Should the next Speaker speak? It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. It seems obvious that, in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, the ‘first Commoner in the land’ should add his voice to the public conversation. Until now, he has been forbidden by convention from doing so. The favourite for the post, John Bercow, wants to get out there on the media, being, he says annoyingly, ‘a Speaker and a Listener’. But if Mr Speaker Bercow (or whoever) gets lots of invitations to appear on GMTV, he will have to say something, and if he says something, he will be expected to say something interesting, and if he says something interesting, it will be hard to avoid stirring controversy among the MPs towards whom he must be impartial. The oft-repeated doctrine of Mr Speaker Lenthall confronted by the King is that he ‘hath not tongue to utter’ unless the House give him leave. Surely the Speaker should be much more vigorous about his historic role which gives him his title of speaking for the House to the executive. Surely, too, he should have more public discussion with the House about how it runs itself. But if his tongue is uttering all over the airwaves, there will be trouble. Candidates who are less ready to climb on the hustings, such as Frank Field, seem more suitable.
On 18 January 1944, the 69-year-old Winston Churchill travelled overnight by train to London from the coast. He had just returned from two months abroad, during which time he had attended the Tehran Conference and then, in North Africa, contracted pneumonia. Two hours after arriving at Paddington, he was in the House of Commons, without warning. Harold Nicolson recorded the scene: ‘I was idly glancing at my Order Paper when I saw (saw is the word) a gasp of astonishment pass over the faces of the Labour Party opposite. Suddenly they jumped to their feet and started shouting, waving their order papers in the air. We also jumped up and the whole House broke into cheer after cheer while Winston, very pink, rather shy, beaming with mischief, crept along the front bench and flung himself into his accustomed seat. He was flushed with pleasure and emotion, and hardly had he sat down when two large tears began to trickle down his cheeks.’ Then Churchill took Prime Minister’s Questions: ‘Most men would have been unable, on such an occasion, not to throw a flash of drama into their replies. But Winston answered them as if he were the youngest Under-Secretary, putting on his glasses, turning over his papers, responding tactfully to supplementaries, and taking the whole thing as conscientiously as could be.’ The biggest single improvement in the morale of the House of Commons today would be a Prime Minister who took it seriously. He should be there. He should vote in most of its divisions and talk to Members in the lobby and respect its procedures. He should instinctively wish to tell it things before speaking elsewhere. A significant gesture in the right direction would be for David Cameron, if he makes it to Number 10, to restore twice-weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, but I notice that he is avoiding any such commitment. His advisers worry that it would take up time. So it would, but it would be time well spent, because it would acquaint the Prime Minister with every issue in government and keep him in touch with the people the people have elected. Churchill, after all, was fairly busy, but never too busy for the House of Commons. The Gordon Brown solution, by contrast, is to swell the Cabinet and its entourage to such a size that no single table can any longer be found, and stay well away from Parliament.
The scenes at Plymouth magistrates’ court last week when people spat at the nursery school-worker Vanessa George as she was charged with sexual assault on a child confirmed my feeling that, in the world of child abuse, almost everyone is corrupted. The brutish crowd hurling missiles and insults did not look as if they were kind to children and good at bringing them up, but as if they simply enjoyed hating people. Everyone agrees that it is a good thing that child abuse is no longer concealed by institutions these days. But the openness about these matters creates a sort of secondary pornography, by which millions can read all about it, and then conceal their feelings of unhealthy interest in the cloak of self-righteous anger.
Like an army that expects defeat, the government is now leaving political mines as it retreats. This is the purpose of the coming legislation on child poverty, promoted last week by Yvette Cooper, who has just arrived at the Department for Work and Pensions. Labour is committed to ‘eradicating’ child poverty by 2020, but now the figures for children in poverty are rising again because of the recession, and so its plan to ‘halve’ child poverty by 2010 will fail. The new law will impose a statutory obligation on governments to hit the existing target for 2020. The idea is simply a political one: if a Conservative government does not hit the target — as, inevitably, it will not — it will either have to repeal the law, thus ‘condemning millions of children to poverty’, or be punished for breaking it. The law has no bearing at all on the actual fate of actual children, but it is something to talk about in a general election campaign.
In fact, you cannot eradicate child (or adult) poverty if you choose to define it in the way the government does. Last week, Professor Peter Townsend died. He was the guru of the idea of ‘relative poverty’. In some ways, this notion accords with human experience. In the 1950s, you did not feel poor if you could not afford a television: today you do. But if poverty comes to be defined relatively for all purposes of public policy — households with less than 60 per cent of the median income, says the government — then poverty and inequality become the same thing. So socialism then wins every argument about how poverty should be alleviated. Since it is unimaginable in a free society that incomes could be equal, Prof. Townsend and now Ms Cooper have promoted a way of ensuring that Jesus was right when he said ‘the poor you have always with you’.
Walking past the Church House bookshop in Westminster this week, I noticed an entire window display devoted to one book. It was called Lay Presidency at the Eucharist? An Anglican Approach. What a perfectly undumbed-down title — not the faintest attempt to vulgarise, or, indeed, to interest anyone in any way. Right down to the question mark and the offer of ‘an’ approach rather than ‘the’ approach, it had a wonderful Anglican tentativeness about it. I felt it would be crassly against the spirit of such a publication to march in and buy it.