A note on the Speakership

Lord Norton

_44776119_mps226cr_paThe Commons will elect a new Speaker on 22 June.  The circumstances of the departure of the current Speaker are unprecedented in recent history.  The method of selecting his successor will also create history: for the first time, MPs will vote by secret ballot.

The choice of the Speaker is a matter for the Commons.  Over the past day or so, though, I have given various interviews – wearing my academic hat – on the role and history of the Speakership. 

The Speakership has its origins in the 14th Century.  Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1377 is generally regarded as being the first person to hold the recognisable role of Speaker.  Initially, the Speaker was elected on an annual basis; on occasion, there were two Speakers in a year.  It was not a particularly prestigious post.  Some occupants of the office lost their heads (literally).  Nine Speakers died violent deaths, though not necessarily as a consequence of being Speaker; four died, for example, in the War of the Roses.

As has been variously noted, the last Speaker to be removed by a vote of no confidence was Sir John Trevor in 1695.  He had been taking bribes from the City of London and a motion to remove him was put from the chair – by Trevor! – and carried. 

However, he was not the last Speaker to be removed by a vote of the House.  Speakers are subject to re-election at the start of a new Parliament and on two occasions since 1695 the incumbent has lost.  In 1780, Sir Fletcher Norton (no relation!) was voted out – he had annoyed the House by his criticism of the king and of leading members of the House, such as Lord North – and in 1835 Sir Charles Manners Sutton also lost, largely because the Whigs thought he displayed undue partiality. 

The Speakership itself was not a particularly prestigious or neutral post in the early centuries.  It became a much more dignified post in the 18th Century, not least thanks to the longest-serving Speaker, Arthur Onslow, and became a more detached, neutral post in the 19th Century.

The most famous quote from a Speaker is Speaker Lenthall in standing up to the King, Charles I, in 1642: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”  Ironically, it was a brave stand totally out of character: he was otherwise a useless and supine Speaker.   A less known but useful quote is that of Speaker Lowther (1905-21):  “There are three golden rules for Parliamentary speakers: Stand up. Speak up. Shut up.”  Sound man.

19 comments for “A note on the Speakership

  1. Senex
    19/05/2009 at 8:22 pm

    Lord Norton: “The method of selecting his successor will also create history: for the first time, MPs will vote by secret ballot.”

    They have chosen to do this to avoid pressure from the whips.

    I understand by convention the next speaker after BB should have been a Tory. Skulduggery by the whips led to Martin being elected. This is why MPs changed the rules.

    If the convention on announcing the speaker is to drag them to the chair it remains to be seen whether the next one arrives kicking and screaming. No! Not me! You can’t do this! Its not fair!

  2. 19/05/2009 at 8:40 pm

    A fascinating post, Lord Norton. One of the thought that came to my mind when I heard he was to stand down was whether Michael Martin will be awarded the customary peerage, seeing as he’s also likely to resign as an MP.

    Any tips on who is your favourite to take the speakership?

  3. lordnorton
    19/05/2009 at 9:09 pm

    Jonathan: The first Speaker to be ennobled directly for his service was Sir John Freeman-Mitford in 1801 and the practice has been maintained ever since, so Michael Martin should be joining the Upper House following his resignation from the Commons. I certainly would not wish to hazard a guess as to who his successor will be.

    Senex: The Commons voted, by a majority of one, to introduce a secret ballot. It will certainly provide a greater degree of independence in the voting behaviour. The rules are also designed to generate some cross-party support. A nominee requires the signatures of 12 Members, three of whom must be of a different party to the majority of nominators. As you say, a Member elected to the Speakership has by tradition to be dragged to the Chair. On this occasion, we had the unedifying experience of a Speaker, in effect, being dragged from the Chair.

  4. 19/05/2009 at 9:17 pm

    I thought as these are already unprecedented circumstances, it might also mean an exception to the automatic ennoblement.

    Alternatively, if they were keen to stop Speaker Martin joining the upper house, they could instead re-introduce the custom of awarding outgoing speakers a viscountcy.

  5. Bedd Gelert
    19/05/2009 at 9:30 pm

    Lord Norton,

    But I don’t agree with all these people saying “It’s been three centuries yada yada…” to get a good headline.

