Thursday, July 21, 2022

Bernard Weatherill, the best Commons speaker I have seen

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The speakership of the Commons tends to be appointed on the basis of Buggins' Turn. Which is fine until there is a crisis, when a second-rate speaker will be exposed.

Michael Martin was not up to dealing with the scandal over MPs expenses: now Lindsay Hoyle has been exposed by his failure to deal with Boris Johnson's contempt for parliament.

The best speaker I can recall is Bernard Weatherill, who combined wisdom with old-fashioned courtesy and had no wish to be a "character". He served from 1983 to 1992.

There was a story about him that I have long known, and now I have a source for it I can post it here.

Peter Viggers, then the Conservative MP for Gosport, told it when the Commons was paying its tribute to Weatherill after his death in 2007:

For a while after the election of every Speaker, there is a period when the House wonders what kind of stamp or mark they will put on the House, so for a few weeks after the election of Mr. Speaker Weatherill the House was wondering how he would be as Speaker. 
During that period, there was a vigorous debate - it was a noisy event - and a very much loved, popular Member on the Labour Benches, Eric Heffer, was in full flow. 
If Eric Heffer had a fault, it was that he had a bit of a temper. He was being baited mercilessly by one of our younger whippersnappers on the opposite side of the House. Eventually, Heffer completely lost his cool, spun round and shouted, “Shut up, you stupid git!” 
From the Chair, Mr. Speaker Weatherill said, "Order, order. I think I’m meant to say that."


Frank Little said...

Weatherill was good at telling stories against himself. CSM confirms my favourite: "Newly elected to the House in 1964, he overheard one richly aristocratic voice saying to another, 'I don't know what this place is coming to, Tom; they've got my tailor in here now.'"

Phil Beesley said...

I'm surprised that Eric Heffer was described as a "very much loved, popular Member". My Labour Party friends in the 1980s regarded him as a different type of member, revolted by his politics and presence. Maybe it was a generational difference, because the list of politicians complementing his career contains surprising names.

Jonathan Calder said...

The House of Commons can get very sentimental on occasions like this.

Anonymous said...

As far as I am concerned, it’s been downhill all the way since George Thomas.


Jonathan Calder said...

George Thomas was far too accommodating to the Thatcher government and I found him rather creepy.

Epictetus said...

Weatherill may have told self-deprecating jokes about his family firm, but he was hardly an outsider. And who-you-know as opposed to what-you-know is still rife. Weatherill's son-in-law has just been appointed Chair of the Environment Agency despite not having any particular background in the environment. The announcement says he hasn't declare any political activities, but he was certainly an active member of the Bow Group in the early 1980s when I first knew him

Jonathan Calder said...

Weatherill spent most of his time in the Commons before becoming speaker as a Conservative whip, so he was certainly no outsider. But then I didn't say he was.

The reason I admire him is that he stood up to Margaret Thatcher in a way that George Thomas did not dare attempt. And see how useless the current speaker has been in the face of Johnson's contempt for parliament.

Weatherill died in 2007, so I'm not sure what the current doings of his son-in-law have to do with his standing as speaker.