05 May 2010

Forever Hold Your Peace

Queen Mimi's most recent meme included the fact that the Speaker of the House of Commons doesn't speak. This isn't specifically true as the Speaker doesn't speak about issues but rather represents the whole of the Parliament. He or she has functions that would be similar to combining our Vice President breaking tie votes in the Senate with the Parliamentarian who rules on procedure plus speaking to the Crown on behalf of the whole of Parliament. As you can see we even got our office title Parliamentarian from Parliament.

Here is some basic historical and present form information:

The office was first held by Sir Peter de la Mare, knight for Herefordshire, in the 'Good Parliament' of 1376 when the Commons refused to grant the crown any new taxes until its grievances had been acknowledged.  Sir Peter acted as spokesman for the Commons as a whole, and the Commons was successful in the dispute.

De La Mare Coat of Arms

However: as soon as parliament was dissolved John of Gaunt, son of Edward III had Sir Peter imprisoned and the next speaker, elected in 1377, was Sir Thomas Hungerford, John of Gaunt's steward. He presided over what came to be known as the 'Bad Parliament' which reversed most of the gains of the previous year and introduced a 'poll-tax'.

John of Gaunt

Shakespeare was kinder to John of Gaunt than the above history might indicate he deserved.  In Richard II, old Will gives him a love poem to England that is still quoted in all sorts of circumstances today:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm this England....

The office of Speaker continued to be fought over by Crown and Commons for many centuries. In 1629, Speaker Finch took the king's line as he declared "I am not less the king's servant for being yours". In 1642 Speaker Lenthall placed the interests of the Commons to the fore, proclaiming "I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me".

The Speaker today is expected to act as a non partisan in their actions as the presiding officer or spokesperson of the Commons. He or she rules on procedure, has the power to limit debate and to call members to speak, acting always to protect the interests of the House. Other functions are to maintain order, sign warrants of committal for contempt, reprimand members when necessary, and sign warrants for by-election writs. The Speaker doesn't vote unless a vote is tied.

Watching debates in the House of Commons can be great fun and my favorite of all the Speakers was Betty Boothroyd. the first and so far only woman to hold the positions.  Betty definitely wasn't silent.

Below is Betty giving the squabbling boys of the Commons a piece of her mind and speaking very forcibly.

1 comment:

Travis said...

She's a right saucy gal!