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The Big Question: What is the Speaker's role, and does Michael Martin deserve such criticism?

By Andy McSmith

Michael Martin at the House of Commons with portraits of his predecessors Francis Rous and Spencer Compton


Michael Martin at the House of Commons with portraits of his predecessors Francis Rous and Spencer Compton

Why are we asking this now?

Michael Martin could be first Speaker of the House of Commons since the reign of William of Orange to be sacked by MPs. A Tory MP, Douglas Carswell, is getting help from the clerks in compiling a motion of no confidence in the Speaker, which could just possibly bring Martin's career to a premature end. It is also becoming clear that neither Gordon Brown, David Cameron, nor Nick Clegg is likely to ride to his rescue.

What has the Speaker done wrong?

The Speaker is meant to chair Commons debates impartially, which means that he is expected to read the mood of the Common accurately and to give everyone the chance to be heard. Martin forgot that obligation when he came to the Commons to deliver a statement on MPs' expenses. Two Labour MPs who tried to speak – Kate Hoey and Patricia Hewitt – and a Liberal Democrat, Norman Baker, were brusquely slapped down. As Martin himself remarked, he was in a bad mood. He did not seem to mind about the outrageous expenses claims that some MPs have been making, but he was very angry that the information had been leaked, and has called in the police. He was even angrier that Hoey and other MPs should dare to criticise him. Yesterday, he gave a similar display of bad temper, this time at the expense of one of Parliament's longest-serving MPs, David Winnick.

Who hires or fires the Speaker?

The Speaker is employed by the House of Commons, not by the government. He is chosen on a free vote by MPs, but as Douglas Carswell remarked yesterday, there is no handbook on how to sack a Speaker, because it has not been done since 1695. Usually they retire, and take a seat in the House of Lords.

Is the job worth having?

The Speaker is well paid. His current salary is £141,866, the same as a Cabinet minister's, and he has exclusive use of a magnificent grace-and-favour home overlooking the Thames, right under Big Ben. There is a fancy costume for those who like to dress up. Michael Martin forsook the knee breeches, silk stockings, buckled court shoes and full-bottom wig worn by previous male speakers, but still looks very smart in his black cloth court suit with linen bands. But it is a lonely job. The Speaker has to forsake party loyalty, and is supposed to be strictly impartial at all times. Michael Martin says that he sits up at midnight watching Sky News.

How old is the Speaker's job?

The first Speaker listed in parliamentary records was Sir Thomas Hungerford, from Wiltshire, who took over in January 1377, late in the reign of King Edward III; but frankly, Parliament did itself no favours by allowing him to be inscribed on the records as the founder of the office.

By 1376, there was growing public outrage about the goings-on at court. Most of it focused on Edward's remarkable mistress, Alice Perrers, a former maid who was said to have supplanted the Queen. That year, the so-called Good Parliament met to condemn all this corruption and hank-panky, and elected a Speaker named Peter de la Mare, from Herefordshire, but John of Gaunt, the most formidable of the king's sons, had it suppressed, and had de la Mare locked up in Nottingham Castle. Hungerford was John of Gaunt's place man, who presided over the supine Bad Parliament. He did not last long either. Later in 1377, Edward died, his grandson, Richard, inherited the throne, and de la Mare was reinstated.

Who was the greatest Speaker?

In January 1642, when King Charles I stomped into the debating chamber, sat in the Speaker's chair, and demanded to know the whereabouts of five MPs whom he wanted arrested, Speaker William Lenthall uttered the words which, ever since, have been quoted as the ideal to which every Speaker should aspire: "May it please Your Majesty," he said, "I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."

And the worst?

Sir John Trevor was elected Speaker in May 1685, having established a fearsome reputation for persecuting Catholics. During the election campaign in 1681, he accused his rival of having been a Roundhead – a serious accusation to make after the restoration of the Stuarts – and was challenged to a dual. Having served James II enthusiastically, he successfully switched his loyalties when James was deposed by William of Orange. Eventually, greed caught up with him, and he was expelled from Parliament in March 1695 for taking a £1,000 bribe from the Corporation of London.

