Since the Speakership of the House of Commons depends on general acceptance for the holder to be able to do his job, it would seem to be right to say nothing further against the new one, and wish him well. The trouble is that John Bercow does not have that general acceptance. His own Conservatives dislike him with a unanimous virulence which I have never seen before about any other politician (and there is hot competition). Significant numbers of the Labour MPs who voted him in did so precisely for that reason. So he is the focus of disunity. You could argue, of course, that Mr Bercow will see which way the wind is blowing, and go out of his way to be nice to the Tories, since they will be the masters soon. But would that be any better? Either way, he will fail to inspire cross-party trust. He is the wrong man, at the wrong time, put in for the wrong reasons, in a Parliament too tired, weak and divided to put itself to rights. He confirms — embodies — this column’s thesis that everything will have to get worse before it gets better. ‘A giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief’, indeed — except that he is not even wearing the full kit, but just what looks like an undergraduate gown.
So far as I know, this election of the Speaker is the first time the secret ballot has been used in a parliamentary vote (though it has often been used within parliamentary parties — in leadership elections, for instance) in the era of the universal franchise. Secrecy goes against the principle of Parliament that we, the voters, are entitled to know how the people we elect vote in the Chamber to which we have elected them. The argument for secrecy, which seems strong, is that it is the only way to stop MPs being controlled by the whips. If you had a secret ballot for all parliamentary votes, you would abolish the power of whips. On the other hand, you would make MPs absolutely unaccountable for their decisions. ‘Transparency’ is the word of the hour, yet we are all in favour of the secret ballot. What a muddle we are in.
A friend recently took his child to hospital in London, for an emergency, in the night. You must take the patient to another hospital, he was told. So, at 2.30 in the morning, he did so. When he arrived, he found that the hospital had a pay-and-display car park, and was charging the same high rate as during the day, even though there was no charge in the surrounding streets. To avoid a fine, he had to pay on entry. Because of the way NHS hospitals work, or rather, don’t work, he could not possibly tell how long he would be inside, so he decided to pay £15 for the rest of the night. The machine accepted only coins, and so my friend needed at least eight coins. The only change machine, in a distant part of the hospital, was out of order, and the hospital reception was closed. And all this was taking place at a time of high stress, with the ill child in tow. It is not unreasonable for hospitals to charge for car-parking, but this combination of small-hours profiteering with bureaucratic lack of consideration perfectly illustrates how the NHS gets the worst of private and public sectors.
The report designed to create a ‘Digital Britain’ which Lord Carter left as his parting gift to government last week advocates a new principle of taxation. He wants a part of the BBC licence fee to be set aside to help various non-BBC broadcasting enterprises, such as regional news, which are considered worthy. This is called ‘top-slicing’. So, under Carter, the unique, hypothecated tax which funds the BBC would cease to be unique. The hypothecation would be spread around the place to suit the government. Yet surely the only justification for the BBC’s privileged existence is that it is special. If its existence causes trouble for the commercial sector, the answer is not to start subsidising the commercial sector, but to reduce the BBC’s scope. Surely, if we are to keep the licence fee at all (which we probably should not), there should be ‘bottom-’ not ‘top-slicing’, cutting off and throwing away all the rubbish. The Carter proposal would creep towards state control of the whole of broadcasting, and the death of anything good which eventually comes when you subsidise it. The BBC is like the Established Church in the days of compulsory tithes: it forces people to pay for a public religion whether they believe in it or not. In the 19th century, when the Church of Ireland and, in the 20th, the Welsh Church, were disestablished, many people argued for what was called ‘co-endowment’. This meant state support for other churches as well as the Anglican one, which in today’s parlance would be called ‘top-slicing’. This was rightly rejected. The problems of Establishment would not have been solved by multiplying the churches established. So with broadcasting.
It is rather a brutal point to make, but I find it interesting that there is no great outpouring of public outrage about the British hostages in Iraq whose decomposed bodies have recently been dumped by their murderers. People seem to feel that when private contractors go to nasty places to work for large sums of money, they know what they are letting themselves in for. Shocking though the killings are, they are not thought to raise any big question of public policy. This goes to confirm my hunch that the way ahead for governments which decide to intervene in difficult countries is to use mercenaries. Nowadays the degree of public sensitivity to danger, injury and death among our regular military is so high — unreasonably high, I would argue, when one considers that ours is a professional not a conscript army — that other means of achieving the same effect will be preferred. In thus privatising tricky operations, we would be returning to a more mediaeval, less national approach to fighting and its associated work, such as security. But it might be a more effective one.
Brooding on Mr Bercow’s victory on Tuesday, I turned the corner into Jermyn Street and bumped into another diminutive and bumptious man, but one who always cheers me up. The great historian Andrew Roberts was pink with excitement and talking loudly to a gradually growing knot of admirers. ‘Guess what I’ve been doing!’ he said. ‘I’ve just been having lunch in the private room at Wilton’s making a speech to ten of the 24 remaining non-royal dukes, and I was the only person in the room apart from them. Bliss! Thinking of their strawberry leaves, I told them that the collective noun to describe them was a punnet.’ We were joined, for some reason, by the Cameronite Tory MP Ed Vaizey. ‘I was telling the dukes how we must restore them to their pre-1997 glory,’ said Andrew. Suddenly, Mr Vaizey had vanished.