Montesquieu Institute: from science to society

De voorzitter van het Lagerhuis: een machtige positie (Engelstalig)

Wednesday, August 14 2019, analysis by dhr Prashant Sabharwal

Dit artikel over de bevoegdheden van de 'Speaker' van het Britse lagerhuis verscheen eerder in De Hofvijver van 25 maart 2019.

The story of the United Kingdom’s proposed withdrawal from the European Union (“Brexit”) has been full of fascinating twists and turns that, with no end being in sight at the time of this contribution being written. Considering the trajectory of the Brexit process, one of the most fascinating narratives is that of the empowerment of the United Kingdom Parliament – especially its lower chamber, the House of Commons.

The last fortnight has reminded observers of the pivotal role of one person in particular: The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow – who took centre stage in the Brexit drama. Arguably, his most recent action, namely indicating that he would refuse to permit Prime Minister Theresa May to stage a third “meaningful vote” (pursuant to section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018) in the Commons, unless the substance of the proposition presented was sufficiently distinct from the second meaningful vote on 12 March 2019. This ruling closed off the preferred route of Prime Minister May – leading to the recent request of the United Kingdom to extend the negotiation period under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union. The Speaker had effectively compelled a change of course – with the ramifications being unknown at this time.

Coverage of the constitutional crisis has regularly featured footage of House of Commons debate, with Mr Bercow’s flamboyant and unique style of presiding over the sessions of the Commons have gained considerable attention in the form of written profiles [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] and, most importantly in this social media age, highlight reels [1] [2] [3]. But idiosyncrasies aside, is there anything special about the Speaker of the House of Commons compared to the presiding officers of the legislatures on our continental shores? Yes, there are a range of nuances we need to bear in mind when reviewing the office of Speaker (“Commons Speaker”). For the purposes of this contribution, we will use the President of Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag (“President of the Bundestag”) as a comparator.

First, whilst both the Commons Speaker and the President of the Bundestag are designed as independent arbiters over the proceedings in their respective legislative chambers, the notion of neutrality is applied in a much stricter fashion in the United Kingdom. Upon election, the Commons Speaker must abandon his party membership and become an Independent. The President of the Bundestag (currently former Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble) may retain his party membership and is also permitted to volunteer his opinions on day-to-day politics in Germany (including his or her own party’s approach to certain issues). Indeed, in the UK, considering the wide-ranging powers enjoyed by the Speaker, the notion of neutrality is strictly adhered to – as any credible accusation of bias could lead to a loss of confidence in the Speaker. Additionally, when running for re-election from his or her constituency, the Speaker does not represent a party, but runs as “the Speaker seeking re-election” – and is usually not opposed by any of the major parties. In Germany, the President of the Bundestag (provided s/he does not wish to retire) usually runs on a party list or in his/her constituency as a candidate of his political party.

Another important distinction is the role of the Commons Speaker in parliamentary procedure. In the UK, the agenda of the House of Commons is usually set by Her Majesty’s Government (represented by the Leader of the Commons, who is not always positively predisposed towards the Commons Speaker). Meanwhile, in Germany, the President of the Bundestag and his vice presidents form the Council of Elders (“Ältestenrat”) which determines the parliamentary business the Bundestag will need to deal with and mediates disputes as well (in the UK, the latter is primarily a domain for the Speaker).

That said, much of the power derived by the Commons Speaker is exercised during parliamentary debate. For one, the Speaker can exercise his most well-known power – calling other MPs to order, to discipline them, call them out for being disruptive or in breach of parliamentary conduct. In extreme cases, the Commons Speaker can suspend such consistently disruptive MPs. This happens rather frequently in the UK, which happens to have a comparatively lively and robust culture of debate in its lower chamber. For comparison, the President of the Bundestag has had less opportunity to call members of the Bundestag to order (one of the most recent examples involved the co-leader of Germany’s populist-nationalist Alternative for Germany party who gave a highly incendiary response to Chancellor Merkel’s federal budget).

Further, the Commons Speaker has wide-ranging discretion in terms of choosing MPs who wish to make debate contributions. Additionally, he may let them speak at length or curtail their time, as necessary. Furthermore, by calling on certain MPs – but not on others, he can essentially steer the course of the debate. Moreover, as has been seen repeatedly during the recent Brexit-related parliamentary debates, the Commons Speaker is also empowered to choose which amendments to government motions or bills will even be debated and voted on. The closure of debates is also determined by the Speaker. Of course, the Commons Speaker must weigh a number of factors to ensure fairness during the debate: besides the government and opposition frontbenches, he also must ensure a diversity of voices from MPs to be represented.

To take the Brexit issue as an example, in a typical debate, you will obviously hear from the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader, but also a broad range of voices: to name a few examples, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker (representing the hard-right European Research Group faction within the Conservative Party), Anna Soubry and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve (two prominent pro-European MPs), Vince Cable (the Liberal Democrat leader) and Angus Robertson (the Scottish National Party leader). Further, the Speaker can also influence the political debate by permitting urgent questions (in the framework of an emergency debate, as happened a day after the extension request of the United Kingdom).

Finally, another function of the Commons Speaker, similar to that of the President of the Bundestag, is to represent Parliament as an institution. He arguably did so during his speech (following a day after Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent controversial televised address to the nation) when he reminded MPs that “none of you is a traitor”. The President of the Bundestag has a similar function, frequently called upon to deliver public speeches on solemn occasions. Speaker Bercow has regularly asserted the House of Commons’ right to hold the government to account and to defend the chamber’s rights accordingly.

In summary, whilst there are broad similarities, parliamentary convention and constitutional traditions in the United Kingdom have led to the Speaker of the House of Commons being a powerful presence in his own right – infused with a confident and assertive personality, he can be a major player on the national issues of the day – something that cannot be said to the same extent of the President of the Bundestag, who has to be much more of a team player, despite his prominence in German politics.

Prashant Sabharwal is onderzoeker vergelijkende en Europese grondwetten aan de Universiteit van Maastricht.