'I'm Just Being Me' British House Speaker Bercow on His Brexit Role
He has become legendary with his calls for "order! orderrr!" In an interview, John Bercow, the speaker of Britain's House of Commons, discusses the never-ending Brexit drama and his good luck that people holding his position are no longer subjected to beheadings.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Speaker, some of your predecessors were decapitated. Is it a relief for you that this kind of punishment is out of fashion?
Bercow: I suppose it is a relief. No fewer than seven of my predecessors met their end on the executioner's block. Luckily, we have abolished the death penalty. So whatever else happens to me, I'm not likely to lose my head.
DER SPIEGEL: There might be a few people out there who would like to reintroduce severe punishments in your case.
Bercow: That may well be so. My responsibility is simply to do what I think is right. Actually, that's the responsibility in a representative democracy of every member of parliament (MP), nothing else. The speaker, likewise, is there to do what he thinks is right by parliament. There will be some people who say, "Three cheers, John. Well done." And there'll be other people who say, "It's an absolute disgrace. You should be ashamed." It's called democracy. And everybody has a right to his or her view.
DER SPIEGEL: Some MPs, especially on the remain side, are getting threats, even death threats. Did you get them as well?
Bercow: I've had a very small number of angry communications bordering on threat. I had one the other day which referred to what happened to Jo Cox and could be interpreted as threatening. But I'm not complaining. I'm very concerned that every MP should be able to do what he or she thinks is right without any pressure in the form of threat, intimidation, threat of violence, or worse.
DER SPIEGEL: In almost 10 years as speaker of the House, have you ever encountered such a heated, even hateful atmosphere in parliament?
Bercow: I wouldn't say that the atmosphere in parliament is hateful. There is an intensity of feeling. There is a clash of principles. There is a fundamental incompatibility between one view and another, not in every case, but in many cases. There are irreconcilable differences. And the only way in which these matters can be resolved is by democratic decision in parliament in the weeks and months or even years ahead.
DER SPIEGEL: The prime minister tried to circumvent parliament right from the beginning of the Brexit process. Is what we have seen this week, parliament's revenge?
Bercow: There may be people who would put it that way. I don't think it would be for the speaker to do that. I've always had perfectly courteous dealings with the prime minister. I don't have any animus towards her. And I don't have any evidence that she has any animus towards me. I've always found her extremely courteous.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you agree that you are one of the most powerful people in Britain today?
Bercow: It's amazingly generous of you to confer this sobriquet on me, but I'm not sure it is warranted. Of course, I do have a role, not grabbed by me, but conferred upon me, to select amendments for debate and to keep order. And yes, I won't be disingenuous. It is true that, in this context, the role of the speaker is more center stage than it would be if we were purely conducting a debate about child support policy. We're having a debate about a matter which has consumed the political world and dominated the media for the best part of three years. And in this current context, there is a particular significance attached to that. My approach is to try to facilitate perhaps by enabling the fullest and fairest expression of views and the range of views that exists.
House of Commons speaker Bercow: "I would gently point out that this is a hung parliament, where the government itself doesn't have a natural able majority."
DER SPIEGEL: You clearly have a range of options for interpreting your role. That's a huge responsibility.
Bercow: But I am not responsible for how people vote. I'm playing no part whatever and would never do in trying to influence the opinions that people hold. That would be quite wrong and improper. I have an influence in the sense that some of the parameters of the debate have to be set by the speaker. In relation to Brexit, I'm continuing an approach that I have adopted throughout my speakership. I am not -- repeat: not -- taking sides.
DER SPIEGEL: There are quite a lot of Tory MPs, especially on the right, who accuse you of being a partial figure.
Bercow: I don't think that that's in any sense a consistent threat, if I may very politely say so. Look, you can't command support from everybody, there are always people who think they can do the job better, and maybe they can. Maybe in due course, one of those people would become speaker, in which case, good luck to him or her. But there are very strong Brexiteers in parliament who have been some of my most loyal and committed supporters. The best man at my wedding and my oldest, longest-standing friend in parliament, Julian Lewis, the MP from New Forest East, is an absolutely committed Brexiteer. And he says, "Well, the thing about John is he's completely fair."
