Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Speaking of incompetence ...

It was painful watching the Speaker floundering yesterday as his failure to grasp the nettle and show leadership resulted in the very public loss of personal authority over and, indeed, actual control of proceedings in the House of Commons. In just a few minutes last week he made yesterday's humiliation inevitable as he tried to shout down his critics rather than looking them in the face and answering their comments.

For the benefit of my reader overseas I should explain. As you have probably heard our MPs have been caught twisting the rules to award themselves additional income by getting the taxpayer to cover some of their ordinary living expenses. It's caused a huge stink and the Speaker, a rather thick man by the name of Michael Martin, is the person with responsibility for sorting it out. His first move was not to arrange for these claims to be reviewed and paid back but to call in the police to investigate how details were leaked. Last week one MP sought to question his decision to involve the police. The Speaker had two legitimate courses of action open to him, he could have stood by his decision and explained it or he could have admitted that he was wrong and announced that he would be inviting the police to cease their enquiries. Instead he interrupted his challenger, prevented her finishing her question and used extraordinary language to tell her, in effect, to shut up and mind her own business. Another member tried to raise the same issue and was also rebuffed rudely and disrespectfully. Unfortunately Mr Martin picked on two moderate and polite MPs thereby showing himself not just to be intemperate and rude but to be a bully as well.

Many have questioned his suitability as Speaker ever since he was appointed, in the space of just a couple of minutes everything became clear even to his supporters. Here is a man out of his personal and intellectual depth. Parliamentary chickens began to come home to roost. Yesterday he decided to make an address about the whole scandal of MPs' rampant profiteering and offered a limp apology by way of reading a short written statement over which he stumbled on a number of occasions. There was no plan to deal with the problem merely the announcement of a meeting with leaders of the various political parties. It simply didn't get anywhere near addressing the problem, it showed no leadership or initiative and gave no hope that he was capable of resolving a problem that had become a national scandal.

Following his address he was asked what was happening about a motion of no confidence in him which had recently been tabled but not yet scheduled for debate. And that is when his last shred of authority disappeared as he was unable to explain the applicable procedure. It was apparent that he had totally lost control of proceedings as members barracked him in a way not seen in living memory. Today he opened the day's proceedings with a personal statement lasting barely half a minute in which he announced that he will resign as Speaker on the 21st of June.

These events were a fine example of what personal authority entails. One might expect a Speaker of the House of Commons to be an expert in Parliamentary procedure, to have a quick mind that allows him or her to respond to points of order without disrupting debate unduly, to possess a ready wit with which to diffuse tension, to have an air of authority and to be able to represent our Parliament overseas and to visitors from overseas through intellect and charm. Mr Martin has none of these qualities. Most obviously lacking is the air of authority without which it is impossible to be an effective chair of a debate.

Personal authority is such a difficult thing to define yet nothing can be easier to recognise in real life. It is that aura that makes us automatically listen to someone and to be prepared to accept what he says, we see it in captains of sports teams and at our places of work, some people are natural leaders and others are not. Tony Blair is whereas Gordon Brown is not, indeed he is the only Prime Minister in my lifetime to lack that capacity. I think the quality is one of self-assurance as much as anything else, but it is not only self-assurance. It carries with it an invitation to follow the leader rather than a challenge to do so. It is "this is what I think and I hope you will agree" rather than "this is what I think and you must accept it". The first causes any debate to start from a presumption that the leader is correct whereas the second encourages discord and conflict.

The central lesson to be learned from Mr Martin's disastrous reign as Speaker is that picking the wrong person cannot easily be rectified. He became Speaker in October 2000 yet it took until May 2009 for the cumulative detriment of his incompetence to be so overwhelming that he had to go. In the meantime the government has steamrollered badly drafted and ill-considered legislation through Parliament with little, if any, debate and detailed policy initiatives are now launched through leaks to newspapers and speeches to special interest groups. A competent Speaker would not have allowed this to develop as it has. The recent furore over MPs' expenses was the last in a long line of issues on which Mr Martin's lack of leadership led to conventions of honourable behaviour being weakened and then abrogated entirely because there was no one to uphold them. It's all very well saying MPs and ministers should behave honourably but not all will, some try to push the boundary. That is where qualities of leadership are required in a Speaker so that he can ensure proper standards are maintained. It helps to set the whole atmosphere by which the business of the legislature is conducted and acts as a check on any governmental desire to rule by diktat rather than by reason.

So now we have reached a point at which both Parliament and the government are drifting from one crisis to another, neither is being led or managed with any degree of competence. It will take a lot more than a new Speaker to put things right, but it does need a new Speaker, one who can pick the whole thing up by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake. That won't make the government any more competent, nothing can do that because they simply don't have able people waiting to replace the dross currently filling the cabinet. What it can achieve, however, is the reintroduction of a proper system of law making so that any further damage done in the final year of this rotten Parliament is kept to a minimum.


Bob's Head Revisited said...

Hear hear, FB. Beautifully put.

james c said...


It is hard to put one's finger on the qualities that the speaker lacks, but he was both utterly ineffectual and held in general contempt.

TheFatBigot said...

You're absolutely right, Mr James. When he was first elected there were serious mutterings that he wasn't up to the job and nothing about him improved. It is bound to be the case that any new appointee to a senior position will have his detractors questioning his competence, often we find that a faltering start is followed by a person of ability identifying his failings and upping his game.

Mr Martin had no game to up, or no up, one or the other.