Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Speaker Visits PGS

Today, the Right Honourable John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, visited PGS to talk to Sixth Formers from PGS and other local schools. Caleb Barron and Oliver Clark report (photographs by Jason Baker).

The PGS Sixth Form sat in palpable anticipation as they awaited one of the most currently significant and politically important guests in the schools history. Following on from a fitting and personal introduction from family friend Charlie Keegan, RH John Bercow graced the proverbial stage of the David Russell Theatre.

Like any good public speaker, he immediately set his intent, declaring his purpose of being here; to talk about the role of the speaker and the current political world. However, being a relatively controversial figure in the British press, he wished to address one key issue before commencing: his height! Giving us a 20 seconds history of past speakers, no less than 7 predecessors to his role could have been shorter than him. The minor difference for them is that their head had been cut off before the tape measure was taken out!

Bercow then began to explain to the audience his role as Speaker in the House of Commons, stating that he acts as an effective referee or umpire to the people who run our country, ensuring that all opinions from different parties and areas of the country are heard. This role includes having to remember the names of all 650 MPs and facilitating all of their views! Bercow revived the role of the 'urgent question', where certain key points could be discussed in the House of Commons without them having to be drawn from the ballot, and introduced both a properly elected select committee and a back bench business committee. It is evident to me that not only has Bercow taken on the role of speaker with grace, but he has also set a precedent for future Speakers in how much influence he has had over the role. He stated that 'outreach' would be the key to future speakers, emphasising the importance of travelling the country and engaging with people unlike speakers of old.

It was at this point where he opened the floor to questions. Over 30 minutes later, he had covered such issues as William Hague's secret ballot (an attempt that he went on to describe as 'malicious incompetence'), the importance of youth engagement in politics and his personal transition from a strongly right wing Conservative to the neutral position that he now occupies. He also referenced the EU, Donald Trump, clapping in the commons and his renowned political impressions, giving a rendition of the 'Socialist ABCs' in the style of Tony Ben, which brought a rapturous ovation from the occupants of the David Russell Theatre. He eventually concluded stating that he was thrilled that PGS as a school has put the importance on pupils being 'happy and successful, most importantly in that order', and stating that he really enjoys what he does for a living. All that is left for me to say is thank you, Mr Bercow, for a highly engaging and entertaining talk, and I hope this is merely the first in many talks from influential political figures at PGS!

Following the talk several Portsmouth Point editors had the opportunity to pick his brains further with another, what turned out to be 30 minutes of interesting and thoughtful questions and answers.

What do you think is the future of the UK parliament in a physical nature, whether it will move temporarily or change location?

The short answer is that I think it will move out, predominantly move out, for several years because the restoration and refurbishment and renewal of the Palace of Westminster is a massive project. To be honest it won't be possible to do it in a year or two. It will take probably ten years, it's a long term project. So I think that we will have, at least partially, to decant from the Palace of Westminster. I'm, to be honest, not particularly enthusiastic about that because I am concerned that the pressure is on for the contractors to do the job in time and if we were to decant fully there would be no pressure for the contractors to finish on time. Therefore I think it is very important that we maintain some presence in Westminster even during the period of work.

The Westminster bubble gets quite a lot of attention in the media, do you think, potentially, you could use the opportunity to move to a different location outside of London to dismantle the idea of an establishment in Central London?

We could, I don't think we will and I, personally, don't think we should. I understand the point about the Westminster bubble and the political class based in London and generally a wider view that London has a lot of power. Even though I believe parliament must hold the Government to account there has to be a link between parliament and government because we don't have a separation of powers in the UK unlike in the US. Ministers do sit as MPs. They're a minority of the house but they do sit in parliament. The important thing about that is the government departments are exclusively based mainly in London and are based in and around Westminster. I'm all in favour of a diffusion of power, it's important for the government and other organisations to have bases in places other than London, but do I think it's credible for use simply to move to another part of the country long term? I don’t that's credible at all.

What are your thoughts on the recent divide in British politics, with the rise of UKIP, SNP and the Greens, whether you think in the next few years there could be real reform in how British politics works and movement away from a three party structure?

There could be, I mean there has been over the last decade a decline in support for Conservative and Labour and indeed Liberal. There has been a sharp increase in support of SNP and UKIP in particular and to some extent of the Green Party. Could that continue? It could, I think it's questionable though because at the moment I think UKIP have stalled a bit but they went through a period of having substantial support and I think that has stalled. Do I envisage the Conservatives and Labour anytime soon being replaced as the two major parties? The answer is I don't envisage that, it is of course perfectly possible that UKIP will do better in the locals. The Liberals had a very bad election and a desperate result but I don't myself see the two large parties being replaced anytime soon; I think they've got a very base, not as large as it was but there's a large base than that of any of the other parties.

How well do you feel George Osborne is carrying out his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer?

That's a deeply political question so I think I ought to be careful about that. Without being party political, I'd rather not say whether I agree with his economic policy or the economic policy of the Labour Party, I mean I have my background in the Conservative party and I believe in wealth creation through free enterprise. The only thing I would say, George is not a friend, you know I've known him for a long time but if you ask if he's a personal friend of mine he's not. I do think he's very, very competent. I think he's got a very good brain; he's very sharp and he is very much in command of the dispatch box of the House of Commons. He is a very authoritative performer in the chamber. That’s partly because he's capable and bright and quick and it's partly experience. All senior politicians go through periods when they are doing better in the public poles and periods when they are doing worse. At the time of the Olympics, if I remember rightly, George Osborne at one point went to an event and he was booed. Then he had a period of much greater popularity and as you say he has recently had some rough press. Is the guy a capable guy? Oh yeah, he's very capable. That's not saying I prefer him as Chancellor to anybody else but I do think he is a competent man of ability and intelligence.

Coming from state education background myself I often find that people did have interest in politics but were often intimidated by not understanding the system and therefore couldn't confront people in terms of political debate so knew more about the system because of fear of rejection through lack of knowledge. What do you think the best way would be to integrate politics into that system and allow students to learn about it?

I believe that whatever else is covered, I admit it's not my job to find ways of reorganising the curriculum, I feel that it must include a very basic covering of the rudiments of the political system. That isn't necessarily meaning the average school can expect to find time to do a course in politics but I feel that, just as there is general studies and many schools try to ensure there is some basic financial literacy in their students and certainly that pupils are given sex and relationship education, there should be a modest amount of time devoted to informing people of the essence of the political system. Alongside I think that if your are at all interested in politics get involved in the Youth Parliament in your area and I say very directly to people from state school backgrounds don't let anyone convince you that you're less able to participate because you don't come from a private school or you don't have monied parents. Sure, parliament does have a lot of privately educated members but it now has a lot of people in it that went to state school, overwhelmingly on the Labour side and increasingly on the Conservative side.

You were a very talented sportsman in your youth, what are your opinions on the current sporting world with corruption crisis in FIFA and match fixing allegations in tennis and issues with the athletics association, is there anything the British parliament can do about these problems?

I'm not sure there's anything the British Parliament can do about them as such but all the sporting bodies, and this clear with other scandals, that you must follow the evidence there and then and what you mustn't do is try to brush it under the carpet. In this day and age, not only is that morally wrong but it will always come out in the end. So my advice to the sporting bodies would be don't just wait. If you think there's something in this go and see where the evidence is. Don't create or fabricate the evidence but go and ask those who are complaining where their evidence is coming from. It distresses me because I'm passionate about sport and you want to think when you're watching sport that it's clean. You know, it's just completely against the whole spirit of sport if people are either taking drugs to enhance their performance or are taking bribes in order to lose games.

Do you think that the Russell group and Oxbridge are accepting candidates from private schools more readily than from state schools and what can be done to increase the uptake of state school students?

I do think more could be done to take students from state schools. I don't think if you've been to a private school you don't have to go around with a mark on your forehead saying I'm a private school product and wear it as some sort of badge of shame, absolutely not. First of all you don't control which school you go to, it's often chosen by your parents and there's nothing wrong with using the private sector at all. However the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the people who went to private school are advantaged and I do think that the Russell group universities should make a particular effort to try to help people who did not go to fee paying schools. That doesn't mean they should take candidates who aren't of quality but I do think they should be prepared to take candidates that have very good potential who might not have the very best grades but who will, with confidence and time, prove to be very successful.

What are your thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s different approach to Prime Minister’s questions and also his general attitude to try and stop the Punch and Judy politics that occurs in parliament?

Personally, I favour that. I think that a lot of the public welcome it, you know, it's not supposed to be a repertory company in the House of Commons; it's not supposed to be a dramatic performance and a lot of people don't like the yaboo. A lot of people don't like that constant name calling and insults and rather rehearsed and tired jokes. What Jeremy Corbyn does is he gets up and he asks a series of serious questions and he's not a natural orator but he's decided to do it his way which is not to try to make Oxford Union type performances but to ask questions of the person responsible for the government of the country. I think that a lot of people see that as a very reasonable way to operate.

What are your views on the country’s laws being influenced by religion?

Most of our laws are not religious orientated anymore. We are a Christian country in the sense that the Church of England is the official church. However in terms of church attendance we are more secular than not and I personally don't think that's a problem at all. I'm in favour of respecting the rights of religious minorities but I don't think they should determine what happens in terms of law.

Do you think the voting age being lowered will be debated?

It will be debated this parliament I feel sure. If memory serves me correctly the Labour Party has moved in the direction of support for lowering the voting age and most Conservatives are against and the SNP are in favour. It will be debated but whether the law will be changed, I'm not so sure. Broadly speaking the opposition parties are in favour of lowering the voting age.

Do you think there is more we can do as a country to help solve the migrant crisis at the moment?

I think we will need to do more because I think the crisis shows no sign of getting better. I don't want to take sides as between the government and the opposition. There are arguments about whether we should accept a quota of refugees or not. I'd rather steer clear of supporting the Conservatives or Labour Party on this but I am an internationalist and I do believe that the record of this country in giving sanctuary to people who are fighting to save their lives is a very proud record and I think we should lean on the side of generosity

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