DER SPIEGEL: You allowed an unusual amendment to a government motion in January by saying: "If we were guided only by precedent, manifestly nothing in our procedures would ever change." Yet recently you said precedent means there cannot be another meaningful vote on the prime minister's Brexit deal without significant changes. Isn't that contradictory?
Bercow: No, it isn't. And somebody who suggests it is contradictory is comparing apples with pears. In January, what I was doing was allowing a backbench member to put an alternative proposition to a government motion and allowing it to be voted on by the House. The government had wanted to table what it thought was an unamendable motion. I would gently point out that this is a hung parliament, where the government itself doesn't have a natural able majority. And although amendments to such motions, such so-called forthwith motions, are very unusual, nothing in the standard orders of the House prohibited it.
In the case of the meaningful vote the situation is different. There had already been two such votes. There was considerable speculation that the government would come forward with a third meaningful vote. And I simply thought it right to point out that this convention about not putting the same question in the same session of parliament was an important convention and that it should be upheld.
DER SPIEGEL: With that decision, you caused a lot of distress for the government. Does that bother you?
Bercow: I don't set out to cause distress. I don't derive any satisfaction or pleasure from people being upset. I admit I enjoy the job, and I love the theater of parliament. But I don't set out to cause controversy. I set out to do the right thing. And I wasn't going to duck what I thought was the right decision just to avoid disfavor in one quarter or another.
DER SPIEGEL: You said in 2009 that, as speaker, you would help parliament to get off its knees and, if necessary, to expose the government. Have you succeeded?
Bercow: I think I have helped with others parliament to assert itself in a way that perhaps it hadn't done for quite a long time.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you aware of the fact that you have almost become a cult figure in parts of Europe?
Bercow: It's not about me. It's about the House. That's the more important thing. Because of the spotlight caused by Brexit, we're not debating something just of interest to Brits, but across Europe and beyond. These things have attracted more interest.
DER SPIEGEL: It's your call "Order! Orderrr!" that has gone viral.
Bercow: I apparently say it in a way that amuses some people. I suspect it's some interest in what is regarded as English eccentricity. Though I'm not a very typical Englishperson, I'm actually of partly Central European origin. My father was the son of migrants from Romania. And my mother, who's still with us, is a Yorkshire Methodist. So, you know, I'm not a typical Brit. The name Bercow was originally Berkowitz. But some people seem to regard me as a typical Englishman.
DER SPIEGEL: Which is also due to your unique rhetoric.
Bercow: I inherited my speaking style from my late father. It obviously provokes comment. Some people say, "Oh, we like the way he speaks." And other people say, "That bloke's an irritating clot, he's horrible." Well, my argument is that I'm authentic. And I'm just being me. It's not a contrivance. It's not a put-on show. It's the way I am.
DER SPIEGEL: For non-native speakers it's not always easy to follow you though. A dictionary comes in handy.
Bercow: I remember when I was studying German at school, we were told about the importance of using the dictionary properly. We had an Austrian-German teacher, and once we were considering the matter of a traffic jam. And one of my classmates thought the German word for it was "Verkehrsmarmelade." The teacher said: "This is not the way to use the dictionary."
DER SPIEGEL: You announced last year that you will step down in summer 2019. Is that still valid?
Bercow: I didn't say that in fact. It was quite widely suggested that I had made some announcement, but in fact, I never did.
DER SPIEGEL: So, you will stay for the second phase of the Brexit negotiations?
Bercow: I restood in 2017 in my constituency with the support of all of the party leaders. And now is certainly not a time to step down. We are in the middle of an important process. Obviously, I'm much nearer to the end of my tenure than to its beginning. But I think, if I've got an announcement to make, I would not make it to DER SPIEGEL but to the House of Commons.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Speaker, we thank you for this interview.