And the most celebrated Speaker?

The first Speaker to become known to the general public was George Thomas, a miner's son from Port Talbot, who was Speaker when Commons proceedings were first broadcast on radio. His cry of "Order! Order!" became a national catchword. When he retired in 1983 he went into the House of Lords as Lord Tonypandy. After his death in 1997, a former fellow Labour MP, Leo Abse, said that Thomas had been blackmailed for years because of his secret homosexuality.

Though Thomas was a celebrity, he was actually eclipsed as a political star by Betty Boothroyd, a former dancer who was elected the first woman Speaker in 1992, after the television cameras had been allowed into the Commons. Instead of saying "Order! Order!" she liked to bring proceedings to a halt with the brisk announcement,"Right, time's up."

How does Michael Martin compare?

There have been criticisms of Martin's Speakership almost since the day he was first elected in 2000. The Conservatives felt that he was too "tribal", and would never have been elected if the Labour Party had not won such a large majority in the preceding general election. Martin was never much of a parliamentary performer. He was a committee man, who rose to where he is by working in the background on matters like the running of the Commons.

He has been accused of being too much a tool of the government to treat opposition MPs fairly, and of making serious mistakes, such as allowing the police to enter Parliament to raid the offices of the Conservative spokesman, Damian Green. His defenders say that much of this criticism is based on snobbery from people who despise Martin because of his working-class background.

He is a former shipyard worker from Glasgow, and first Roman Catholic Speaker since the reign of Mary Tudor. But the hard fact is that Martin has presided for nine years over the culture that produced the current expenses scandal, which makes people ask whether he is really equipped to supervise a clean-up.

Should Mr Martin be voted out of office by his fellow MPs?


* He has misread badly the public mood on MPs' expenses.

* He failed to prevent the police raid on the offices of the Tory frontbencher, Damian Green.

* He has done nothing to prevent the scandal developing and worried more about the leaks than the substance when the furore erupted.


* The Speaker has not been fired by MPs for three centuries and it would set a bad precedent now.

* Most of the attacks on Mr Martin arise out of snobbery over his working-class background.

* Sacking him now, with an election only a year away, would only make a bad situation worse.

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Should Nichael Martin be sacked?
[info]tigerdonald2000 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 12:21 am (UTC)
I had absolutely no idea what Michael Martin was doing by laying into Members of Parliament. It his not his job to make comments on what MP's do in their spare time. It is his job to make sure that Parliament is protected from the Executive; that means not inviting policemen into the precincts every five minutes. Not that one can keep them away because they are the security element of the Palace of Westminster anyway but Martin seems to invite Inspector Clouseau in for tea and hobnobs as an absolute matter of course.

He has presided over a Fees Office within the House of Commons which is an absolute disgrace, having no knowledge of the wording "wholly, exclusively and necessarily". He has attempted to cover up the shame of the expenses overpayments by using the Freedom of Information Act.

So all in all, I would say that he must go and go now. Whilst admiring how far he has come from his humble origins, I cannot say that he could any further command the confidence of the House of Commons.
"he must go"
[info]cronyblatcher wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 05:25 pm (UTC)
along with the rest of them. Think for a moment - rationally please... why on earth in this day and age is there such a blooming circus at all?