    Wasn’t someone removed because of suspicions he was ‘drinking too much’, albeit via a quiet word with the ‘usual channels’ ?

    Doesn’t that amount to the same thing, as neither have actually, technically, been ‘voted out’ ?

    I don’t mind being proved wrong, but I do get annoyed with this hyperbole auction on so many news stories, such as the credit crunch. Specifically having to recruit words like ‘turmoil’ and ‘historic’ simply because the journos have over-used words like ‘crisis’.

  6. 20/05/2009 at 5:05 am

    In 1780, Sir Fletcher Norton (no relation!) was voted out – he had annoyed the House by his criticism of the king and of leading members of the House, such as Lord North

    Lord North, that was you though wasn’t it? I just wish you’d put half as much effort into quelling rebellion in the colonies as you put into this blog!

    (is the above the first Lords of the Blog inside joke?)

  7. Croft
    20/05/2009 at 1:13 pm

    I certainly saw you appear more yesterday than ever before – under a wide variety of incorrect captioned titles 😉 Perhaps this finally means an end to those news channels who kept referring to the last speaker being removed in the civil war!!

    On the Trevor point, do you have an opinion on the ‘substantive’ motion issue. Erskine May seemed to let everyone down by not covering the ‘rules’ for a no confidence vote. I can’t help but think if the Speaker had wanted to hear the motion he had the discretion to do so. Either way the house needs a procedure than doesn’t rely on the government agreeing to hear a motion.

    I always grate on hearing Lenthall mentioned as he seemed to be very capable of looking after his own self interest and fawning after anyone who’d offer him ‘benefits’ or a peerage. I always remember his grave had Vermis sum written on it.

    Arthur Onslow and his family had rather a ‘hereditary’ position as I seem to remember his uncle and one of his forebears held the same position.

    Senex: My memory was that the whips ‘officially’ (as many in the government was sympathetic to a non Labour speaker) had no role rather the Labour back benchers determined to elect one of their own and weren’t subtle about it. This from the very start was obviously not going to help Martin’s position.

    While I can see an advantage in the speaker not being able to ‘punish’ those who didn’t vote for him under the new rules they will allow highly partisan voting to be somewhat hidden.

  8. ladytizzy
    20/05/2009 at 2:17 pm

    My husband, a bit too excitedly, yelled for me to watch C4 News yesterday evening when you appeared; that I watch it nearly every night had escaped him. He was mortified as you revealed your Tory affiliation on air to him – for some reason he thought you sat on the Labour benches.

    It’s an uphill struggle, isn’t it?

    PS You looked rather dashing – your choice of photo needs reviewing.

  9. Paul
    20/05/2009 at 3:08 pm

    It was good to see you talking about this on BBC News 24 last night!

  10. 20/05/2009 at 3:57 pm

    Thank you so much for this. I did value your contribution to BBC News 24 as well.

    Yet the saddest thing about yesterday’s proceedings in the Commons was not the spectacle of Michael Martin falling on his sword. It was rather the sentiment among MPs that his departure from office somehow contributes to an improved relationship between the House and the people, whilst their actual behaviour simultaneously exemplified everything that is wrong with it.

    I watched yesterday’s proceedings in the Commons comprehensively on BBC Parliament. It comprised three basic ingredients – two statements by the Speaker; Foreign Office Questions; and the report stage of the Policing and Crime Bill.

    The chamber was full to the rafters for Michael Martin’s demise. It then dropped to perhaps 50 or 60 for Foreign Office Questions. As soon as we reached law and order in the UK, it almost emptied – perhaps two dozen members present for the debate. One could only conclude that MP’s interest in a subject is in inverse proportion to that of their constituents.

    Suddenly, after several hours of the debate, a mass of Members flooded the room again, leaving us poor watching commoners confused but pleased by the sudden resurgence of interest in maintenance of law and order in the realm. More than once the (by now Deputy) Speaker had to call order, such was the commotion.

