Speaker-speak: the maddening rhetoric of John Bercow

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

Much has recently been written about the incumbent Commons Speaker, from (vigorously denied) allegations of bullying to (less vigorously denied) suggestions of Brexit-foxing chicanery. And to call John Bercow a ‘Marmite politician’ is to state the obvious.

A little less obvious is his idiosyncratic style of address — the bizarre collision of a Dickensian clerk with aspirations to eloquence, a stern headmaster out of P. G. Wodehouse, and a contestant on Just a Minute desperate not to hesitate, deviate or repeat.

Some of the Speaker’s vocal fireworks are plain to hear. His musical calls of ‘Jer-emy Cor-byn’ have been compiled into an ascending harmonic scale, and his strangled cries of ‘Oaaaaaarderrrrrrrrr’ have achieved social-media virality. However, many of his other verbal tics sneak up on you over time, and generously reward Hansard research.

Although not a lawyer, Bercow takes pedantic delight in ‘legal doublets’ (real or imagined), including ‘benefit or purpose’, ‘manifest and incontrovertible’, ‘shyness and reticence’, ‘adroitness and dexterity’, ‘cajole or exhort’, ‘encouragement or comfort’, ‘foxed and befuddled’, ‘fastidious and precise’. And so pleased is he with his gag, ‘the flow of his eloquence and the eloquence of his flow’, the chiasmus has passed his lips at least 13 times, including twice on 16 October 2014.

This habit of using ten words when two would suffice is often displayed when calling for concision: ‘If colleagues while of course expounding with characteristic eloquence can do so with exemplary brevity, that will be received heartily in the House.’

Over time, such orotundity forms what the Irish satirist Myles na gCopaleen called a ‘Catechism of Cliché’. In the Lexicon Bercowicum discourtesy is rank, tones are mellifluous, delinquents are incorrigible, absence is rued, anticipation is eager, speculation is idle, and a point is either noted en passant or is ‘so blindingly obvious that only a very clever person could fail to grasp it’.

In his guide to modern English usage, Kingsley Amis established two personifications of linguistic style: Berks (‘careless, coarse, crass, gross’) and Wankers (‘prissy, fussy, priggish, prim’). Although the Speaker’s name suggests an allegiance with the former, he is, rhetorically speaking, firmly in the camp of the latter.

Perhaps Bercow’s most glaring ‘-wanker indicator’, as Amis had it, is his use of ‘denizens’ to describe his fellow Members. ‘Denizens of the House’ — be they celebrated, cerebral, illustrious, experienced, busy, fast-thinking, curious, sophisticated, remarkable, unusual or overexcitable — ‘beetle’ or ‘toddle’ towards the Dispatch Box, or ‘out of the curtilage of the Chamber’, and they ‘rant’, ‘witter’, ‘bellow’, or ‘chunter’ from ‘a sedentary position’.

Those accused of ‘chuntering’ (Bercow has used the verb at least 180 times) are patronisingly told to ‘calm’ themselves with a ‘soothing medicament’ or ‘sedative’, to ‘take up yoga’, or to practise ‘zen, restraint, patience’ in order to become ‘Buddha-like’ ‘senior statesmen’. (Statesmanship is the ‘apogee’ of Bercowian praise, although, by his assessment, most Members are merely ‘aspiring’, ‘auditioning’ or ‘undertaking an apprenticeship’ for the role.)

Personal comments (kind or otherwise) are commonplace: Michael Fabricant has a ‘grinning countenance’, Peter Bone is ‘a precious delicacy’, Jon Ashworth an ‘over–excitable whippersnapper’, and Dame Margaret Hodge a ‘magnificent woman’. Though surely Bercow’s proud precision failed him when he said of Jesse Norman, ‘an air of calm usually exudes from his every orifice’.

While Bercow delights in referring to Members with knighthoods by their county of origin (Sir Edward Leigh is ‘a Lincolnshire knight’, Sir Julian Brazier ‘a Kentish knight’), he is less kind to some others. He recently apologised for elongating ‘Mr Kenneth Claaaarke’ but not, I think, for his other petty mockeries, nor for gleefully spelling out the quadruple-barrelled name of Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax.

Those at the sharp end of Bercow’s tongue might be justified in sensing a dash of hypocrisy in his Speakerly puritanism. Before being dragged to the Chair, Bercow was chastised on numerous occasions for ‘getting too excited’ and was warned to ‘respect the customs of the House’ and not to ‘shout across the Floor’. In 1997, Betty Boothroyd threatened to expel him from the Chamber (‘The Honourable Member for Buckingham will be out in a moment’), and Michael Martin’s exasperation drips from the official record: ‘Is there to be a point of order every day, Mr Bercow?’

Of course, such observations will not perturb our pachydermal Speaker who boasts he has ‘never lost a wink of sleep over anything work-related’. He recently claimed that ‘the blatherings of a particular media outlet are a matter of absolutely no interest or concern whatever’, and once approvingly quoted Humphrey Bogart: ‘I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself’.

I leave you with the put-down Mr Speaker unleashed in January which, though aimed at Michael Gove, deftly illustrates the psychoanalytical phenomenon of ‘transference’: ‘I richly enjoyed those observations and particularly his exceptionally eloquent delivery of them, which I feel sure he must have been practising in front of the mirror for some significant number of hours.’

This, as Bercow would inevitably say, seems to ‘brook of no contradiction’.

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