[info]bgarvie wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 05:37 am (UTC)
Mr. Speaker should consider his position. He has not defended Parliament, as an institution, effectively and has appeared too partisan in his control of debates.He allowed an ill conceived police investigation involving a search of Damien Green's office without a Warrant. He was therefore not in control of events.
His biggest mistake was to spend millions of taxpayers money on litigation trying to prevent exposure of MP's expenses. That was his fatal error and shows he has acted in a duplicitous manner. As his credibility has evaporated, he has shown no contrition and should stand down. It is evident that Parliament and the electorate are not impressed with his performance.
[info]vhawk1951 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 11:54 am (UTC)
seconded, he's turning into an old woman and is not up to the job, nor is he very bright
Background is irrelevant
[info]brystanners67 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 05:58 am (UTC)
I believe Mr Martin has done absolutely nothing to inspire during his Speakership. The latest exchange with MPs demonstrates his rather inadequate character. Unfortunately his tenure coincides with an appalling Prime Minister who cannot inspire either. It is essential for the morale of the country that the Speaker is an exceptional person with a safe pair of hands.
Sack him!
Michael Martin
[info]victormc wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 06:34 am (UTC)
Broon has made some awful mistakes but yesterday he made the biggest of his career as a prime minister. He should have taken this buffoon Martin (who is a total disgrace to his exalted position) quietly into the bar, bought him a brandy and said "enough is enough Michael, I'll be in my office until 6 o'clock, please let me have your resignation on my desk". NO instead he issues a message of support, this man should never been speaker in the first place but the commons were then too cowardly to make changes. Another monster mistake Broon for you to consider as you are consigned to the dustbin of history.
Re: Michael Martin
[info]victormc wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 09:58 am (UTC)
I forgot to add in brackets that the brandy is 'subsidised' by you and me. I must be 'losing it'.
c'mon, be realistic
[info]cronyblatcher wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 05:32 pm (UTC)
If you were a snout, would you want to have your style cramped by a different kind of manager of the house of snouts?
[info]georgesign wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 06:43 am (UTC)
Judging by the the one we have now is to be vindictive, nasty, pompous, overbearing, expense- grabbing and above all ridiculous-looking
sooner rather than later
[info]maggie43 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 09:55 am (UTC)
Victormc totally agree

When are we to read Mr. speakers expenses - cant wait.

Are we still paying taxi fares for his wifes trip to the shops?
cowardly independent
[info]britfree wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 10:06 am (UTC)
you could not overstate the middle class cowardice that the independent displays , pope in the middle east, comments banned - working class scotsman to de-bag , jolly hockey sticks ! . if a newspaper has no courage , what use is it ? the despicable practice of dissappearing posts soley because they might offend the bankers affiliated to a cuckoo state in the middle east says everything about the dishonesty of this bourgeois rag
sorry, belly burp
[info]britfree wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 10:39 am (UTC)
of all the west of scotland labourites that have sold out their own country , Martin is head and shoulders above the rest . you have only seen him dressed in the pantaloons and lace that you use in that silly parliment of yours , here in scotland we know his type so well , you could dress him up as Britteny Spears , he would still be instantly recognisable to us as a labour gangster . its your total lack of context when presented with these scots labourite villains that amuses me . i always laugh at the stereotypes you use about them , deep fried mars bars ? braveheart ? er..... try corrupt poloticians and fraudulent elections . see you after the next S N P triumph if the british secret police dont steal our elections again
[info]cybeeria wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 11:11 am (UTC)
He's a Speaker who can't speak properly (and I'm a Glaswegian too), In fact, he can barely read. He's Old Labour through and through, which he frequently demonstrates with obvious bias. The majority of MPs now originate from the so-called 'working class', s citing 'snobbery' is the same underhand trick as yelling 'racist' at anyone with doubts about excessive immigration. He encourages police attacks on MPs and in doing so weakens our democracy. Far from protecting MPs, he attacks them himself. His clear goal in all of this is to protect everything that stinks about Parliament today.

He's got where he is today, as has John Prescott, through union thuggery and not through any political ability. Setting a precedent would be a GOOD thing for democracy - NO position should be for life regardless of the holder's unsuitability to the job. There is virtually nothing that could make this bad situation worse and to suggest that his removal would do so is beyond reasonable belief.

The taxpayer foots excessive bills for his extraordinary lifestyle and should be protected by a dismissal clause in the next holder's employment contract.

He was the wrong choice from Day One. If the man had any decency at all (which he clearly hasn't), then he would have resigned long ago. OUT .... and NOW.
He should go - now.
[info]sickofstupidity wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 12:04 pm (UTC)
I never liked Michael Martin from Day One.

