, they can.

John Bercow – 2017 Statement on Westminster Terror Attack

Below is the text of the statement made by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, on 23 March 2017.

After yesterday’s shocking events, I know that the whole House will want me to express our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the victims of this outrage. A police officer, PC Keith Palmer, was killed defending us, defending Parliament and defending parliamentary democracy. Arrangements have been made for books of condolence to be placed in the Library and Westminster Hall. Our hearts go out to all those directly and indirectly touched by yesterday’s events.

I should like to thank all colleagues, staff of the House and Members’ staff for their forbearance in very stressful circumstances yesterday. Naturally, the parliamentary security authorities have already taken measures to ensure that Parliament is safe in the light of the attack. In due time, the Commission, which I chair, will consider, together with our Lords counterparts, what sort of review of lessons learned would be appropriate. However, let the security personnel who protect us—police, security officers and Doorkeepers—be in no doubt whatsoever of our profound appreciation of the way in which they discharged their duties yesterday, matched by other staff of the House. That means that this morning the House has been able to resume its business undeterred.

John Bercow – 2013 Speech in New Zealand

JohnBercow

Below is the text of the speech made by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, in New Zealand on 8th August 2013.

Thank you so much for the warmth of that introduction. It is an enormous pleasure and privilege to be here today at this exceptional institution in front of this distinguished audience and in this wonderful country. It is an incredible honour for me to speak in this place and I already know that it will be one of the highlights of my tenure. The United Kingdom might be described, not least within itself, as having created the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ but if that is the case then New Zealand has long been among the smartest of her many daughters. That is evident not only in your noble history of entrenching democracy ever since Westminster offered you the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852, most obviously through becoming the first nation in the world to permit universal suffrage of all adults regardless of gender a shade more than four decades later, but in another perhaps slightly more esoteric regard for how you organise yourselves that has enormous appeal to me personally.

This is the reverence which your arrangements offer to the holder of the office of Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives. I note with enthusiasm that the Speaker here ranks third constitutionally behind only the Governor General and the Prime Minister, that it is technically the owner of the entire parliamentary estate and has sweeping authority over it and is so esteemed in Wellington that the last incumbent, Sir Lockwood Smith, who I have met a number of times, moved on to become your High Commissioner in London. I must admit I look upon this situation with envy. It seems to me to be entirely appropriate but alas one that I am unlikely to be able to duplicate. It is a little early, I hope, for me to be contemplating my life after leaving the Speaker’s Chair but it seems improbable that I will be sent to Wellington in a sort of exchange outcome with Sir Lockwood, which is rather unfortunate. This is despite the fact that there must be some ministers in my country who would find the prospect of my being relocated the better part of 12,000 miles away rather enticing.

The topic which I have been asked to speak to today is “Parliaments of the Future”. As with anything involving long-term predictions this is a perilous exercise. It has the severe disadvantage that at best my thoughts today, for reasons I will outline in a moment, are likely to prove incomplete. At worst, they are destined to be thoroughly mistaken. The one recompense is that by the time it is obvious how far short of the truth I have fallen, all of us, including me, are likely to have forgotten what I said anyway, or taking matters to an even more extreme sense, we will have all moved on to the ultimate Upper Chamber in the sky (in that regard I trust that New Zealand does not want to be unicameral). The reason that a subject of this sort is so challenging is that the only way a human being can hope to approach it is by extrapolating from some recent developments and assuming that they will be even more significant, indeed seminal, in the future. Despite this being a Malthusian maxim (and we can see in a planet of around seven billion souls now where that logic took him), it is irresistible. We cannot know what utterly novel invention or idea will occur which disrupts everything beforehand, so we work with the most obvious example of significant change or reform in our current lives.

