Friday, February 29, 2008

House Points: Mr Speaker Martin

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Mr Speaker Martin

It’s true. Much of the whispering campaign against the Speaker is based on nothing more than snobbery. ‘Gorbals Mick’ is a silly and insulting nickname, not least because Michael Martin comes from a quite different part of Glasgow.

But then you suspect that Britain north of Potters Bar is a foreign country to the sketchwriter of the Daily Mail. And if you had been forced to go through life called Quentin, you would have a deep bitterness about class too.

More than that, no civilised person thinks less of a man because he comes from a humble background. Quite the reverse. Someone from a poor family who gets on in Britain has probably had to be twice as good as the competition. Sad to say, that is more certain today than it was 40 years ago.

But hold on. Martin is not the first Speaker from such a background. And it was never an issue with George Thomas or Betty Boothroyd. Bernard Wetherall was positively loved for his humble beginnings in his father’s tailoring business. So Martin's problems go deeper than his origins.

The first of them is that Labour backbenchers broke the modern convention that the position should alternate between the Labour and Conservative parties to install him. In 2000 there was a strong feeling amongst them that a house with a large Labour majority should have a Labour Speaker. Such a partisan launch to his career was never going to make things easy for him when the time came to rule on contentious questions.

Then there is his background – not his class background but his political background. It is fair to say that the West of Scotland Labour Party rarely represents the intellectual flower of the Scottish nation. The skills that enable you to fight your way to the top of that particularly greasy pole may not have much wider appeal.

And Martin’s background as a shop steward, which did so much to endear him to his Labour colleagues, may not be helpful when MPs privileges and ingenuity with expense claims are coming under question.

Still, Michael Martin did show one deft touch this week. He managed to avoid being in the chair when Dangerous Ed Davey had himself thrown out of the chamber.

No comments: