Alex Massie

John Bercow: Garden Gnome or Trendy Vicar? Or Both?

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Via Tom Harris, I see that the new Speaker is contemplating "modernising" the House of Commons by dropping the convention that MPs refer to one another as the "Honourable Member" and "Right Honourable" and so on. If John Bercow thinks this will do anything to help the public understand the supposedly arcane and baffling Westminster world then he's utterly mistaken. More importantly, it suggests that, in this instance at least, his understanding of the problems afflicting Westminster is sadly shallow and even juvenile.

The Scottish Parliament - working on the assumption that any Westminster convention was foegeyish and "out of touch" - decided that there was no need for such antiquated formalities and, consequently, members would address one another by name. I can advise Speaker Bercow that this has done nothing to increase either the public's appreciation or understanding of the parliament's business.

So what Bercow proposes - if the story is true! - is merely change for change's sake and to give the appearance of doing something. In itself this is a fairly trivial matter, but it seems to reflect a disturbing trend that appearances matter more than substance. All the public wants is a degree of transparency and to be able to see that MPs are doing their jobs honestly. Making parliament seem more "with it" is a smokescreen that avoids the issue while also, it could be thought, mildly undermining the dignity of the place still further.

The same might be said of Speaker Bercow's decision to forego the customary robes and dress that have traditionally been worn by Speakers. This does not, whatever he might think, make parliament seem more "approachable" (and do we want that anyway?) On the contrary, it undermines the solemnity and significance of the office if the Speaker looks as though he's simply chairing a staff meeting. It's not Mr Bercow's fault that his diminutive stature makes it seem as though parliamentary business is being run by a garden gnome, but the least he could do is dress for the part properly.

Again, this is, on one level, insignificant stuff. Or it would be if it did not leave one with the impression that the new regime is rather too obsessed with trivia and, as I say, change merely for the sake of change. A certain dignity and formality in parliament is no bad thing. The new Speaker, alas, seems to disagree and seems to be behaving as though he were some kind of trendy vicar...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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