24 February 2008

Speaker's Corner

There is, of course, considerable chatter about the future of Michael Martin, the MP for Glasgow North East and Speaker of the House of Commons. Most of the chatter revolves around his expenses, and us of Air Miles racked up on Parliamentary business to treat his family to a Christmas break in the Big Apple, though some Opposition MPs mutter that he's more favourable to his old colleagues in the Labour Party.

Now, George Foulkes, among others, have cried foul, suspecting that good old-fashioned prejudice and class warfare has more to do with it, and you could argue that Foulkes is trying to generate Labour support for the Speaker (and quell any mutterings on the Government benches) by invoking the old demons of the "Tory toffs". Of course, this would have worked better in the days before Old Fettesian Tony Blair, and before Quentin Davies and Digby Jones joining the party, so raising the Red Flag in defence of Mister Speaker isn't perhaps the wisest course of action.

I hate to admit it, but Foulkes might just have a point. Given the Tory view of the West Lothian Question, you have to ask if Martin is just too Scottish for them. And looking at the Parliamentary sketches in the right-wing press (branding the Speaker "Gorbals Mick", for example), you have to ask if he's just too working class for them as well. Now, Betty Boothroyd was working class as well, but 1) she isn't Scottish and 2) she sounds authoritative, almost schoolma'amish. Plus which, she is a woman and a former dancer, so I wouldn't be too surprised if she wasn't fancied by a large number of Tory MPs who had fantasies of her calling them to order in the bedroom. No disrespect to Mister Speaker, but I can't see him having the same allure.

But does that mean he should stay in the job? Quite the reverse. The Speaker's job depends on authority, and on carrying the respect and trust of both sides of the House of Commons. While some of the hostility to the man is based on spite more than anything else, he doesn't have Tory MPs' respect or trust. Therefore, he has no authority, and sadly, it would be better for him and the House if he were to head for the Lords as soon as he can. You could argue that it's giving in to the prejudice, but in this case, he can't chair proceedings if a significant number of MPs want him out.

The Tories would certainly welcome the decision: they would get a new Speaker - one of their own, perhaps.

This would benefit Labour too: the Tories would have one fewer MP, and there'd be a By-Election in Glasgow North East. Labour would be certain to win this, so they'd gain an additional MP. Plus which, Wendy Alexander and Gordon Brown could enjoy a morale-boosting victory.

And even the SNP would have something to cheer: it would be very difficult for the Party to win a By-Election, but there'd most likely be a significant swing to the Party, helping to cheer activists and continue the momentum enjoyed since last year. "OK," party chiefs could say. "We haven't won this seat, but on this swing, there are plenty of other seats that we would win!"

So three winners there, plus the Speaker himself, who would get out before he lost all authority. Oh, and lots of geeks like myself would get a By-Election to be excited about.

One final thought: convention dictates that the three main UK-wide parties do not challenge sitting Speakers, but Tories often sniff that the convention only seems to apply when it's a Speaker from the Labour benches, and either Labour or the Liberals have found a reason to challenge Tory Speakers. Given Tory antipathy to Martin, if he does fight another General Election, why not make the point in the open, rather than briefing against Martin in the press? Obviously a Tory candidate in Glasgow North East has no chance of actually unseating anyone, but why not show cojones and make the point that the Tories would oppose Mister Speaker's re-election?

If those circumstances arise, will they dare?


Ted Harvey said...

“he has no authority, and sadly, it would be better for him and the House if he were to head for the Lords as soon as he can.”

Yep you’re right when all is said and done, but no other element of Scottish Labour has yet shown itself capable of self-awareness, still less a little humility and ethical response when ‘caught’ – so why expect Michael Martin to?

I listened to an excellent piece by Mathew Parris on BBC radio this morning and I think I agree with all his points. He acknowledges that the ‘Gorbals Mick’ tag is unpleasant and reflects some bigotries – but there again that is much the way of politics. If Martin were an ‘Upper Class Twit’ or a ‘Cockney Barrow Boy’ those tags would equally well apply.

Parris does not rate Martin at all as a competent Leader and has the temerity to point out that the beloved Betty Boothroyd was not especially competent Leader despite being well-liked. Indeed she was also conspicuously working class and it did not affect her popularity.

There again Boothroyd was never so cringing and craven towards the Labour PM Tony Blair and anti-Tory as Martine gave the impression of being.

But, much as I did not easily take to his point, he had an important constitutional one to make – that it is vital that no Speaker is forced out on some sort of failure of the popularity in the House of Commons front. Therefore I agree with him that the Tories should not act as you suggest.

My own take is that Martin is yet another of those Scottish Labour MPs (now joined by MSPs like Charlie Gordon) who came from generations of Macho, idealogical-lite, obscure ‘networkers’ and machinators who exploited their dubious working class credentials to the full and, some might allege, as a cover (then excuse) for their less admirable qualities and activities.

This Is Alba said...

Dare I suggest a reappearance from a Mr. Martin Bell?