At the turn of the 20th century, thinkers in Victorian England, nicely illustrated through the work of HG Wells, were fascinated by the possibilities which electricity seemed to be signalling. With the demonstration of the electronic escalator in Harrods store in 1898 and the moving walkway or travelator at various exhibitions in Europe and America at about the same time, serious people were convinced that pavements and indeed walking were about to be rendered redundant. The early motor car, which was being patented in primitive form at the same time, did not loom largely in their imaginations, let alone the aeroplane which would come along very shortly afterwards.

In a similar spirit, I was an impressionable child during the age of the Apollo moon missions. Like most young people then if I had to be asked to write about what the future would look like, I would have assumed that if involved space stations on other planets within my lifetime on earth and that, especially with Concorde in the mix as well, flight times from Britain to New Zealand would be cut to a handful of hours. In fact, the last moon landing occurred in 1973 and the time taken to travel from London to Wellington has not improved much in the past four decades. Yet at about the same time as these seemingly obvious future advances stalled, others, notably the creation of the microchip and the linkage of a set of computers together into an early version of the Internet were occurring but were invisible to all but a tiny collection of specialists at this stage. In a very strong sense, however, the microchip and the Internet have advanced human communications dramatically more than a shiny space station and a four hour flight time between our two countries would have done.

All of this is not, I should stress, an alibi for ducking the question of Parliaments of the Future. It is more of an apology that I am not technologically accomplished enough to be able to anticipate what will prove to be the equivalent of the missed motor car or the ignored Internet in the years to come. I do have some views on the future for legislatures in democracies which I would like to share with you, but they come with the health warning that they too unavoidably involve extrapolation from the past and present to frame a vision of the future. All that I can aspire to in ambition is that what I am about to set out will turn out merely to be incomplete rather than an outright mistaken analysis.

The propositions which will frame my argument today are three-fold.

First, that history suggests that the single more important factor in triggering change within Parliaments is an often delayed response to change without Parliaments. In other words, the changing nature of who the electorate are, what are their expectations, and by what means do their exercise their views, inevitably induces change among the representing as well as the represented, and hence parliaments as political places although this might take time to manifest itself completely.

Second, democratic innovations do not seem to take place randomly. Certain sorts of states seem to continuously be the source of what is initially seen by many as experimentation (even eccentricity) but which come to be viewed later, often rather swiftly in fact, as the new and welcome orthodoxy.

Third, that despite the certainty of change, the central challenges facing a Parliament in a democracy have been reasonably constant and are likely to remain broadly consistent. The fundamental issue is the extent to which change can be co-opted to make meeting those challenges a little easier rather than them serving to weaken the legislature against the executive, political parties or the media. So let me start with my first assumption. Societies lead Parliaments as well as follow them. The expansion of an electorate by extending voting rights to those previously denied them, the evolving composition of an electorate become of demographic movement, particularly immigration and the capacity of existing electors to articulate themselves fully in every respect of their lives because of a more tolerant approach from the majority around them, will all affect the way that a Parliament thinks as well as how it looks, although not with the speed that many reformers would want to see. The incorporation of women into the active electorate in Britain was bound to alter the composition and the character of the Westminster Parliament, although it should not have taken so long to do so. The fact that Britain is more ethnically, racially and religiously diverse has taken its time to filter its way through to the nature of our Parliament, indeed that process is still not complete, but it is there. Homosexuality was never a formal barrier to the franchise in the United Kingdom but an enforced silence about what people felt they could say about the nature of their love ensured a similar silence at the Palace of Westminster as well. More space for articulation in society at large has prompted more capacity for political expression of sexual politics within Parliament. The formal means by which voting is conducted, while to a degree secondary, is not inconsequential. Universal suffrage conducted via the sorts of public meetings which took place in Britain before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 would have been a very different sort of democracy to the one that we enjoy.

So, extrapolating from the past and present to the future, what is it reasonable to assume? I think we should operate on the presumption that the diversity of the electorate will become yet more embedded and that our arrangements need to adjust even further to reflect this. I think that it will become even harder for political parties which were created in an age of much greater conformity and which have found it difficult to adapt to a more diverse democracy to reflect the electorate, so we should expect more new political parties to emerge, looser political parties to be seen and more individuals elected entirely independently of the traditional political party structure altogether. This too will create a challenge for Parliaments designed on an implicit model which may become dated. Parliaments of the future will thus, in my opinion, need to be more fluid and less formal in feature.

Secondly, where should we look for countries which will prove to be the pioneers of change? As I alluded to earlier on the question of truly universal adult suffrage, New Zealand was the incubator and not the Westminster Parliament which established representative institutions here. It was not Britain but Australia which pioneered what we now think of as the typical ballot. I think we can see a pattern in this. As I will attempt to illustrate, not only in Australasia but Europe and North America, it is persistently relatively new, comparatively small (in terms of population, not area) and frequently geographically quite distinct nations which take the initiative and who should be looked to if we are seeking to identify future trends which may then be adopted as the new norm in many other places. Let me take Europe as an example. The first nation to introduce what we would today recognise as a Parliament was Iceland via the Althing. The first place to render slavery illegal was the Republic of Venice more than 1,000 years ago. Switzerland has had universal male suffrage at the federal level since 1848 (and earlier still for certain cantons) and it pioneered the use of the referendum in the European continent (although I should note its record on votes for women was truly appalling as it was not until an unbelievably late 1971 that all adult females in that country were enfranchised). Sweden, by contrast, was the market leader as far as women electors are concerned. Turnout in elections in Belgium has long exceeded that which occurred in Britain.

Much the same can be seen in the United States. The first state to abolish slavery was tiny Rhode Island in 1774 even before the US came into existence. The territory and then state of Wyoming was the first to permit universal female suffrage. The popular referendum or initiative was adopted by South Dakota in 1898. It was then championed by the state of Colorado. The then very sparsely populated state of Florida was the first, in 1901, to introduce the direct primary at all levels. Much more recently, Oregon has been associated with the notion of elections conducted entirely by post.

The past and present would hence lead me to look to a relatively new country or more exactly a relatively new democracy, small in population probably and geographically distinct as a source for a change in the manner in which an electorate expresses itself that will ultimately change parliaments. Is it possible to identify such a place and such a proposition? I believe that we can. It is Estonia. Estonia has a long and proud if slightly isolated national political history. It has only been a modern democracy since the collapse of the old Soviet Union but has made enormous strides since then and is today an extremely comfortable member of the European Union. The notion that it was a dark dictatorship by external imposition less than quarter of a century ago now seems to be surreal. The most striking aspect of democracy in Estonia, for this discussion at least, is the means by which it conducts its elections. After an experiment with local elections, Estonia became the first nation in the world to permit online voting for its 2007 national parliamentary elections. On that occasion, only 3.4 per cent of all participants took up the option. In 2011, by contrast, almost one quarter (24.3 per cent) of all votes were cast via the Internet or chip-secure mobile telephones. Observers expect that at least half of the votes which will be recorded in the next parliamentary elections – due in 2015 – will be delivered by this new rather than the traditional method. Whereas most European countries have a problem with participation in elections, particularly amongst younger adult citizens, Estonia is in a much stronger position. Technology is changing the electorate as well as elections. This has, perhaps not surprisingly, had an immediate impact on the Estonian Parliament as an institution which is widely regarded as the most technologically-savvy in the world. The level of e-dialogue between representatives and the represented is staggering. Although as I have consistently contended throughout this speech there are real risks in predicting the future from the present, if you are to undertake that wager then it is to Estonia that you should head in 2015 rather than to Britain which will be holding parliamentary elections at about the same time in one sense and quite a long way behind the times in another. The new New Zealand in this sentiment is an institution called the Riigikogu in Tallinn where the presiding officer or Speaker is Ms Eine Ergma, possibly the only Speaker in the world to have once been a Professor of Astronomy. My principal prediction about the legislatures which we will see emerge and evolve in the next twenty years is that they will be shaped by electorates and elections which have followed Estonia’s example. The advantage enjoyed there is because the Estonian Parliament is a relatively new institution it has not found it too difficult to adjust to the knock-on effects of new technology in and on the electorate. The challenge for Britain (and, dare I say it, New Zealand) will be culturally substantial by comparison.

Yet that is the challenge for Parliaments of the Future as I see it. Let me return to the three enduring functions of a Parliament that I noted earlier, namely representation, scrutiny and legislation. What would be the impact of the sort of e-democracy which Estonia is the best example existing today?

The area on which I want to focus is representation. This is because I think that what happens here will eventually have a transmission effect on scrutiny and legislation too and indeed render what we have historically thought of as three separate aspects of parliamentary life much more closely interconnected, a shift towards something close to a Venn diagram over the next few decades. How this happens, nonetheless, is likely to depend on how notions of representation change over time.

If Estonia is any illustration then what we already think of as a virtually revolutionary shift in the size of correspondence from the postbag to the inbox is only in its infancy. We are destined for a lot more of it. The representing will surely find themselves in an almost continuous dialogue with the represented. The traditional notion of there being but one concept of a constituency, based on geography, will become increasingly hard to sustain. It will remain the principal notion of a constituency for some aspects of personal representation but I cannot believe that it will be the only acceptable form of constituency. Issue or cause constituencies will matter just as much as territorial constituencies. An MP will be seen, even more and far more than is the case now, as being as much the member for those with a concern about certain sorts of illness or conflicts in foreign countries as they are for the immediate patch of land which provides them with voters at a general election.

This has huge implications for Members of Parliament. It also has massive ramifications for the resources which we will need to devote if our democracy is to service the electorate in a manner which they think reaches the sort of standard that they would accept in private or commercial e-transactions. Can we be as good as Amazon or Google? If not, we may go the way of Bebo or a MySpace. Being more responsive than MPs might have been thirty, twenty, ten or even five years ago will not be impressive enough. When Estonia first starting innovating with e-democracy at the local level neither Facebook nor Twitter not any kind of tablet computer existed. What then might have been called, if the phrase had been struck, a smartphone would today seem pretty stupid. Is any of this change remotely compatibility with the current, austerity-induced, cry to “cut the cost of politics”. I doubt it. Yet if we do not keep up with the pace of change we will be steamrolled by it.

The increased intensity and speed that an e-democracy demands will travel beyond just one form of representation. It will and should have an impact on what and how we choose to debate. The single biggest change at Westminster with which I have been linked is the revival of the Urgent Question. The UQ is a device which allows any MP to petition me at the start of a parliamentary day to compel a minister to come to the chamber and answer an enquiry on an issue which has suddenly emerged. In the year before I became Speaker only two UQs were accepted and the instrument was dying. In my time in the Chair I have allowed numerous Urgent Questions and Parliament is much the more topical and hence more relevant for it. In the Parliaments of the Future, time allocated for the UQ or similar will, in my view, be automatic. The issue will be not whether but what new should be discussed. The historic concept of departmental questions held at fixed, often lengthy intervals will be antiquated. The notion is already meaningless in Estonia today. We will have to be far, far more flexible about what is debated and when across our whole timetable. And the dictum that the Government of the day should have control over virtually the whole of that business will seem astonishingly arrogant. New Zealand, I observe, is ahead of the curve on that score. Others including us must follow you. An e-democracy will demand enhanced democracy within a Parliament and well as between it and the outside world. Deference is not a quality which will have much purchase in the democracy to come.

