John Bercow
John Bercow
Photo Credit: Wiki

John Bercow is the valiant Bijay Kumar Banerjee writ even larger. Just as Banerjee tried to uphold democratic rights in West Bengal against Indira Gandhi’s absolutism in 1967, Mr Bercow is trying to save the “mother of parliaments” from the depredations of Boris Johnson, a prime minister whom James Cameron, a previous incumbent, accuses of “sharp practices.” Typically, although Banerjee professed Communism, he fell back on British practice and precedent to defend West Bengal’s constitutional rights.

Banerjee was born in a wealthy professional family. Mr Bercow is a taxi-driver’s son and in theory a Conservative. Only in democratic Britain would someone like him have no qualms about declaring that some action of the head of state–Queen Elizabeth II–amounts to “constitutional outrage”. Only in Britain would parliament’s speaker denounce Mr Johnson’s five-week parliamentary suspension as an attempt to silence the people’s representatives at a crucial time in history.

“I do think there will be a lot of people in the country, of all political opinions and of none, who will say, ‘Surely at a time of a grave public policy challenge on the biggest issue the UK has faced since the Second World War, MPs should for the most part be at their place of work’” Mr Bercow said of the parliamentary closure the prime minister ordered. “We’ve got a job to do. There is work to be done, there are voices to be heard, there are arguments still to be thrashed out, for alternatives to be posited.” 

The episode recalls that stormy November morning in 1967 when no sooner had West Bengal’s governor, Dharma Vira, taken his seat than Banerjee, the speaker, stood up and wagging his finger like a schoolmaster admonishing errant children, intoned that the governor had dealt the greatest blow to democracy since 1642, when King Charles I entered the House of Commons. The MPs the king had gone to arrest had disappeared; asked about their whereabouts, the speaker, William Lenthall, famously replied in words Banerjee would have loved to utter, “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”.

The background to that drama was the governor’s dismissal of West Bengal’s elected United Front government and appointment of a long-retired former Congress chief minister, Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, who claimed to head a notional “Progressive Democratic Front.” Dharma Vira retaliated to the tat of Banerjee’s adjournment sine die with the tit of dissolution. A crippling hartal followed by rioting led to the predictable President's Rule.

Britain is also caught in the coils of a tortuous legal process at the time of writing. Mr Johnson’s government has appealed against the Scottish court verdict that the prorogation was unlawful, and law-abiding man that he is, Mr Bercow has already stressed he would accept the verdict of the Supreme Court which will consider legal challenges to the suspension of the Commons. He also agrees that the Government had “every legal right” to lodge an appeal.

“If the government were to lose the case, I think that the consequence that would flow would be that people would expect Parliament to meet soon. Of course, wherever I was, you know, I would come back to do my duty.” If the government wins the appeal, it will of course continue as before with the prorogation until October 14 when the Queen’s speech from the throne will set out the government’s agenda."

"Mr Johnson gives this as his reason for suspending parliament. Others accuse him of silencing the public voice while he prepares to crash out of the European Union without an agreement. Every public figure has his critics. A veteran Brexiteer, Sir Bernard Jenkin, complains that the office of speaker has become irretrievably politicised and radicalised” during Mr Bercow’s 10 years in the chair. The speaker is accused of bullying Westminster staff, refurbishing his grace and favour apartment with parliamentary funds, and misusing his office to canvass money for his re-election. Nigel Farage, the egregious Brexit Party leader, calls him the “worst speaker in memory.” Donald Trump probably mutters far worse imprecations. For Mr Bercow told the Commons in 2017 that he was "strongly opposed" to Mr Trump addressing Parliament during his planned state visit. He added that "opposition to racism and sexism" were "hugely important considerations".

When Mr Trump visited as Queen Elizabeth’s guest, Mr Bercow, descended from Jewish immigrants called Berkowitz, was conspicuous by his absence from the glittering Buckingham Palace banquet that meant so much to the American president. Mr Bercow who has modernized his job sartorially, abandoning the Speaker’s full-bottomed wig, knee-length breeches and gaiters for a sober business suit and his own spiky white hair, would probably have felt out of place in that gorgeous assembly sparkling with diamonds.

Earlier parliaments often ignored contemporary issues. Backbenchers were seldom able to put questions to the prime minister. With his sardonic lopsided grin and a twinkle in his eye, Mr Bercow made sure the prime minister spent hours standing at the Despatch Box answering question after question from backbench MPs. Ministers were furious at their time in the limelight being reduced but Theresa May diligently did her duty. Indian prime ministers could learn much from the respect with which she treated parliament. Mr Johnson however tries to bluff his way out of debates with invective instead of argument and more style than substance. He must envy Narendra Modi who avoids facing the Lok Sabha altogether.

Apart from livening up the Commons, Mr Bercow is credited with dragging it into the 21st century. Come November and members of the Youth Parliament will sit in the House of Commons for the 11th time. On 30 October 2009 the Youth Parliament became the first and only group of non-MPs ever to debate in the chamber. Since then members aged between 11 and 18 have participated in an annual debate in the Commons, chaired by Mr Bercow himself, on subjects like racism, Islamophobia, ending knife-crime, mental health, “equal pay, for equal work”, homelessness and “votes at 16”. These young debaters represent Britain’s changing face. While only 29 per cent of MPs are women, the Youth Parliament boasts a 52 per cent female membership. Further, 32 per cent of Youth Parliament members are from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds as against 7.9 per cent of Britain’s population and 8 per cent of MPs. Adult listeners have been known to single out teenage speakers as future prime ministers.

John Bercow has re-established parliament’s centrality in public life. He is the kind of outspoken defender of democratic rectitude that India’s opportunistic and sycophantic politics so desperately needs.

The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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