It’s more than possible that the clear statement by the Speaker of the House of Commons that he will not support allowing President Trump to address both houses of parliament in Westminster Hall will be sufficient to ensure that the proposed state visit will not actually take place. Given the massive ego of Trump, and his apparent hatred of Obama, relegating him to what he would probably see as ‘second-class’ status compared to his predecessor may well tip the balance in his own mind as to whether he will come or not. Time will tell, but I can’t say that I’d be upset if the event were to be cancelled (diplomatic niceties of the past – which don’t necessarily apply to Trump – would probably have referred to a ‘postponement’ due to ‘diary problems’).
Bearing in mind some of the people who have been given the full works, it seems to me that there is a large element of hypocrisy from some of those opposed to according him the honour; but better to get it right this time than to repeat the error just because ‘we did it for so-and-so’.
The proposed state visit has, almost accidentally, raised the question of the extent to which the Speaker should be impartial, and whether he is entitled to express an opinion or not. Much of the reaction seems to have more to do with whether those reacting agree with him or not; those who think he’s said the right thing praise him for being forthright whilst those who don’t attack him for failing to be impartial. Choose another issue, and the same people would probably be arguing the opposite of what they're arguing at present. But how impartial should he really be?
The tradition – always a ‘tradition’, never a rule – was that once appointed to the post of Speaker, the incumbent ceased to be a representative of his or her party and was elected unopposed for his or her constituency. Like many traditions, there was some sort of justification for this in ancient history (becoming Speaker was not without some danger to the life of the incumbent), but it looks strangely outdated in the twenty-first century. It leaves the people of the relevant constituency unable to select a representative to represent their views or to participate in the choice of a government.
It also confuses two very different things – holding a view and expressing a view. The fact that an individual is, theoretically, barred from expressing a view on most issues doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t hold a view. And failing to express a view merely guarantees the perception of impartiality; it doesn’t guarantee the fact of it. I would have thought that it’s easier to assess whether someone is really being impartial in chairing any debate if his or her views are known than if we all simply pretend that they don’t exist.It would be nice if Speaker Bercow’s words in this case led to a serious rethink about the reality and perception of impartiality, rather than simply a knee-jerk attempt to get rid of him. In the end, though, neither will happen – our elected representatives are, as I’ve noted before, more wedded to tradition than to efficacy when it comes to their proceedings.