Edinburgh Fringe 2015
John Bercow needs no introduction. Well, perhaps I should have said that south of the Border he needs no introduction. Up here, if Nicola has her way, he may soon become a visitor from a foreign Parliament, rather than appearing here as a guest in one of the outlying areas ruled from afar.
But his skills as a communicator (and impersonator to boot) result in an hour of conversation that manages to be both entertaining and educative as well as charming and disarming the audience. You suspect that if Nero had thrown this particular Christian into the proverbial lion’s den, he’d have tamed those beasts as well.
Getting a press ticket, any ticket, for this talk by John Bercow was like finding a hen’s tooth. Those wonderful people at Fringe Central burned through their press allocation rather quickly and the initial response to my direct pleadings to the University’s PR department met with rather a blank stare and a “but Fringereview does theatre – this is just a talk”.
But a bit of smooth talking secured me a berth, although how anyone could so insult the master of ceremonies in the world’s longest running theatre production (yes, even The Mousetrap hasn’t been running as long as this show) by suggesting he just “talks” is beyond me. John Bercow, the Speaker in the mother of all parliaments, doesn’t do mere “talks”. His every utterance in the House of Commons is part of a performance, every word of which is recorded, broadcast, digested, analysed and, of course, recorded for posterity in Hansard.
And, whilst he resisted the temptation to deliver his trademark clarion call of “Order, order” as a means of quietening the buzz of anticipation in the University of Edinburgh Business School’s packed lecture theatre, the subsequent hour of discourse provided a fascinating background on tennis, the role of the Speaker, issues facing the UK Parliament, the ongoing effort to introduce 21st Century working practices and, through audience questions, a variety of topical issues that directly or indirectly affect the UK.
With the genial Chris Carter in the chair, this was hardly going to be a Paxman-Humphries style grilling but the first question (focusing on Bercow’s prowess in his youth as a tennis player) had about as much pace as a serve from Françoise Dürr – the older amongst us will recall that she is a lady whose initial shot in a rally usually took so long to get over the net that her opponent could often lose form before it reached her.
But the Right Honourable Member for Buckingham resisted the temptation to smash an immediate winner and merely patted the ball back over the net, explaining that tennis had taught him the art of winning and the value of never giving in to adversity.
Carter’s next shot was a gentle prober down the centre of the court, exploring how Bercow came into politics, what motivated him and who he most admired. Good easy stuff which produced some nicely framed stock answers but you still got the feeling that this was the warm-up rather than the start of the game itself.
The balls only really started to fly once we got onto Bercow’s current day job, that of Speaker. Elected on the back of the 2009 MP’s expenses scandal which caused the ejection of his predecessor, he’s never been far from controversy. Openly bias towards the backbench fraternity from which he emerged, he is open and refreshingly honest in his belief that the House of Commons is not there to govern, but to hold to account those that do. Whilst this is hardly radical thinking (Palmerston coined the phrase over a century ago) it’s nice to hear someone in authority trying to reverse the trend that saw power slip from Parliament to Number 10 under the premiership (or was it reign?) of Tony Blair.
It helps that Bercow has the hide of a rhinoceros and this has certainly protected him against a steady stream of negative briefings from the Tory front benches since he became Speaker. He openly admits that he was not the number one choice (that was party grandee Sir George Young) but his attitude and support towards those not in the heart of government has ensured that the voice of the rank and file is heard and that ministers are held as properly to account as parliamentary time allows. That this has ruffled a few peacock’s feathers is, Mr Speaker says, not his concern. And the introduction of secret ballots for the head of key Commons Select Committees has, Bercow pronounced, enhanced the transparency and accountability of ministers.
With the gentle pat-ball questioning from the chair at an end, I was looking forward to a few fast serves and volleys coming from the audience, sitting as we were not a mile from the home of Scottish Government. But, as well as being a consummate orator, Bercow possesses the skills of a diplomat with anything controversial being skillfully deflected with both charm and eloquence. Bear-traps were delicately side-stepped long before they threatened to ensnare him. Even a question from Chris Mullin, former Labour MP, Minister and one-time Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was courteously and humorously dealt with via an excellent impersonation of the late Tony Benn. Turns out that Mr Bercow is more than just a skilled orator – he does impersonations of political figures that are uncannily accurate. Rory Bremner beware.
The pat-ball continued as the most penetrating question that the many SNP supporters in the audience could come up with was the issue of allowing applause in the House of Commons chamber, rather than what they regard as the outdated practice of waving Order Papers and crying “here, here”. But at least that gave Bercow the opportunity to heap fulsome praise on what is now the third largest UK Parliamentary party, noting how well they worked together, how they actually turned up to debates and took their responsibilities as reviewers of the legislators seriously. He was, of course, too polite to suggest that the official opposition to the current Government is so dysfunctional and in such disarray that only the SNP can provide effective opposition.
Bercow’s honest, forthright and principled performance was refreshing and it’s just a shame that this was a one-off. But I’m sure that, given the richly deserved reception he received as we concluded, he’ll come back. Perhaps once Nicola has announced the date – for the next referendum that is, not the SNP taking over as the official opposition party in Westminster.
And if he does, I wonder whether anyone will attempt to serve an ace against him in the form of a question about some of his (on the face of it) rather profligate use of official privileges? Now that would be an interesting game to watch.