To a degree, of course, all of this is speculation. It is not, I hope, speculation without some evidence. I have argued previously that the age of representative democracy is not dead and continuous direct democracy via daily polling will not put parliaments out of action and that continues to be my view. Parliaments will, though, be compelled to change and I think we can see through the example that already exists in Estonia, the direction of travel that our democracy is likely to take. We also know from history that societies, as I remarked, lead Parliaments as much as they are led by it. This time, crucially, it will not be possible for decades to pass before legislatures start to look and sound and think like the electorates which they represent. It will be a much faster process in the future. All of which, in conclusion, leaves me as an optimist about the place of parliaments in democracies. We can become the means by which a rightly more demanding public secures what it is entitled to expect from those who rule in their name. “Never make predictions”, the old adage always runs, and “especially about the future”. At best these thoughts will be incomplete but I hope they are not that mistaken. The Mother Parliament has learnt more from a certain Daughter Parliament than it often cares to concede openly. I have come here today to acknowledge this. I have also chosen to suggest that both Mother and Daughter have much to learn from someone even younger. Thank you all so much for letting me look into the crystal ball. The immediate future now belongs to your questions.

John Bercow – 2012 Speech at University of Cape Town

JohnBercow

Below is the text of the speech made by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, to the University of Cape Town on 16th August 2012.

Thank you very much indeed for that introduction. It is an enormous pleasure to be here in South Africa and at this institution in particular. There are two reasons for this. First, the role of the university sector in the transition from apartheid to the democracy which this country enjoys today is underappreciated, perhaps within South Africa as well as beyond it. More particularly, however, the University of Cape Town deserves recognition as a beacon of liberal and progressive resistance during the dark days of the ascendancy of apartheid. When the mass of South Africans were oppressed by one of the most objectionable regimes on the face of the planet, this University was an eloquent voice for enlightenment, for fairness and for progress. I am touched to have the chance to salute that role.

Secondly, I am delighted to address you in the company of my friend and invaluable advisor, the former Clerk of the House of Commons, the one and only Sir Malcolm Jack. When I was elected to the Chair three years ago Malcolm was the incumbent Clerk who offered me dispassionate procedural advice, and much other shrewd counsel, for which I have always been grateful. He is a long standing friend of South Africa and I am delighted that the University is drawing upon the knowledge, wisdom and experience which he acquired in four decades of distinguished service to the House of Commons. I have had the pleasure of meeting your Speaker of the National Assembly, Max Sisulu, a number of times now and it is hugely instructive to see him at work. As I will set out this afternoon, we have similar titles but quite distinct challenges which come with the role.

For I want to talk today about the office which I have the honour of holding – Speaker of the House of Commons – which certainly has been around for a very long time indeed and how it has evolved quite dramatically over the past few years. I am the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons yet in another sense the first in a different form of that office. The role of the British Speaker, as many of you know, has some significant similarities with that of my South African counterpart. In each case, the person concerned is expected to be a “referee” or “umpire” within his or her chamber, not a partisan political figure who controls the flow of legislation in the manner of, for example, the US Speaker of the House of Representatives. In both cases, the Speaker also exercises some very important, if largely unseen, managerial functions to ensure that Parliament as a building and an organisation operates smoothly. There are, however, also some subtle but important cultural differences between the two institutions.

The Speaker of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom, while having been a practising party politician before election to the Chair, is obliged to shed his or her partisan colours and become strictly neutral after elevation, rendering the Speaker if not a political eunuch then certainly politically celibate. As I was the most liberal member of the Conservative Party at the time that I was fortunate enough to secure my current office, this was perhaps less of a sacrifice for me than for others. As I will explain, I was also chosen after the introduction of a new and very different electoral system and in the aftermath of an enormous scandal concerning the extent to which Members of Parliament were submitting and being compensated for expense claims which were, to put it mildly, highly imaginative if improbable in character. The essence of the role of the Speaker remains unchanged – he or she must be absolutely impartial and has a very modest influence over the legislative schedule – yet changing the rules has, as it so often does in politics, changed the game. This means the Speaker of the House has acquired more indirect authority and is no longer, at least in my view, obliged to act as a sort of political recluse, rarely venturing from, let alone speaking beyond, the Palace of Westminster, the proof of which is that I am here and ready not only to talk today but also to answer your questions. This outward-facing role is not new for you but it is for us and I shall return to the subject later in my remarks.

