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John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, at the Brookings Institution in Washington John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, at the Brookings Institution in Washington. All photos courtesy Brookings Institution

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Mr Speaker Goes to Washington

The Speaker of the House of Commons tells us about his recent speech at the Brookings Institution, and legislatures on both sides of the pond

Published on July 23, 2019
First published in the September-October 2019 edition of The American magazine
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You recently visited Washington to speak at the Brookings Institution - how was it?

It was an immensely enjoyable experience. I absolutely love spreading the word about the work of Parliament, and particularly when it is for the benefit of university students or involves schools and educational establishments. Brookings Institution is a prestigious public policy organisation and was eager to hear about Parliament’s role in politics at a pivotal time in the UK – and I was happy to oblige.

Speaker Bercow (right) shakes hands with John R. Allen Speaker Bercow (right) shakes hands with John R. Allen, President of the Brookings Institution

Your speech focused on the role of the UK Parliament - why is the UK Parliament important for America?

The UK is one of the United States’ closest trading and political allies, so to see it grappling with one of the most complicated constitutional challenges of our time – Brexit – is hugely significant. With the House of Commons taking centre stage, audiences across the world are tuning in, fascinated by the extraordinary developments playing out before them – and how the UK will exit, or not, from the European Union. How we resolve this unique situation will have long lasting consequences for our future relations with the US and many other countries.

During the speech, you mentioned the importance of educating young people about the history of Parliament - what is the most important thing Parliamentary history can teach us about democracy and the modern world?

In every generation good causes have to be fought for and moral threats resolutely opposed, and whether it be the extension of the franchise, the powers of Parliament, the safeguarding of human rights – these battles have to be waged over and over again in different eras, but with the same fundamental values at stake.

The specific causes change from one time to another, but the essential challenge is the same: What is the role of Parliament institutionally, and members of Parliament individually, in these battles?

There are no final victories and in every generation there is a clash between populism and Parliament. While Parliament has to listen to public opinion, it also has to shape public opinion. If I had a choice between government by referenda, by plebiscite or through Parliament – I would pick the latter every time.

Also during the speech, you described yourself as "very pro-American" - what does the UK/US Special Relationship mean to you, and is it still important?

There are ties of language, democracy and the rule of law. Beyond that, the most important thing really is NATO: the American nuclear umbrella, and the idea that the UK is an important and supportive partner of a NATO led by the US.

The relationship can change to a degree – it isn’t a mechanical relationship. The obligations, the balance of responsibility by the two partners can vary, depending on the relationship between the prime minister and the president at that time. But it is the continuing and strong bond between our two countries for reasons of democratic values, mutual protection and the pursuit of healthy trade that the relationship is still valid. It is still important for all those reasons.

If you could adopt one US Congressional custom for Parliament, would you and if so, which one?

I quite like the idea of greater parliamentary input in pre-appointment hearings for key public appointments. Since June 2008 House of Commons select committees have routinely held pre-appointment hearings for a number of public appointments – but I would like this extended further to include appointments that have a significant impact on people’s lives.

If you were asked to suggest one Parliamentary custom to the US, which would you?

How about Prime Minister’s Questions? Whenever I travel to the US, people say to me how much they enjoy watching our PMQs – and how they wished they had something similar. They believe having the President sit before Members of Congress and field direct questions from Representatives would be extremely valuable to the US process. As Representatives generally have a more tuned-in perspective on the needs of their constituents, raising those concerns and questions and criticism directly to the President could possibly be a worthy exercise for the US.

Do you have a favourite place in the Houses of Parliament that forms part of the public tours?

The Speaker’s chair is pretty special to me – having occupied it for over 10 years now. Not only do I have the best vantage point in the chamber, it is an absolute privilege to sit in this hallowed green leather seat listening to my colleagues debate passionately on the issues of the day.

Finally, what in your view is the future of the UK Parliament?

As an institution Parliament, I am sure, will be here for centuries to come. Technology though, will be the changemaker. I would hope we use electronic voting in the near future, not only because it saves time, but it allows MPs who cannot physically be in the chamber through illness or childcare responsibilities to take part in divisions. People should also be given the chance to vote online for general and local elections - it may help engage younger voters and reverse the decline in turnout.

Tours of UK Parliament include the House of Commons and the House of Lords and are available Monday to Friday between July 26 and August 30 and every Saturday. Book tickets online.

You can view Mr Speaker's speech at the Brookings Institution at www.brookings.edu/events/the-role-of-parliament-in-todays-britain


Thomas Wright (Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, Amanda Sloat (Robert Borsch Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Brookings Institution) and John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons Thomas Wright (Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, Amanda Sloat (Robert Borsch Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Brookings Institution) and John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons

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