    But, alas, the sudden repopulation was there merely to witness the Speaker’s pronouncement on the future (or otherwise) of arrangements for the cleaning of their swimming pools and chandeliers, furniture allowances and horse manure etc etc. That brief interruption to the Policing and Crime debate completed, out they wandered, no doubt believing they were making progress in restoring trust.

    They left behind them perhaps some two dozen members, whose valiant and able contributions appeared entirely pointless, as whenever a vote was called the innumerable absentees would magically materialise out of the woodwork to rubber stamp the Government line.

    Upon the resulting decisions people will or will not be gaoled or fined, among many other outcomes. And the fact that many of the absentees may have been busily working on other matters in other parts of the House is surely an even greater condemnation of the overall system.

    Thus in the next few weeks, your Lordships will be asked to process the 66th criminal justice bill since 1997, and according to Chris Huhne, extra criminal offences numbers 3,601 onwards will be committed to the statute book. With all the bill’s wide-ranging measures, and with comment having been expressed on the lack of bills in the current session, a mere one day was allowed for report stage in the Lower House. Things were just as bad with the last Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, an even more wide-ranging measure.

    The legislation is simply not getting the attention it deserves, which compounds the problem over time. For example, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 fails to define ‘control’ in controlling a prostitute for gain, though it defines ‘gain’ very widely. The result is that the judges in the only case of note, R v Massey, used the Concise Oxford Dictionary (one would have thought they could have afforded the grown up version, I know times are hard). The upshot of this is firstly that a number of people who do not have coercive relationships with prostitutes but are crucial to their safety find themselves in the dock (see ‘The Wolverhampton Wanderers’ on my blog for an example), and secondly that during the progress of this present Bill, a great deal of time was spent in the Commons scrutiny committee sorting out the Government’s plan to prosecute clients of prostitutes ‘controlled for gain’ with the result that the Government has now abandoned the phrase altogether and adopted prostitutes who are “subjected to force, deception or threats” instead. Yet I believe it has not undertaken to revisit the SOA 2003 to sort out the mess, assuming the problem is somehow magiced away with selective prosecution – the last refuge of the lazy legislator. It isn’t, as the stories on my blog reveal. There appears to be, in this world, the ‘de jure’, the ‘de facto’ and the ‘what the Government perceives’ – which is something else entirely.

    I, for one, feel quite sorry for the Lords, who are left to process the poor products of the Commons. I understand that committee stage often takes place on the floor of the chamber in the Lords, but this must be well nigh impossible to do intelligently given inputs such as the last Criminal Justice Bill and this present effort. May I wish you all the very best of progress with it when it arrives.

  11. Bedd Gelert
    20/05/2009 at 5:45 pm

    Hallelujah !


    I was worried that these two naughty boys were going to escape punishment, especially after one of your earlier posts, Lord Norton.

    [If they weren’t going to be naughty, then what exactly were they being paid FOR ? ]

    Again, I suspect that it is hyperbole that this hasn’t happened for 300 + years; I feel sure that something similar has occurred, but maybe done ‘behind the scenes’ where people have misbehaved.

    But it sure ‘sends a message’..

  12. lordnorton
    20/05/2009 at 6:02 pm

    Jonathan: It is a convention, but it could be broken or, indeed, as you say, he could be offered a viscountcy, which used to be the practice. I won’t say more as it may touch upon a forthcoming quiz question!

    Bedd Gelert: You are quite right to draw a distinction between Speakers who have been forced out publicly by the House, notably but not exclusively by vote, and those who have been quietly persuaded to retire. There are some relatively recent examples of the latter, especially the one to which you refer. The fact that the Speaker in question was prone to drink too much wasn’t a matter of suspicion but the product of observation.

    Liam: You comment was even more apt than you realise. When I typed the first draft of my post I typed Lord Norton rather than Lord North!

