Bercow and Grieve think they are political giants but they represent all that’s rotten in parliament
In earlier centuries, parliaments were often given nicknames. Some were straightforward and depended on their duration, such as ‘Short’ or ‘Long’. Others were more imaginative – ‘Merciless’, ‘Addled’ and ‘Rump’.
The current antics in Westminster mean that it’s high time to revive the custom. And there is only one possible name for this one. It has to be the Parliament of Pygmies, presided over as it is by the pygmy-in-chief, Speaker John Bercow, who, early in his period of office, was denounced by one infuriated Minister as a ‘sanctimonious, stupid dwarf’.
Ordinarily all this would be no more than matter for wry amusement. But the times are anything but ordinary. So strange are they, in fact, that the pygmies think they are giants and ape the gestures of the parliamentary greats of the past.
The parliament of Pygmies led by Speaker John Bercow tells the people to forget Brexit and let their betters take charge. It is a coup against the people
But they do so without understanding the context or – still more important – the consequences. Which are terrifying.
Take, for instance, last week’s self-aggrandising statement by Bercow, who had defied precedent, ignored the advice of his parliamentary clerks and accepted an amendment that will allow the House of Commons to take control of Brexit.
His decision has quite rightly angered millions who believe that the purpose of Parliament is to serve the will of the people.
‘I am not setting myself up against the Government. I am championing the rights of the House of Commons,’ he said, before adding portentiously: ‘My job is not to be a cheerleader for the executive branch [the Government].’
Here Bercow is echoing, deliberately no doubt, the words of his famous predecessor William Lenthall, who was Speaker of the Long Parliament in 1642 when Charles I entered the House with his guards to arrest five MPs who he thought to be in traitorous communication with the Scots. ‘Where are they?’ demanded the King.
‘May please, your Majesty,’ Lenthall replied on his knees, ‘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.’
Bercow’s fellow-Remainer, and arch-legal dwarf Dominic Grieve QC likes to think that he is channelling his historic hero Edmund Burke who declared that an MP was not a delegate but a representative
All very noble, and the sort of brave defiance of absolute authority that has, over the centuries, laid the foundations for the democracy we now cherish. But don’t let Bercow’s carefully turned words fool you into believing that he is on the side of the people. He is not.
Lenthall was defying a would-be absolute King. Bercow, in contrast, is challenging a Prime Minister who holds office according to the existing norms of the constitution – and behind her lie the 17.4 million electors who voted ‘Out’ in the referendum of 2016.
There are other, less flattering, comparisons. Bercow and Lenthall share more than a fondness for fine words. Both Speakers adored the trappings and wealth of office. Lenthall clung on to them like grim death, just as Bercow does now, as indeed did the members of the Long Parliament.
Having become a government-by-default in the Civil War, they tried to make themselves into a permanent oligarchy, unanswerable to the electorate and holding their seats for life.
And oligarchy – the control of government by the few – is the ill-concealed and utterly disturbing agenda today of the extreme Remainers, not just those in Parliament but outside it also. It is most blatant in the case of media cheerleaders such as Times columnist Matthew Parris, who declares that his kind of Conservative listens to popular opinion and then, if it suits him, ignores it.
Parris cites, of course, Parliament’s vote to abolish the death penalty in the teeth of popular support for it. But that was a free vote on a matter of conscience.
Dominic Grieve stood as a Conservative Party candidate on the Conservative Party manifesto, which included a clear commitment to honour the result of the referendum and repeated Theresa May’s famous phrase that ‘we continue to believe that No Deal is better than a bad deal for the UK’
Membership of the EU is not a matter of conscience, however much some silly folk try to make it one; it is a matter of policy and broad questions of policy have been decided since the Reform Acts of the 19th Century by the democratic vote of a mass electorate outside Parliament and the vote of MPs within it. Until now.
What, then, of the man who tabled last week’s objectionable motion handing control of Brexit to MPs – Bercow’s fellow-Remainer, and arch-legal dwarf Dominic Grieve QC? Grieve, the MP for Beaconsfield, likes to think that he, too, is channelling his historic hero.
In this case it is MP and political theorist Edmund Burke, who declared in his Letter to the Electors of Bristol in 1774 that an MP was not a delegate who should blindly obey the instructions of his voters, but their representative, empowered to use his brain and conscience in the best interests of his country.
For Grieve, whose father was an MP before him, 1774 is no doubt yesterday. For the rest of us it is rather a long time ago. Burke was writing when Bristol, though it was the largest urban constituency in the country outside London, had an electorate of only 5,000 out of a population of about 80,000. Few working men and no women had the vote. There were no proper political parties and no manifestos, and politics was a matter for gentlemen and their immensely rich aristocratic patrons.
I’m sure that the fastidious Mr Grieve would be happier and much more at home in such a world. But in 2017, when he was last returned as MP for Beaconsfield, he stood as a Conservative Party candidate on the Conservative Party manifesto. This manifesto included a clear commitment to honour the result of the referendum.
It even repeated Theresa May’s famous phrase that ‘we continue to believe that No Deal is better than a bad deal for the UK’.
What is it that enables the honourable Mr Grieve to break this contract with his electorate? Did he come clean on his wrecking intentions in the 2017 campaign? I can find no evidence of it.
Does he have superior knowledge? Not on the showing of his latest claim that leaving the EU with no deal would amount to ‘national suicide’. This is beyond silly and beyond Project Fear; it is Project Hysteria and – to be blunt – it suggests that, with the strain of events, Grieve’s brain has become as addled as the Parliament of 1614.
While the country voted narrowly but firmly to Leave, MPs voted overwhelmingly, 480 out of 650, to Remain and Remainers intend to use their parliamentary majority to give us either a Brexit in name only, or to reverse it entirely
Bercow and Grieve are not alone. Far from it. While the country voted narrowly but firmly to Leave, MPs voted overwhelmingly, 480 out of 650, to Remain.
Now the Government has lost control of the House and it is clear that the diehard Remainers intend to use their parliamentary majority to give us either a Brexit in name only, or to reverse it entirely – defying the electorate in the process.
They justify this by invoking the historic doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament as described by the Earl of Shaftesbury after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. ‘The Parliament of England,’ he declared, ‘is that supreme and absolute power, which gives life and motion to the English government.’
But the 17th and 18th Century Parliament was a narrow and unrepresentative oligarchy. It survived – and Britain escaped revolution – only because Parliament had the wisdom to broaden the electorate in successive Reform Acts until finally Britain became a full democracy, in which all adults, women as well as men, had the vote. Parliament, in other words, has long given way to the people – and quite rightly so.
But not now. Instead, marshalled by Bercow, Grieve and their ilk, the Parliament of Pygmies tells the people to forget it and let their betters take charge. It is a coup against the people. And I doubt if the people will take it lying down.