To set the scene, however, I need briefly to outline the history of the office. There have been presiding figures in Parliament for many centuries indeed. Some of them might be viewed as “pre-Speakers” as the office itself had not yet assumed consistent form. The first of these, known by contemporaries as a Parlour or Prolocutor, was Peter de Montford who presided over the so-called “Mad Parliament” held at Oxford in 1258. Some time later Sir Peter de la Mare performed similar duties during the “Good Parliament” of 1376. He was followed, in a swift change of political tack, by Thomas Hungerford, one year later, the figure whom most historians identify as the first Speaker, who was at the head of the alleged “Bad Parliament” of 1377. So we have had “Mad” and “Bad” and probably lots of “dangerous to know” as well.

The role of Speaker was a precarious one for many centuries. At first, the Speaker was seen as the King’s man in Parliament and thus he bore the brunt of the unpopularity of monarchs. As a consequence, no fewer than nine of my predecessors met unfortunate violent deaths, seven of which involved public execution, two of them on the same day. Even the modern media cannot hand out that sort of treatment. By the seventeenth century, and with the approach of the English Civil War, perceptions of the post had evolved entirely and the Speaker was viewed as Parliament’s representative to the King, a switch in role which generally improved the popularity of the Speaker everywhere, with the exception of the Royal Household. Until the nineteenth century there was no real conformity in the age, background or tenure of the Speaker of the House of Commons. Indeed, two former Speakers became Prime Minister, a fate that is unlikely to trouble me. By the beginning of the last century, however, a norm had been established by which the Speaker was assumed to be a senior parliamentarian, at the older end of the age spectrum, therefore, entirely acceptable to the government of the day and at least tolerable to the main opposition party, a figure whose duties did not extend much beyond the oversight of questions and debates in the chamber of the House of Commons itself. If not quite an exclusively ceremonial figure, he, or in one instance in the 1990s she, was a constrained one.

This history continues to cast considerable influence over the office. By tradition, when a Speaker is elected he or she is dragged to the chair by fellow MPs reflecting the fact that this was once an office which came with considerable personal peril attached to it. Political neutrality remains, as I have remarked, fundamental to it. This means that at general elections the Speaker stands in a constituency or district, just like every other MP, but not as a party candidate but instead as a de facto independent called “The Speaker Seeking Re-election” and the three main political parties do not put up rival contenders against him or her, although all sorts of other individuals are more than welcome to stand and have done so. When the Speaker chooses to leave office the very strong convention is that he or she resigns from the House of Commons at the same time and enters the House of Lords. The retiring Speaker cannot revert to the status of a party politician or even remain in the chamber as an unaligned member. It is thought, and there is much logic to this argument, that it would be very awkward indeed for a new Speaker of the House to attempt to oversee MPs and make what are occasionally contentious procedural decisions with his or her predecessor sitting in the House of Commons. The Speaker also lives in Parliament itself such are the strange hours that the House meets, although we voted only a month ago to modernize them. While some of these informal but revered rules may seem strange they are largely sensible.

They have, nonetheless, limited the Speaker in a number of respects. This might not have mattered much, in truth, were it not for the perception that the House of Commons, like many legislatures throughout the democratic world, although not the United States, was struggling in its attempts to scrutinise and hold the executive to account and at risk of being regarded by elite commentators and the broader public alike, as a marginalised institution. And it has to be conceded that the pressures of party discipline, the challenge of seeking to oversee a much larger government machine, and the emergence of a mass media which in many respects is a rival to legislatures, has been a real challenge for the House of Commons. The capacity of any Speaker to be a counterbalance to this is distinctly finite, but the formal and informal understandings surrounding the office reduced even this small space further. The Speaker was thus in the ironic situation of having a voice within the chamber but being an almost mute figure outside of it. He or she could become a notable national personality through Parliament, as a number of my recent predecessors have, with specialist news and cable channels adding an international dimension to this, but could not be an active public advocate for Parliament.

