Unspeakable (sic)


The Autobiography

John Bercow

(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020)


As somebody with the great good fortune to hold dual British and New Zealand citizenship, I’m very keen to figure out why it is that with respect to the pandemic, thus far, NZ has fared so well and the UK has fared so badly.  To date, the UK has recorded nearly 43,000 Covid deaths; NZ has recorded 22.  Now the UK has a population over 13 times as large as New Zealand (67 million people versus 5 million), but even allowing for that, if the UK had fared as well as NZ, the UK total would have been less than 300.

No doubt New Zealand has some inherent advantages.  The NZ landmass is slightly bigger than that of the UK (267,710 square kilometres versus 242,495 square kilometres), so social distancing must be easier to achieve.  Yet this advantage can be exaggerated.  Half the population of New Zealand lives north of Lake Taupo; there are 1.5 million people in Auckland.

New Zealand is a remote group of islands.  Her nearest neighbour, Australia, is a three hour flight away.  The UK is also a group of islands, but connected by the Channel Tunnel to the European Continent which at its closest point is only twenty miles away.  In addition, she has a land border with the Republic of Ireland whose porous nature is highly valued for a whole host of reasons.

New Zealand, like the UK, is a parliamentary democracy, but unlike the UK, has no second chamber.  (It was abolished in 1950.)  There are 120 MPs, a combination of constituency and list MPs in a system of proportional representation.  The UK have 650 MPs in a “first past the post” system, and the House of Lords has nearly 800 sitting peers.  In addition, there are devolved governments in Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh.  The four nations are at liberty, to some extent at least, to implement different policies with respect to controlling the pandemic.  It may be said that NZ is likely overall to be more nimble in its ability quickly to recognise a threat, debate a response, formulate a strategy, and put the strategy into practice.  However else you might characterise the Westminster machine, you would hardly call it nimble.

In the early part of 2020, New Zealand seemed to be more aware than the UK that a problem was looming.  I was in NZ in February and early March, and the newspapers, television and radio were full of reports of what was happening in Wuhan.  The New Zealand media are not normally renowned for their preoccupation with foreign news.  I flew out of Auckland on March 7th and a couple of days later any visitors went into two weeks’ quarantine.

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, then told New Zealanders what they needed to do, and New Zealanders by and large complied.  It seems to me that there are aspects of New Zealand society and culture that make such compliance easier to achieve.  There is a strong sense of nationhood in New Zealand.  That is not to say there are not tensions as in any multicultural society.  But they are addressed.  That is why the Treaty of Waitangi is so important.  New Zealand is very independent-minded and has a “can do” attitude that can analyse a threat and deal with it.  New Zealanders are very self-sufficient.  The gap between the rich and poor is far narrower than it is in the UK.  That is not to say that class, snobbery, and elitism don’t exist, but fabulous wealth or vast tracts of real estate are not hived off by a few individuals, and there really isn’t a discernible “establishment” sitting at the top of the pile.  All this contributes towards greater social cohesion and co-operation.

But what, you might ask, has this got to do with Unspeakable, the autobiography of the outgoing Speaker of the House of Commons, whose name adorns the top of these pages?  The short answer is, nothing at all.  The key words Covid, Sars, Coronavirus, or Pandemic, do not appear in the index to this highly readable book, and indeed none of them get a mention in the text, this, despite the fact that the book’s epilogue, The Next Decade, is an attempt to foretell the future – always a dangerous undertaking, especially in politics.  So Mr Bercow, like the rest of us, didn’t see this coming.  I don’t hold it against him.  He was not to know that his book would be evaluated from the lockdown perspective.  He was not to know that I would read – and enjoy – his book, close it, strike it with the back of my hand, and say, “That’s why we’ve made such a mess of it!”

Of this book, there is much to admire.  John Bercow is clearly a “people” person.  I was always struck by his ability to identify any one of 650 people by name.  (We always admire laudable traits in others that we ourselves do not possess.  If I have to introduce half a dozen people, even whom I know well, to one another, I panic.  It is a recluse’s nightmare.)

People – lots of them – are at the heart of this book, and it is the description of a host of individuals that is the book’s strength.  Mr Bercow is very outspoken.  Some people – Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, get a good press; others, David Cameron, Theresa May – not so good.  Actually “not so good” is an understatement.  I won’t say he sticks the boot in, for it seldom gets personal, but his assessment of Mrs May’s premiership is pretty damning.  And President Trump gets short shrift.

There are some odd lacunae.  9/11 gets scant attention – and yet 9/11 surely remains the defining moment of this century.  Remember Tony Blair – “The kaleidoscope has been shaken…!”  Also the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence.  I venture to say Mr Bercow has a Scottish blind spot.  You would have thought this avid tennis player and Roger Federer fan might have at least mentioned Sir Andy Murray.

So Unspeakable is sharp on detail, but perhaps does not take the long view.  I wonder if he has failed to see the wood for the trees.  While he has written a book in praise of an institution he evidently reveres, I wonder if he has unconsciously damned it.  The heart of this autobiography was always going to be the decade 2009 – 19 during which Mr Bercow occupied the Speaker’s chair.  And at the heart of his tenure lies that which he terms “The Brexit Imbroglio”.  An imbroglio is a confused mass, a tangle, an embroilment.  It is worth noting that we are still embroiled.  Covid has kicked the Brexit can further down the road.  Our institutions have not yet been able to “deliver” Brexit, and they have not been able to control Covid.  Why not?

You can see why not by observing Prime Minister’s Questions, the traditional PMQs as it took place before lockdown.  John Bercow cast himself as a reformer, but he certainly wasn’t able to reform PMQs.  It took Covid to do that.  Now we can hear Sir Keir Starmer’s forensic questions, and the Prime Minister gets exasperated because he doesn’t have the supportive wall of derisive cat-calling and booing from the backbenches behind him.  The House of Commons has always seemed to me to be like a school classroom in which the teacher has lost control.  All that infernal racket.  Any speaker serious about reforming the place would have cut it out.  I can think of a few teachers in my old school who would have accomplished such a task in two minutes, although I have to admit it would have involved a thrashing of the utmost severity.  So I can hardly recommend it.  Besides, it is the members, not the Speaker, who hold the power.  Any Speaker who seriously tried to discipline that lot would be out on their ear in a minute.


There is a splendid colour picture at the heart of Unspeakable, of a sitting of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament, which Mr Bercow chaired every year throughout his tenure as speaker.  It is supposed to be, and it ought to be, an uplifting vision of the future, but to be honest, I find the picture rather melancholy.  If I were a youngster and I wanted to learn how to conduct human affairs, I wouldn’t go to Westminster and the House of Commons.  I’d go to Wellington and the Beehive.




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