When right-wing commentators emerged from reviewing the former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow’s Unspeakable demanding smelling salts and decontamination, I knew this might be a book for me. Disgust on one side of the debate these days seems to guarantee satisfaction, even pleasure, on the other. And besides, there are very few people whom I had watched more closely since Britain voted to leave the E.U. than John Bercow, the most prolix, irascible, and memorable Speaker in decades.
The reasons for Conservative loathing for the diminutive son of a Reform Jewish father and Methodist mother brought up on the wrong side of the tracks in North London are his journey from the far-right racist politics of his youth to a liberal position on the left of the Tory party—the exact opposite direction of travel to most of his colleagues—and, second, his staunch defense of Parliament against the executive through the tortured years after the Brexit vote.
Right-wing commentators emerged from reviewing Unspeakable demanding smelling salts and decontamination.
There were genuinely heroic moments for Bercow, particularly his refusal to submit to former prime minister Theresa May’s tactic of repeatedly throwing the same proposition on a deal with the E.U. at Parliament after it had suffered a record defeat. But on September 9 of last year, when Boris Johnson illegally prorogued—or suspended—Parliament, only for it to be recalled two weeks later, Bercow momentarily came to represent the defiant spirit of the place, solemnly shaking the hands of opposition members as they left the chamber on that grim day.
There is perhaps a third reason. While he doesn’t lose an opportunity in Unspeakable to warmly salute his own successes, he is delightfully rude about the leaders of his own party. He calls former prime minister David Cameron “a 24-carat snob” and “insubstantial, lightweight, someone who saw politics as a game that it was his inherited duty, and right, to play and win.” Of the former leader Michael Howard he says, “Some people are cold. Others are oily. Michael’s peculiar distinction was to combine coldness and oiliness in equal measure.”
Another leader, William Hague, is accused of disreputable trickery and lying, and Theresa May is described as “wooden as your average coffee table … dull as ditch-water … lacking in an ounce of small talk … original convictions … spontaneity or natural fluency.” This is burning bridges on a military scale, and of course all these people still have friends in the press and Parliament, which is why allegations about Bercow bullying and humiliating members of his staff, which he explores in weird detail in his book, will not go away and now threaten his elevation to the House of Lords.
Manner of Speaking
Bercow was spectacularly rude in and outside the chamber. During one of the fraught debates last year he rounded on a Labor Member: “I have great aspirations for you to be a statesman but I think your apprenticeship still has some distance to travel.” There are countless examples of this kind of elaborate put-down on YouTube, which are partly the reason for Bercow’s international renown. But politicians are not apt to forget public humiliation, and he is unlikely to be forgiven for this book, or, indeed, his frank declaration at the end of his 10-year reign in the Speaker’s chair that Brexit was the “biggest foreign policy blunder of the postwar period.”
For all this, I found his account of the undersize boy without a lot of natural talent—except his father’s fluency and a good tennis game—who was devastated by his parents’ divorce and raked by teenage acne, honest and convincing. Desperately ambitious and competitive, he did not have the ruling-class road map into politics that is possessed from birth by people like David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and he made mistakes, the chief of which was a fanatical reverence for Enoch Powell, the right-winger and racist who is the progenitor of so much ugliness in today’s Conservative Party. He is as open about his youthful foolishness as he is about the agonizingly long courtship of Labor-supporting Sally Illman, now his wife and no doubt the major influence in the development of his liberal conscience.
Bercow calls former prime minister David Cameron “a 24-carat snob.”
Reading the book is a slightly odd experience in that you feel yourself disarmed at one moment by Bercow’s candor and readiness to admit mistakes, but dismayed the next by his egotism, insensitivity, and pettiness. Amusing though it is to see the insufferable second-raters of the British political stage ridiculed, you wonder if he might not have stayed his hand a little, or thought longer about the extraordinary period that he oversaw from the Speaker’s chair with such bumptious self-confidence. There aren’t the penetrating insights that you yearn for in a period like this, but perhaps that would require someone who is less involved with himself and more alert to the interplay of character and fast-moving political currents on the great stage that is the House of Commons.
There are sections of Unspeakable which, to be frank, I would be pushed to read again during a long stretch of solitary confinement, but on the whole I’m glad to be reminded of all that went on in the last few years. The great enemy of democracy is, after all, forgetfulness. Bercow’s part in the drama, as articulated to the man he seemed to have disliked more than any other member of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, was, he said, never to be “the cheerleader for the executive but the champion of Parliament.” That is true.
I’m perhaps more sympathetic to this book than most because it is tinged by the sadness and sense of defeat that so many of us feel. His final word, referring to the likely impact of Boris Johnson’s recent victory on the U.K., must be hard for a true Tory to write. “The irony … is that an avowedly unionist party—the Conservatives—has won its biggest majority for three decades in circumstances which could trigger the breakup of the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Sure enough, truth can be stranger than fiction.”
Henry Porter’s most recent novel is White Hot Silence