Last week, John Bercow announced that he would be resigning as Speaker of the UK House of Commons on Oct. 31, which not coincidentally is also the current date for Britain’s exit from the European Union. Although Bercow is a Conservative MP, he has been praised by Opposition parties and excoriated by his own party for his criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s five-week prorogation of Parliament–thereby suspending debate of Brexit until mid-October. Indeed, as recently as Friday, he warned Johnson not to ignore a law just passed that prohibits a no-deal Brexit. In this respect, Bercow is staying true to the parliamentary tradition of an impartial, non-partisan Speaker. As Paul Seaward points out in his 2010 article ‘The Speaker in the Age of Party, 1672–1715’, the model of an impartial Speaker arose out of heightened partisanship in the late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries.
During this tumultuous period in British politics, which spanned the Restoration, the Exclusion Crisis, and the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath, Speakers were intensely partisan and influential politicians. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after decades of civil war, Parliament no longer sought to advance their interests through armed struggle, but they were nevertheless resistant to impositions of Crown authority at their expense. Within Parliament were loosely formed ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ parties: the former supporters of royal authority, and the latter advocates of checking the Crown on behalf of parliamentary supremacy. The division between Crown and Parliament, and between Court and Country parties, was a stark one in 1672. King Charles II pursued another war with the Dutch, which was opposed by parliamentarians who regarded the Netherlands as a fellow Protestant country which ought to be England’s ally rather than its enemy. The king, however, had pro-Catholic sympathies (as evinced in his Catholic queen and brother), and also pursued a policy of toleration for religious nonconformists: a Declaration of Indulgence, which for his Protestant enemies was more of a declaration of indulgences, given Charles’s Catho-boot-licking.
Parliament needed a new Speaker, who would be selected by the committee on foreign affairs (resembling something like William Hogarth’s portrait above of the Gaols Committee of the House of Commons), consisting of the king and his senior advisors. Heated debate ensued over several possible candidates, many of whom were rejected because they would be easily perceived as overly attached to the Crown. The position was finally offered to Sir Job Charlton, a Welsh judge who led those in Parliament supporting the Church of England, and thus opposed to the Crown’s tolerance of nonconformists. He was seen, then, as a pre-eminent Angli-candidate for the position. After becoming Speaker, however, he was mired in a fractious Parliament. Crown supporters attacked the lord chancellor Shaftesbury–patron of political theorist John Locke and leader of the Whig opposition to the Stuart monarchs. The Commons opposed the Declaration of Indulgence and supported Shaftesbury, who was also Charlton’s erstwhile political enemy: they did not, it seems, Shaftes-bury the hatchet. The collision between the king and Commons turned out to be too much for Charlton to handle: the embattled Speaker was now considered not the right Job for the job, lacking the patience of Job. He resigned within weeks.
In Charlton’s place, the committee nominated Edward Seymour, an ambitious Country politician. Unlike all of his predecessors as Speakers since the middle ages, he lacked legal training. He took the Speaker’s chair with his sword and belt, bucking (and buckling) the tradition of taking the chair without a sword and in lawyer’s gown. While his supporters would no doubt have regarded him as perspicacious, such that Seymour could see more, he was criticised for being too close to the Earl of Danby–leader of a pro-Dutch and anti-French faction in Parliament, and so at odds with the king’s reluctance to offend the French. Over the following years, Seymour successfully advanced Danby’s interests, but by 1678, it seems that the two fell out: Seymour felt hard-done by Danby. Danby sought to replace Seymour with a different candidate, but Seymour was nevertheless elected Speaker again in 1679–a choice which the king now rejected: he prorogued Parliament instead. Another candidate was offered within a few days, and accepted by the king. Seymour’s successors would continue to struggle with competing loyalties to Crown and Commons, as well as to what became the Whig and Tory Parties. The selection of a Speaker was now both a Whig-ked and Tory-id affair.
Subsequent Speakers were often highly partisan. Perhaps the most glaring example of the partisan Speaker was Robert Harley, who became Speaker in 1701. While in this office, he also became secretary of state in 1704, showing his very cosy relationship to the government. But according to Seaward, certain figures anticipated the model of the non-partisan and impartial Speaker, including Sir Richard Onslow (Speaker 1708-10) and Sir Thomas Hanmer (1714-15), and before them, Paul Foley (1695-98). The figure most associated with the impartial Speaker was Sir Richard Onslow’s nephew Arthur. Arthur Onslow was Speaker for an extremely long tenure of 1728 to 1761, and distinguished for his integrity in an era of intense political corruption. Many praised the Speaker’s efforts to On-slow down the political machinations of the executive power. This early modern tradition, then, has now been followed by the current UK Speaker, who has shown himself not to be Ber-cowed by the likes of Boris Johnson.
250th birthday wishes to the great philosophical traveller and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and do check out the 2018-19 EMSP Newsletter!
’til next week,
Director, Early Modern Unspeakerable Horror Studies Program