Parliament must choose a Speaker regardless of their class or background

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Sacrifices sometimes have to be made for the greater cause of democracy, and if that means electing as Speaker a sixth baronet who went to Eton and Christ Church, then Tony Blair's great modernising House of Commons will have to grit its teeth and elect Sir George Young. It would be no more right to choose Michael Martin simply because he is the working-class product of St Patrick's Boys' School, Glasgow, than to deny Sir George the post simply because he is posh.

Sacrifices sometimes have to be made for the greater cause of democracy, and if that means electing as Speaker a sixth baronet who went to Eton and Christ Church, then Tony Blair's great modernising House of Commons will have to grit its teeth and elect Sir George Young. It would be no more right to choose Michael Martin simply because he is the working-class product of St Patrick's Boys' School, Glasgow, than to deny Sir George the post simply because he is posh.

The first and most important consideration that MPs should bear in mind as they vote today for the 156th Speaker since 1258 is that of party balance. The convention that the Speaker should be drawn alternately from the major parties is recent (for 60 years before 1965 the Speaker was Conservative or Coalition Liberal), but it is a good one, and it happens to coincide with the democratic presumption that the new Speaker should not come from the government party. Mr Martin, the Labour MP for Glasgow Springburn, whatever his many qualities, should be ruled out on these grounds. A secondary issue is whether the Speaker should be a Tory or a Liberal Democrat. The claim of the Liberal Democrats, Alan Beith and Menzies Campbell, is weakened, however, by their closeness to the Government and their attendance at a Cabinet committee.

The next question is: which Conservative? On this count, Sir George stands out from the mediocre crowd. Sir Patrick Cormack is an amiable cove who would repeat Betty Boothroyd's greatest failing, that of being too precious about Commons tradition. Sir Alan Haselhurst fails to repeat Miss Boothroyd's greatest strength, which is her force of character.

It is said against Sir George that the Speaker should not be a former minister, as if any contact with the dirty business of government should render any MP soft on the executive. Tell that to Tony Benn.

The positive reasons why Sir George should be dragged unreluctantly to the wooden throne are compelling. He was one of the leaders of the Tory backbench revolt against the Poll Tax. He is bright, engaging and, despite his top-drawer origins, a genuine moderniser. More credibly and thoughtfully than any other candidate, he offers MPs the prospect of serious careers in politics which do not rely on government office. His ideas for paying select committee chairmen more, and increasing their staff, promises a meaningful career in politics for those who see their job as holding the executive to account, which is a role for Parliament that has diminished, is diminishing and ought to be increased. Only last week Austin Mitchell, one of nature's great backbenchers, excoriated the present Parliament of Mules. The many Labour MPs who know that they cannot all become ministers ought to consider this carefully.

Too much can perhaps be made of the allegedly family-unfriendly practices of the House of Commons but it's hard to see Sir George making Miss Boothroyd's gross mistake of banning breastfeeding. As important is the obscurantist inefficiency of the Palace of Westminster as a place of work, where you can buy a bottle of whisky, but not a roll of fax paper. Sir George's plan to sweep away the network of committees chaired by MPs and replace them with a chief executive might have been forward-thinking in the 1950s: now it is essential.

One of the qualities required of the office of Speaker, according to one of its holders in the 16th century, Sir Christopher Yelverton, was "a carriage majestical". All Sir George has to offer in that department is a bicycle - or occasionally a tandem - but at the start of the 21st century, when Britain should be moving towards a bicycling monarchy, the right balance between modernity and tradition would be struck by a bicycling Speakership.

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