John Bercow has become an unlikely international celebrity and YouTube star amid the heated, high-profile Parliamentary debate over Britain’s planned withdrawal from the European Union. Speaker of the House of Commons for a decade, Bercow has become famous for his sharp wit and scathing takedowns of rowdy colleagues, his bellowing calls for “Order!,” and his efforts to democratize Parliament by giving greater voice to backbenchers, or nonparty leaders. (A quick online search will yield several video compilations of him in action during the so-called Brexit deliberations.) Bercow, who has announced plans to step down from his post soon, was able to pay a visit to campus Monday to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School as Parliament is currently on hiatus until Oct. 14, a decision made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is trying to rush Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31, with or without a transition agreement. In an interview with the Gazette, Bercow reflected on the Brexit discussions, what he does to relax, and the key qualities that make a great speaker.
Can you describe what the last three years have been like in the job as the U.K. has debated Brexit?
BERCOW: Fascinating, intense, and endlessly unpredictable. It’s been a richly stimulating period in which to be in the chair, a privilege of course at any time in one’s tenure but more, more testing, intriguing, and uncertain in terms of the vicissitudes of fortune and who will say what next on the Brexit question than in relation to any other time or subject over which I have presided.
I suppose the other thing to note is that in a democratic polity one is ordinarily dealing with and hearing about a vast panoply of issues at any one time. Democratic politicians have to juggle lots of different balls. You don’t just focus on one subject. I don’t say we have focused only on one subject, but the focus on Brexit has been so dramatically greater than on any other issue as to dramatically reduce the bandwidth for other subjects to be covered. That isn’t a political comment; it’s not intended to be a criticism, coruscating or otherwise, of any political party, any individual leader, any prime minister, any leader of the opposition, any third party. I think it’s just a commentary on how demanding and often all-consuming the Brexit issue has been. It is also, of course, a very dramatic example of the challenge that a Parliament faces in dealing with an issue about which the country is very heavily, some would say, almost equally divided.
GAZETTE: In announcing your plans to step down you said the House of Commons is “filled overwhelmingly by people who are motivated by their notion of the national interest, by their perception of the public good, and by their duty — not as delegates but as representatives — to do what they believe is right for our country.” Yet, if the people have decided on an issue such as Brexit, aren’t MPs supposed to uphold their vote?
BERCOW: Many people think that it is the responsibility of Parliament to translate into practice the result of the referendum. I am not arguing against that. I would simply say that it is a matter of political debate; it’s not a matter of legal necessity. And some would say it’s a matter of political necessity to implement the referendum result. I completely respect the fact that a lot of people would say that. But as speaker I have to recognize also, and I do so quite explicitly, that there are other views. There isn’t one view. There are those who say, “We gave the decision to the British people, and they voted as they did, by maybe a small, but nevertheless, a definite majority for Brexit, and therefore Brexit must follow.” And there are those who say, “Well no, it’s not legally binding, and the referendum was held in the last Parliament, and we can argue and argue and argue the toss over the issues.”
I am expressing myself carefully, because I am not trying to argue for one or other point of view. The only point as speaker of the Parliament I would make is this: The duty of a member of Parliament, and really ultimately the only duty, or certainly the overriding duty, is to do what he or she thinks is right for the country. Now, there will be people who will say, “Ah yeah, but if a member of Parliament upsets his party or her party nationally, the whip will be withdrawn.” Sure, that can happen; that’s a pragmatic consequence of particular behavior. If a member of Parliament upsets his or her local party, that member of Parliament may be deselected as a candidate for the next election. However, constitutionally, morally, the only duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he or she thinks is right, and we are a representative democracy. There will be people who will say, “Is he trying to rubbish the referendum? Is he saying the referendum doesn’t matter? Is he trying to defy, or deny or denounce the will of the people?” I am not seeking to do any of those things. That’s not for the speaker to do. The speaker’s job is to try to facilitate the fullest and fairest expression of opinion which exists in the House of Commons, and that is what I have consistently sought to do.
And I suppose I have just made the point that in relation to Brexit, we might leave with a deal; we might leave if Parliament so votes without a deal; or we might ask for further time, an extension of Article 50 [governing the withdrawal of a nation from the EU] in order to try again to resolve the issue. Any of those three is possible. But when people say: “This must happen or that must happen,” I don’t accept that. It seems to me it’s up to colleagues to decide how to take things forward. A lot certainly do think they have a responsibility to try to deliver Brexit, they most certainly do. But there are members of Parliament who say, “Well, I don’t think I have [that responsibility] at all.” Or there are members of Parliament who say, “Well, I think I’ve got a duty to try to see how it can be delivered in such a way as meets the verdict of the people but protects the country economically and, in security terms, strategically in the present in the light of all we know.” And these opinions will play out, and it’s not for me to put it simply either to facilitate Brexit or to stop Brexit.