By a combination of accident and design this started to change about a dozen years ago. As I alluded to earlier, it had become the norm for Speakers to be selected by a private, secret, understanding between the two major political parties in Britain, rather than properly elected to their office. This did not prove to be a sustainable arrangement. In 1992, the seemingly “establishment” candidate to be Speaker was challenged and defeated by another figure, Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker. When she retired in 2000, no fewer than a dozen contenders put their hats into the ring, although there were no clear rules as to how the contest should take place and utterly overt campaigning for the post was still deemed improper. In the aftermath of the election of my immediate predecessor, a comprehensive review of the system for electing the Speaker took place and a much broader and more conventionally democratic set of regulations, including a secret ballot, were adopted. Once again, I appreciate that my South African counterpart has long been elected by secret ballot but the House of Commons decided only in 2001 that such an approach would in future apply. This meant that when I stood for Speaker in May/June 2009, I did so with a formal system of nominations, open hustings and personal manifestos, and a set of rounds of balloting before a Speaker was elected and then, as per the tradition that I mentioned, dragged to the chair.

I do not want to overstate the extent of this transformation. The technical powers of the Speaker were not changed by the democratisation of the process of his selection. That a candidate might have stated personal preferences for how the procedures of the House should be changed did not of itself allow his or her personal mandate to impose those innovations. There may have been a number of individual MPs who voted for me, for example, without agreeing with everything that I had suggested in my personal platform regarding the functioning of Parliament. The need to be seen as politically neutral also restricts the ability of Speakers to launch campaigns to realise their institutional preferences. Despite all this, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the democratisation of the selection process for Speaker has increased the moral authority of the office in pursuing a certain path and enhanced his self-confidence within the system. When combined with the dramatic sense of crisis that the expenses scandal had created at Westminster in 2009, the space for exercising a degree of leadership had been opened. While I am sure my successors will do many things differently to me, I would be surprised if they would be content to retreat to an exclusively ceremonial existence. As General de Gaulle said in 1962, when asked why he wanted the French people to support, as they were to do so, a directly elected presidency in a referendum, “you do not elect a man to open flower shows”.

So how have I sought to secure the Speaker a voice and modernise a very traditional role? I would not want to exaggerate the change but I have sought to make progress in three areas.

The first is to innovate within the scope of the office. The main example of this is a device in the parliamentary arsenal known as the Urgent Question. The Urgent Question allows for any Member of Parliament to petition me to insist that a government department sends one of its ministers to address the House of Commons on an issue of importance which has arisen suddenly or since the House last had the opportunity to consider it and with at most three or four hours’ notice for the minister. It is the rough equivalent of the South African National Assembly being able to demand that a senior minister here appear to address an issue, upending whatever else might be in the diary. This is precisely what happened to our own Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, the four most important offices of state in the UK, since they assumed their positions in May 2010. It is a weapon which I suspect few other legislatures have to hand.

It is also, however, one which had fallen into disuse. In the year before I was elected Speaker, precisely two Urgent Questions were accepted. MPs could have been forgiven for thinking that the Urgent Question had been abolished or was to be reserved for only very special moments. Since I became Speaker I have awarded more than 100 Urgent Questions or roughly one every sitting week. The impact of this change has been positive in a number of respects. Ministers now know that Urgent Questions are being granted and are hence more inclined to offer statements to the House voluntarily rather than risk the relative indignity of being summoned to the House of Commons. The media have been obliged to report that a political statement has been made to MPs in Parliament and not on some television channel. MPs feel empowered that they can make an immediate impact on ministers.

This is one of several areas where I have sought to test the elasticity of the office, observing the maxim of party neutrality vigorously but nevertheless holding the executive to account. I have also sought to use the influence over business in the chamber that I have to speed up proceedings, to ensure that more MPs have the opportunity to speak and to stand up for those MPs who are neither ministers nor shadow ministers on the other side of the House – the “backbenchers” in the language of Westminster – making sure that they fully participate. I am a strong believer in the importance of topicality of subject and inclusion of all Members in all we do.

