Matthew Norman: We need a Speaker elected by the people for the people

It says much about the Commons' sunken state that there isn't a compelling candidate
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The Independent Online

It is a curse of living through historic times that wearyingly familiar quotations from history are dropped on us like bombs on Dresden, and I'll be boring you rigid with the one uttered by Mr Speaker Lenthall in 1642 soon enough. But before its ritual runs out, here's one that is more recent, poignant and fitting for this moment. Written by Michael Frayn and spoken by John Cleese, it comes from the 1986 film comedy Clockwise. "It's not the despair, Laura, I can take the despair," Cleese's frantic headmaster tells his secretary at the renewed prospect of reaching his conference on time. "It's the hope I can't stand."

That wouldn't strike much of a chord in Obama's United States, but here in fusty, decaying, stasis-ridden Britain it remains a line of singular genius, capturing with elliptical beauty our innate preference for accepting the status quo, however ghastly, over risking future disappointment.

I've trotted it out too often over the years, whenever England have flattered to deceive in a football World Cup or on the eve of Tim Henman's Wimbledon semis, but never has it echoed so loudly and so sharply in my mind as now when we can glimpse the possibility of a democratic restoration.

If radical progress towards recreating the Commons as a vibrant debating chamber and bulwark against the executive is to be made, many steps need to be taken. But the first, and perhaps the sine qua non for the others (breaking the stranglehold of the whipping system, bolstering the powers of select committees, etc) is the appointment of a Speaker with the integrity, boldness, standing and authority to challenge both the government of the day and the outmoded conventions of days gone by.

Playing Fantasy Politics for a moment, it seems to me that the role is so drastically altered that the Speaker should be elected by public vote; that in forfeiting our trust so absolutely, MPs have forfeited the right to choose their overseer.

When Charles I parked his wizened little frame in the Speaker's chair, demanding to know the whereabouts of five members he wished to persecute, William Lenthall (yawn, yawn) said this. "May it please Your Majesty (ha ha; quite an ironist, old Lenthers), I have neither eye to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."

That was then, when the Speaker's paramount duty was to protect the Commons from a vainglorious, tyrannical and frankly imbecilic sovereign. Now it is to protect the public from what remains, for all the hairshirt bleatings, a vain, inglorious and frankly imbecilic Commons.

Apologies for bringing to mind the departed scoundrel most responsible for this precipitous democratic decline, but we need a People's Speaker driven by the needs of the electors, not the elected. The cleanest method of ensuring this – and of declaring that change will extend far beyond MPs' remuneration – would be allowing us to elect our Speaker, not theirs, at every general election.

At a stroke, this would sweeten the air, by removing the stale cigar smoke and overboiled cabbage aroma of clubby self-regulation at which Gordon Brown hinted on Tuesday. Never again could a useless party hack like Michael Martin be overpromoted by bully boy machine politics. Speaker would automatically become the second highest political office in the land in a more than meaninglessly constitutional sense.

Making an unwelcome return to the real world, this appears as likely as the written constitution about which some of us like to bang. The next Speaker will retain the post by right after the coming election, and it says much that doesn't need saying about the Commons' sunken state that there isn't one compelling candidate. The bookies haven't a clue who will replace Michael Martin, and nor does anyone else.

Some of the fancied runners are simply risible. Even if Sir Alan Haselhurst's horticultural expenses shouldn't disqualify him (of course they should; the next Speaker must be untainted), his failure to make any impression on the public consciousness over 22 years evidently does. The fact that the day of the Speaker's election, June 22, is his 72nd birthday doesn't help.

Of Ann Widdecombe, whose ego might permit her to be dissuaded from imminent retirement, little need be said. She may have been the People's Slimmer on a TV show for J-list fatties, but this delightful comic turn has delighted us long enough. Ming Campbell, exes-compromised anyway, couldn't control a few score Lib Dem MPs in private, so gawd help him in a rowdy chamber of almost 650. Fellow Lib Dem buffer Alan Beith has the charisma and natural authority of a soggy tea towel doused in liquid Valium. Their colleague Vince Cable looks close to perfect, but says he isn't interested. Even if he is, we need his voice on the economy, and it would be suicidal insanity for the Lib Dems to lose him now.

The Tory John Bercow is a bright youngish guy, but his sudden and expedient journey from hard right to caring Conservative, aboard the Polly Portillo leadership bandwagon that quickly stalled in 2001, hints worryingly about his strength of character. His back bench colleague Richard Shepherd cuts an intriguing candidate, being a thoughtful, independent-minded parliamentarian of the old school, but he's as obscure outside Westminster as Alan Titchmarsh-Haselhurst.

Robin Cook would have walked this election, and done a magnificent job. Gwyneth Dunwoody would have been great too. But resurrection is a step towards the fantastical beyond even me.

Of those still breathing who apparently want the job, Frank Field looks much the best bet. Unquestionably he has a timely maverick appeal, and the moral courage. No Thatcherite capable of repeatedly carrying Birkenhead in the Labour interest can be accused of lacking that. Yet however accurately his brazen hatred of Gordon Brown catches the national mood, the notion of the new Speaker starting out at DefCon One with the serving Prime Minister is disturbing. For all the rigid detachment required, the Speaker will need to cooperate closely with the leaderships of all parties if profound and lasting improvements are to be made.

And so, in that spirit of intolerable hope, I propose this. The Commons should pass emergency legislation to a) call an immediate by election, next Thursday, in Mr Martin's Glasgow seat; b) stick Alex Salmond in the Tower, promising to do to him what was done to Charles I unless he agrees not to run any SNP candidate; c) dis-ennoble Baroness Boothroyd. Tony Benn-style; d) hand her Mr Martin's seat unopposed; and e) get those shapely Tiller Girl legs dangling down from the Speaker's chair on June 22.

Anyone objecting on West Lothian question grounds is reminded that Tam Dalyell, who posed it, tried to claim the average national post-tax wage for a pair of bookcases to house his Hansards. A rousing Commons chorus of "Well, hello Betty, you're looking swell, Betty, it's so good to have you back where you belong!" would be a fine symbolic way to toss the disgrace that claim represents onto the bonfire of history.

The woman who appears more often in those Hansards than any other MP, and with greater distinction, is Betty Boothroyd. She was the closest we have ever come to the People's Speaker before, and that's what she should be now. Failing that, forgive me if I take refuge in national stereotyping by yielding to despair once again.