The Speaker of the House of Commons is the presiding officer of the House of Commons, the United Kingdom's lower chamber of Parliament. The office is currently held by John Bercow, who was initially elected on 22 June 2009, following the resignation of Michael Martin. He was returned as an MP in the 2010 general election and was re-elected as Speaker when the House sat at the start of the new Parliament on 18 May 2010. He was again returned as an MP in the 2015 general election and was re-elected, unopposed, as Speaker when the House sat at the start of the new Parliament on 18 May 2015.
The Speaker presides over the House's debates, determining which members may speak. The Speaker is also responsible for maintaining order during debate, and may punish members who break the rules of the House. Unlike presiding officers of legislatures in many other countries, the Speaker remains strictly non-partisan, and renounces all affiliation with his or her former political party when taking office as well as when leaving the office. The Speaker does not take part in debate or vote (except to break ties; and even then, the convention is that the speaker casts the tie-breaking vote according to Speaker Denison's rule). Aside from duties relating to presiding over the House, the Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and remains a constituency Member of Parliament (MP). The Speaker has the right and obligation to reside in Speaker's House at the Palace of Westminster.
The office of Speaker is almost as old as Parliament itself. The earliest year for which a presiding officer has been identified is 1258, when Peter de Montfort presided over the Parliament held in Oxford. Early presiding officers were known by the title parlour or prolocutor. The continuous history of the office of Speaker is held to date from 1376 when Sir Peter de la Mare spoke for the commons in the "Good Parliament" as they joined leading magnates in purging the chief ministers of the Crown and the most unpopular members of the king's household. Edward III was frail and in seclusion, his prestigious eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, terminally ill. It was left to the next son, a furious John of Gaunt, to fight back. He arrested De la Mare and disgraced other leading critics. In the next, "Bad Parliament", in 1377, a cowed Commons put forward Gaunt's steward, Thomas Hungerford, as their spokesman in retracting their predecessors' misdoings of the previous year. Gaunt evidently wanted a 'mirror-image' as his form of counter-coup and this notion, born in crisis, of one 'speaker', who quickly also became 'chairman' and organiser of the Commons' business, was recognised as valuable and took immediate root after 1376-7.
On 6 October 1399, Sir John Cheyne of Beckford (Gloucester) was elected speaker. The powerful Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, is said to have voiced his fears of Cheyne's reputation as a critic of the Church. Eight days later, Cheyne resigned on grounds of ill-health, although he remained in favour with the king and active in public life for a further 14 years.
Although the officer was elected by the Commons at the start of each Parliament, with at least one contested election known, in 1420 (Roger Hunt prevailing by a majority of just four votes), in practice the Crown was usually able to get whom it wanted, indicating that the famous 'defence of the Commons' privilege' should not be seen in isolation as the principal thread in the office's evolution. Whilst the idea of giving this spokesman personal immunity from recrimination as only being the voice of the whole body was quickly adopted and did enhance the Commons' role, the Crown found it useful to have one person with the authority to select and lead the lower house's business and responses to the Crown's agenda, much more often than not in the way the Crown wanted. Thus, Whig ideas of the Commons growing in authority as against royal power are somewhat simplistic – the Crown used the Commons as and when it found it advantageous to do so, and the speakership was part of the process of making the Commons a more cohesive, defined and effective instrument of the king's government.
Throughout the medieval and early modern period, every speaker was an MP for a county, reflecting the implicit situation that such shire representatives were of greater standing in the house than the more numerous burgess MPs. Although evidence is almost non-existent, it has been surmised that any vote was by count of head, but by the same token perhaps the fact so very little is said about actual votes suggests that most decisions, at least of a general kind, were reached more through persuasion and the weight by status of the county MPs. In such a situation, the influence of the speaker should not be underestimated. Sir Thomas More was the first speaker to go on to become Lord Chancellor.
Until the 17th century, members of the House of Commons often continued to view their Speaker (correctly) as an agent of the Crown. As Parliament evolved, however, the Speaker's position grew into one that involved more duties to the House than to the Crown; such was definitely the case by the time of the English Civil War. This change is sometimes said to be reflected by an incident in 1642, when King Charles I entered the House in order to search for and arrest five members for high treason. When the King asked him if he knew of the location of these members, the Speaker, William Lenthall, famously replied: "May it please your Majesty, 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."
The development of Cabinet government under King William III in the late 17th century caused further change in the nature of the Speakership. Speakers were generally associated with the ministry, and often held other government offices. For example, Robert Harley served simultaneously as Speaker and as a Secretary of State between 1704 and 1705. The Speaker between 1728 and 1761, Arthur Onslow, reduced ties with the government, though the office did remain to a large degree political. The Speakership evolved into its modern form—in which the holder is an impartial and apolitical officer who does not belong to any party—only during the middle of the 19th century.
Over 150 individuals have served as Speaker of the House of Commons. Their names are inscribed in gold leaf around the upper walls of Room C of the House of Commons Library. The three most recent Speakers have been notable for a series of firsts. Betty Boothroyd, elected in 1992, was the first woman Speaker. Michael Martin, elected in 2000, was the first Roman Catholic Speaker since the Reformation. John Bercow, elected in 2009, is the first Jewish Speaker.
By convention, Speakers are normally addressed in Parliament as "Mr Speaker", and their deputies as "Mr Deputy Speaker". Betty Boothroyd was, at her request, addressed as "Madam Speaker". When Betty Harvie Anderson had served in the 1970s as a Deputy Speaker, on the other hand, she had been addressed as "Mr Deputy Speaker".
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