Disdain For Mr 'Squeaker'
MARQUIS at LARGE
By JOHN MARQUIS
WHAT is it about Speakers of the House that makes them so pompous? First, there was Alvin Braynen of the Bahamas House of Assembly. Now there is John Bercow of the British House of Commons. JOHN MARQUIS reports...
EVERY time I hear of the latest escapade of John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons in London, I think of dear old Alvin Braynen, the political enigma elevated to the Speaker’s chair by Lynden Pindling 45 years ago.
Bercow – dubbed Squeaker Bercow by a columnist in the Daily Mail – is the little man with the very big ego who presides like a martinet over debates in the most hallowed parliamentary chamber in the world.
Since ascending to the Speaker’s chair two years ago, he has managed to upset almost everyone with his insufferable, self-preening pomposity, lambasting MPs from on high, glorying in his status as the parliamentary kingpin and attracting harsh criticism for his alleged political bias during debates.
Apart from former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, bumptious, bombastic Bercow is leading contender for the least enviable title in British politics – The Most Thoroughly Disliked Person in Westminster.
With his irritatingly officious manner, his peremptory treatment of colleagues, his palpable smugness and nauseating self-regard, Bercow is the kind of man everyone desperately wants to see fall flat on his face right in the middle of a nationally televised parliamentary procession.
With his towering wife Sally – an even more accomplished self-publicist than Bercow himself – Squeaker completes a double act of a kind rarely seen in the upper echelons of British politics. Little John and Long Tall Sally have become the biggest laugh in town. But not everyone sees the joke.
Bercow first drew attention to himself by refusing to wear the customary Speaker’s wig. Then he upset former Tory backbench colleagues by seemingly refusing to “see” them during debates, denying them the opportunity to speak.
More recently, he has been taken to task for being unduly harsh towards those not in his favour, and noticeably accommodating to those who are. He is often under the hammer for shouting down MPs he deems to be in breach of minor procedural niceties.
Last week, he was back in the news for allegedly patronising the Queen during an official speech, watched with growing discomfort and distaste by Prime Minister David Cameron, who is thought to detest Bercow with a passion.
To make matters worse, he referred to Her Majesty as a “kaleidoscope Queen”, leaving onlookers to ponder his meaning. Could it be that Elizabeth the Second was changing colour ¬– from white to pink to red to purple (with rage) – right in front of his very eyes?
If there is one thing Britain’s coalition government agrees upon, it is that this “appalling little man” – the term used in a Daily Mail headline – is sent packing as soon as the opportunity presents itself. The consensus is that Bercow is a disaster and therefore must go.
Now let’s flash back 45 years to 1967 when one Alvin Braynen was allowed to preside over the Bahamas House of Assembly for the first time.
He attained his lifelong ambition after throwing his seat behind Pindling when the major parties tied in the memorable election of January 10 that year.
Along with Labour leader Randol Fawkes, he – an independent – was in a position to tip the balance of power in the PLP’s favour if the inducements were attractive enough.
As we all know, one of Pindling’s strengths as a leader was his ability to tap into the egos of his supporters. He knew where all their narcissistic buttons were and exactly when to push them.
When Pindling phoned Braynen in search of his support, and began his conversation with “Good evening, Mr Speaker”, Braynen fell into his lap like a shot grouse.
Such was the vanity of the man, the soaring sense of self-importance, the irresistible desire for a place in Bahamian political history that he could barely wait to get into his sagging wig, black breeches, silken knee-stockings and buckled shoes to start lording it over the Assembly.
Braynen, you may recall, was an off-white son of The Current, Eleuthera, who was actually a UBP parliamentarian when I first arrived in the Bahamas in 1966.
He never quite fitted the image of the Bay Street Boys of the day, and never looked comfortable alongside the likes of Stafford Sands, George Baker, Roy Solomon and Foster Clarke, all UBP stalwarts with an unwavering dislike of the PLP.
His decision to contest his seat as an independent in 1967 surprised no-one. To his credit, his supporters forsook party allegiances and stuck with the man. It’s a decision many of them came to regret.
When Braynen backed Pindling over Sir Roland Symonette’s UBP, he earned his place in history and the eternal disapproval of his former parliamentary colleagues. It is literally true to say that, without his blessing, Pindling would not have been able to achieve “majority rule” at that time.
Thus, in one move, Braynen became a champion of the common man, a party “traitor”, and the ultimate symbol of parliamentary authority. The UBP misfit had “made it” in his own eyes to reach the one position he coveted above all.
What was obviously good news for Braynen proved to be bad news for me.
For no sooner had he attained high office than he was using his new found power to persecute the cussed young political reporter from The Nassau Guardian. I had the dubious honour of becoming the first journalist in living memory to be barred from House of Assembly proceedings.
At the time, the Guardian, then a fervent UBP supporter, felt mightly aggrieved over what they saw as Braynen’s betrayal of their cause. The paper seemed hell-bent on making him pay.
When Braynen, during one of his first parliamentary debates in the Speaker’s chair, asked the public gallery to talk “subduedly”, the Guardian’s leader writer of the day swooped on him like a falcon on a day-old chick.
Poor old Alvin, squinting myopically from under his wig, became known as “Subduedly” Braynen from that day forth, an insult he felt demeaned his office and besmirched the Assembly. He struck back with the full force of his newly-acquired authority.
When I turned up to cover the following week’s hearing, the sergeant at arms was waiting at the door to turn me away. I was, he told me, officially barred from covering proceedings until the Guardian had published a fulsome apology.
“Who says so?” I asked, knowing full well who was responsible.
“The Speaker of the Honourable House of Assembly,” he said.
Thus, Alvin Braynen began his career as parliamentary overlord by excluding an important segment of the Bahamian media from reporting the speeches of its readers’ elected representatives.
Irked by the Guardian’s insulting behaviour, Braynen became increasingly dismissive of the press as he presided over parliamentary affairs. Dislike of reporters became a common feature of his incumbency. Like Squeaker Bercow, he became more and more puffed-up with every pronouncement he made, strutting around like a wood pigeon in mating mode.
From the Speaker’s chair, his voice became noticeably more sonorous, his manner increasingly overbearing, and his self-importance embarrassingly more pronounced.
When I see Bercow hectoring MPs today, I am reminded of Alvin “Subduedly” Braynen, with his all-knowing asides from on high.
Does the Speaker’s chair create pompous men? Or is pomposity a prerequisite of the job?
Either way, Squeakers Bercow and Braynen used the position to imprint themselves on the public consciousness. It’s hard to imagine they would have done so in any other way.