The 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.