    Croft: Most of the media have continued to claim that Speaker Martin is the first in over three-hundred years to be removed by the House. Some, though, are now getting the message that he wasn’t. On the issue of a substantive motion, this is clearly a grey area. I agree with you about the need for a procedure that does not rely on the Government or, for that matter, on the Opposition. There needs to be a House body that could trigger it. I have long argued that there should be a Business Committee of the House. It is a responsibility that could fall to such a body. As you say, Speaker Lenthall looked after his own interests and was therefore very malleable depending on who was in control. As for Arthur Onslow, you are right about the family impact on the Speakership. Sir Richard Onslow was elected Speaker in 1708 and also did much to raise the prestige of the office. He was, though, rather hot-tempered as well as rather a stickler for protocol. He was thus regarded as a little stiff in manner, which doubtless explains his nickname: he was known to Members as ‘stiff Dick’!

    ladytizzy: Perhaps you should acquaint your husband with the material on ‘The Authors’ section, though – in light of your comments – perhaps not the photograph. Mind you, I was at Hull station yesterday waiting for my train (as one does at stations) and someone looked at me, came up and said: ‘Are you Lord Norton?’ When I confirmed I was, he said: ‘You taught me thirty years ago. You look exactly the same now as you did then. That’s how I recognised you.’ Mind you, I have looked old since I was about fourteen.

    Paul and stephenpaterson: Thanks for your comments. I did BBC News 24 on both Monday and Tuesday evenings. The Monday interview was done down the line from Hull and my earpierce kept popping out just as I was being asked a question. Fortunately, I kept managing to put it back in so I heard the questions, otherwise I would have improvised and done a Tony Benn: ‘Your viewers don’t want to hear about that. Now, the real question is…’

    stephenpaterson: On your wider point, this is a feature of both Houses in that certain subjects will tend to fill the chamber, not least those matters that directly affect the interests of members (like pay, regulation, disciplining of Members), whereas the chamber will not be full for other matters, including important legislation. In our case, I take the view that the important thing is not so much quantity as quality: it is vital that we have those who really know about the subject present to ensure effective scrutiny. The other element that is crucial is that there is adequate time for that scrutiny. That is the benefit we have over the Commons in that we have no programme motions and no selection of amendments: all amendments that are tabled are considered and for as long as is needed. I trust we ensure that the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill gets the detailed scrutiny it deserves. I have seen what has happened in the Commons in relation to the provision you mention. Do feel free to get in touch with peers with an interest in the Bill to let them have your comments: you have identified serious problems which merit addressing.

    I also take your point about the proceedings in the Commons yesterday. What happened should be seen as part of a process, not the end of one. There was a cartoon in one of the papers yesterday, showing two MPs together and one saying: “As soon as I read what I had done, I knew it was time for the Speaker to go”. There is much more to be done.

  13. lordnorton
    20/05/2009 at 6:06 pm

    Bedd Gelert: Yes, the House agreed, without a vote, to suspend Lords Truscott and Taylor of Blackburn. It was a good debate. It also sends out a signal now that we have used óur inherent power to suspend. However, as was also recognised this afternoon, this is not the end of a process. We need to be adressing our procedures covering conduct as well as allowances.

  14. Tory Boy
    20/05/2009 at 7:13 pm

    The debate on suspending the lords from the house for their attempt at paid advocacy was a good debate. Are they to be suspended till the end of the parliament i.e. till the next election or till this session of parliament is over i.e. till the next queens speech?

  15. lordnorton
    20/05/2009 at 10:07 pm

    Tory Boy: it is to the end of the current session, which is expected to end in November. Once the House is prorogued, the suspension ceases.

  16. Senex
    21/05/2009 at 4:53 pm

    Lord Norton: “When I confirmed I was, he said: ‘You taught me thirty years ago. You look exactly the same now as you did then.” I knew it! You do have a portrait in the attic?

  17. lordnorton
    21/05/2009 at 5:00 pm

    Senex: My friends would not believe that any portraits of me would ever find their way to the attic!

  18. Croft
    22/05/2009 at 7:44 am

    Is anyone else slightly amused by the spectacle of all the politicians being interviewed looking like they are at a wake and all the academics/historians/political anoraks looking like they just received a tax rebate on their birthday!

  19. Stephen Davies
    23/06/2009 at 12:49 am

    My Lord,

    Would you be so kind as to humble me with the tradition of ‘dragging’ a ‘reluctant’ Speaker-Elect to the chair prior to Her Most Gracious Majesty’s Royal Approbation.

    Her Majesty’s Most Humble Servant


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