In commons debates, he came across as irritable, short-tempered, uncouth, abrasive, cantankerous, bullying and so nakedly partisan (in favour of the Labour benches and the PM) that it is frankly incredible that he was ever given the job in the first place (though perhaps not too surprising, given the record of the Labour government since Blair of strategically planting people sympathetic to the Labour cause in every echelon of government, to ensure their complete control).

The Speaker of the House is meant to be erudite, patient, diplomatic, conciliatory, dignified, worldly wise and conspicuously impartial. It is no office for a belligerent, brawling yob from the Glasgow shipyards (and if that sounds snobbish, I make no apologies; the truth does not have to be politically correct to still be the truth).

He should go - now.
Re: He should go - now.
[info]victormc wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 01:58 pm (UTC)
Totally agree sickofstupitity. The only reason he is there now is that our MPs (all of them) are not only largely fiddling thieves they are cowards too.
This man spent zillions of our money with lawyers trying keep these facts from us under the FOI act.- Yes, he failed in that too.
I hear rumour that when this current furore has run it's full course the media are going to start on the councillors and the Town Halls somewhere near YOU. Try that one for size.....
[info]bugga0 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 12:06 pm (UTC)
Perhaps I'm wrong, but the expenses issue would have still have been a problem even if someone other than Mr Martin held the position of speaker. That such a system exists in what is supposed to be a world-leading democracy is scarcely believable. The current furore has arisen because due to the leak of what was thought to be confidential, and because so much data has been leaked. But to say Mr Martin alone failed to stop this culture from developing is somewhat unfair: it is likely that such activities have been going on for some time. What is more, this fradulence would have gone on further, with only a few whispers of discontentment, if the details of so many outrageous claims hadn't been published.
To some extent, it is human nature to maximise personal gains. Surely people didn't honestly believe politicians to be made of better stuff? And after all, when in Rome....
The Speaker
[info]gordon123 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 12:20 pm (UTC)

Compared with his three predecessors Betty Boothroyd, Bernard Weatherill and George Thomas , all of who carried out their duties with dignity, authority, and humour, this bad tempered, barely literate, pompous and highly partisan Speaker is a disgrace to his office. If he has any sense of Honour he should go now, but he hasn't and he wont
Most of the attacks on Mr Martin arise out of snobbery over his working-class background
[info]hagimu wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 12:56 pm (UTC)
The fact that these revelations have been ousted since Martins 'Rein' is in my opinion is a clear vindication of the mans integerity as an impartial speaker. He's called in the police as far as I'm aware on two occassions, that act alone gets my vote. Martin should be celebrated, and given the public support as he appears to be the only one on our side. I doubt whether any other speaker would have allowed the expenses furore to be played out in public as it has. And that by no means is a negative thing.
Re: Most of the attacks on Mr Martin arise out of snobbery over his working-class background
[info]victormc wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 02:01 pm (UTC)
Oh dear hagimu !!!! You obviously have no knowledge of the facts have you? See my post for the facts about your dearly beloved Mr. Martin.
Anyone who cannot take criticism, will not be speakers
[info]famulla wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 01:05 pm (UTC)
Anyone who cannot take criticism, will not be speakers
I thank you
Firozali A.Mulla
Should Martin be horsewhipped?
[info]collin_brown wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 01:08 pm (UTC)
I see Martin as the glue that binds the inner-greed and insecurity of politicians not born with the proverbial silverspoon in their mouths. He's the working-class boy who earns more in a year than some many of us do in a lifetime. However. I think it's all gone to his head. He's an expenses-junkie who needs horsewhipping back into the realm of reality the greedy little bugger.
Speaker Martin is a joke, always has been and always will be.
[info]jj9876 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 01:11 pm (UTC)
Speaker Martin is a joke, always has been and always will be.

The mole who leaked the expenses should be commended. Let Martin bring this to court. There would not be a jury in the land who would find the mole guilty. Instead what he did was in the public interest. In fact, this is exactly the test the Criminal Protection Service (CPS) use to decide if a case should be prosecuted, i.e. is it in the public interest? Answer clearly is an emphatic 'NO'.