Second, there are numerous areas where the Speaker can exercise informal influence. It was no secret at the time of my election that I favoured sweeping reforms in the procedures of the House of Commons and while I certainly could not and would not force my fellow MPs to vote for such a programme of change I could and did press ministers to ensure that the House would have the chance to vote on such a prospectus, which it duly did in March 2010. The result was agreement that in future all Select Committee chairs would be elected by the whole House of Commons with individual members chosen in a secret ballot within their party caucuses, that a House Backbench Business Committee would be created and elected to oversee that section of the parliamentary timetable which belongs to ordinary MPs, to be followed in the near future by the introduction of a House Business Committee to examine how that share of the schedule currently dominated by the government should be organised. The House also voted to extend the democratisation of the speakership by adopting the direct election of the three Deputy Speakers who assist me in the running of the Commons. I have also been a staunch advocate of the House adopting new technology to make our proceedings easier for outsiders to follow and to encourage public participation in our work.

Thirdly, I have fundamentally changed the external role of the Speaker of the House of Commons. As I have hinted previously, the Speaker has historically been seen as an internal figure within Westminster with no significant exposure to the rest of the world at all until first radio microphones and then television cameras were allowed into the chamber. I have no desire to be a prisoner of Parliament. I have seen public advocacy as crucial to my functions. This is partly achieved by a higher media profile but mostly through an intense round of talks and visits throughout the United Kingdom with a particular personal focus on addressing disadvantaged groups within society and those who feel marginalised from politics. I also strive to address universities. This occasion is one of what will probably be ten or more such university engagements in 2012 and I always invite and even attempt to answer questions. As I indicated earlier, I recognise that in this respect the UK is belatedly following South Africa’s good example. After all, your country’s Guide to Procedure stipulates that the Speaker shall act as representative and spokesman for the Assembly and for Parliament to the outside world.

It is my absolute passion that the Speaker should be an Ambassador for Parliament and an Ambassador for Democracy internationally, condemning the abuse of human rights in places such as Darfur and Zimbabwe and encouraging free and fair elections in Burma. I was absolutely delighted that Aung Sang Suu Kyi, for years a heroine of mine whom I had never met, chose to make a historic address in the Westminster Hall section of Parliament in June. This is certainly not the traditional part which my office has played but I believe it to be essential. The Speaker of the House should be neutral within Parliament but he should not be neutral about the value of parliamentary democracy be it within the UK or anywhere in the world.

I am, I concede, an unusual Speaker of the House in a number of respects. I was elected at a comparatively young age (46), after by historic standards a modest number of years as a member of the House of Commons (12) and by a completely new method of selection. The differences between our offices, though, are fundamental and they rightly reflect our quite different histories. We still have much to share and to compare. I am a strong enthusiast for the argument that modern parliaments, whether they be, for instance, the Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom or the South African one beyond it, have much that should interest and intrigue us. To that end, in another innovation, I now sponsor a series of lectures in Speaker’s House annually where MPs and peers speak to a common and important theme. In 2013 I am organising a set entitled “Parliamentarians on Parliaments” which will allow MPs and peers with a specialist appreciation of other legislatures around the world to set out their thinking on them. South Africa will certainly be on that list of parliaments.

Both of our democratic assemblies are prominent players in the Commonwealth family of Parliaments where there is constant exchange of ideas and learning from each other. We clearly have many lessons to learn from you and the capacity of the House of Commons to combine continuity with change is perhaps an invaluable lesson we can export to others. The evolution of the office of Speaker is, I think, an interesting recent example of this and one worthy of reflection. Political reinvention is often the effective secret of political relevance. I hope that I have made the case for it. It has been an honour to address this esteemed audience. Thank you for listening to me and I look forward to your questions.