Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Independent does a "Reverse Voltaire" on Speaker Bercow

The classic defence of free speech, usually attributed to Voltaire and certainly representative of his views, though he may not have coined the phrase, is

But can the reverse be true?

Today the Independent did a reverse Voltaire on Speaker Bercow, in that they agreed with what he said about Donald Trump but disagreed - though not quite to the death - with his right to say it.

There argument is they share his opinion of Donald Trump but consider that as impartial chairman of the House of Commons he should be more careful about how he expresses that view and, quote,

"The Speaker's sentiments were quite right, but he was wrong to express them in a fit of public political showboating."

Whatever  your opinion of President Trump, he is the elected leader of Britain's most important ally and trading partner. This does not mean that he is above criticism but it does mean that it is important that any such criticism is not presented in a way which comes over as an attack on all Americans.

The date and itinerary for President Trump's planned visit to the UK have yet to be set. It is entirely within the powers of the Speaker of the House of Commons to take a view on whether the visit should include an invitation to speak to parliament but the same constitution which gives him that power also includes conventions on how it should be exercised,

As the speaker of the House of Lords gently pointed out, John Bercow should have spoken to him and attempted to reach a consensus view of whether Trump should be invited to the parliament building, particularly as he expressed an opinion about the possibility of an invitation to speak in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords.

I don't think I can put the issue better than the Independent did in these extracts from their article:

"Mr Bercow’s sentiments, in saying 'our opposition to racism and to sexism, and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations', were quite right. But he was wrong to express them in public in this way."

The Speaker is supposed to be an impartial and bipartisan presiding officer. He seems to have fallen victim to linguistic confusion, mistaking “speaker” for the word “spokesperson”. His job is not to speak on behalf of MPs collectively on political matters. That is why we have political parties, and a government and an opposition. The Speaker's job is to facilitate debate, not to take part in it.

"Lord Fowler, the Lords Speaker, was quite right today to admonish Mr Bercow gently for his presumption. As Lord Fowler said, invitations to foreign leaders are usually discussed by the speakers of the two houses of Parliament in an attempt to seek consensus. By expressing his personal view, Mr Bercow has short-circuited that consultation and in effect vetoed the invitation to the President."
"The objection to Mr Bercow’s showboating is not that Mr Trump will now give the Palace of Westminster a miss. It was never likely that an invitation would be issued, given the feelings of MPs and peers. The problem is that Mr Bercow has damaged the machinery of democracy because he could not resist advertising his own liberal credentials."

"The Speaker’s standing with Conservative MPs was already low, but by launching what was in effect a political attack on the Prime Minister he has forfeited any right to their respect."

"There are many people who have expressed their opposition to the idea of the President making a state visit to this country – including the 1.8 million ordinary citizens who have signed a petition to that effect. There was no need for Mr Bercow to add his signalling to this festival of virtue. All he has done is open himself to the charge of hypocrisy, as he has previously welcomed Xi Jinping, President of totalitarian China, and other authoritarian leaders to the Palace of Westminster."

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