Is Martin capable of thinking this far? Clearly not. When is the Telegraph going to publish Martin's expense claims. I would hazard a guess that is the reason why he is so agitated about all this.
Get a coach ready - lots should go with Martin in the lead
[info]dorkingboy wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 02:01 pm (UTC)
Michael martin is both uncouth and ungracious.
he should be encouraged very strongly to resign AND on no account should he be offered a position in the H of L!
Brown suppotrting him is a simple disgrace that should mean the PM and all his Labour cronies should resign - according to the gentleman's rules - Michael Martin should NOT be The Speaker anyway.
To say all of the vitriolic is because martin is working class - is another insult to us the working class. We recognise him as a BAD LOT!
Should the Speaker go?
[info]wb1967 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 02:59 pm (UTC)
If working class MPs and their supporters claim to be victims of snobbery every time they come under attack then they are seriously letting themselves down. Surely all MPs must defend themselves based on the content of the attack, not their backgrounds? Otherwise the danger is that it becomes difficult to remove incompetetent or corrupt MPs due to inane senstivities about class. This is a non-progressive and old school attitude towards politics that has no place here. In this case the Speaker's suitability is being called into question after a series of incidents that call into question his ability, impartiality and susceptibility to venality. To detract from this by playing the old class card is a form of tyranny.
Of Course Martin Must Go...
[info]popskihaynes wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 03:36 pm (UTC)
In today's political environment though, just why should the Speaker be a sitting MP ?

Whilst understandable in the past when the Speaker, as the name implied, represented the House of Commons (the Legislature) to the Monarch (the Executive), hence the title "First Commoner" (how well Speaker Martin has fulfilled at least that part of the job - yes I am being a snob if you like), the role has changed dramatically.

Today the Speaker is or should be, little better than the Match Referee at Wimbledon, making sure the whole thing runs properly and standards are maintained in the conduct of the House.

The reason this expense problem has clearly got away from Parliament over roughly the past 12 months since Derek Conway came to light, in no small way is due entirely to Speaker Martin. With his Labour Party allegiances and partiality, he wasn't ever going to be capable of doing the job in the first place and should never have been appointed.

The Speaker should still be voted for by MPs from a short list of suitable people but on a fixed 4 year term with a maximum of two terms. How do you find suitable people - a big pool at the minimum, the very best only of those who might get a Peerage without parting with cash.
Michael Martin should be the last Speaker
[info]jfr1957 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 04:31 pm (UTC)
Speaker Michael Martin has talked himself into a corner from which his best option is to retire in disgrace. Instead of trying to shoot the messenger (who was at least good enough to give the public value for the money s/he was paid for the leaked info), Martin should have made sure that any MP who crossed the line from being greedy to committing fraud was subject to criminal prosecution.

The Speaker is elected by fellow MPs and tradition has it that he or she is not opposed at future General Elections. As the Speaker should remain impartial this means that tens of thousands of the electorate can be denied proper political representation for decades. Future Chairmen or women of the House of Commons should be employed from outwith the body of elected MPs and chosen for their suitability for the task and not due to their political connections.

[info]jj9876 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 05:03 pm (UTC)
If the Government can advertise on national TV for the public to snitch on benefit cheats, why is the Speaker on a mission to prosecute the mole who leaked the expenses thefts. Surely, the mole was simply responding to the Government ad campaign.

Speaker Martin needs to be removed at once and in total disgrace. This means the tax payer should NOT foot his redundancy bill and he should not receive his huge pension at our expense.

Instead all monies thus saved should be given to the mole. The mole should also be given the highest honour that we can give him - er, I guess that means, the mole becomes the next Primeminister, and a truly honourable member if ever there was one.
Speakers position
[info]paulanz wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 05:35 pm (UTC)
Michael Martin should be made to resign and certainly not be allowed a position in the House of Lords -there should be no more trappings of power to those who are incompetent and incapable of setting the standards necessary for his position. His day has come.
the speaker has to go
[info]bandleader98 wrote:
Wednesday, 13 May 2009 at 08:59 pm (UTC)
Inpartiality is the remit for the job of Speaker Of The House. In this he hs failed. So has to be replaced. Simple as that.

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