The House of Commons speaker John Bercow delivered an unprecedented rebuke to US President Donald Trump on Monday, defying the long history of his office by taking a political stand.
Responding to a point of order on an early day motion signed by 170 MPs seeking to prevent Trump from addressing parliament during his upcoming state visit, Bercow said: “An address by a foreign leader to both Houses of Parliament is not an automatic right; it is an earned honour.”
While his statement was at once applauded by many it was also derided as being out of line and has also annoyed Number 10 Downing Street.
The speaker said he was opposed to an address by Trump in Westminster Hall even before he imposed the migrant ban, but after its imposition, “I am even more strongly opposed”.
“I would not wish to issue an invitation to President Trump to speak in the Royal Gallery. I conclude by saying...that we value our relationship with the United States. If a state visit takes place, that is way beyond and above the pay grade of the Speaker,” he said.
And added: “I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism, and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.”
His statement was followed by a round of applause—as a convention, applause or clapping of hands is not allowed in the house—by MPs from Labour and the Scottish National Party. The ruling Conservative benches were silent. On Tuesday, he defended his statement, saying he acted ‘honestly and honourably’.
No date has yet been finalised for Trump’s visit. Several visiting heads of state have addressed the British parliament. Amid growing support for the demand to cancel the visit, Prime Minister Theresa May has stood by her decision to invite him during her recent visit to the United States.
As many inside and outside parliament hailed Bercow’s intervention, he was also criticised for ignoring the words of the 17th century House of Commons speaker, William Lenthall which have guided the conduct of speakers over the centuries.
In 1642, when King Charles I tried to arrest five MPs for treason, speaker Lenthall stood up for the independence of the House of Commons and told him: “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.”
Bercow is known to speak his mind inside and outside the House of Commons. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in November 2015, he showered fulsome praise on him and India’s democratic credentials, but qualified it with a condition.
“Sceptics sometimes suggest that democracy is all but impossible to create or to maintain in countries of a certain size, degree of diversity or level of economic development. Over the past 68 years, India has proved to be a standing rebuke to such sceptics,” he had said.
“To rout the disbelievers completely, however, democracy has to demonstrate that it can respect free speech and incorporate a true diversity of creeds, faiths and orientations without diminishing or disrespecting any of them.”
Days before Modi’s visit, Bercow, aware of concerns over human rights in China, took many by surprise when he told the visiting Chinese president Xi Jinping, while welcoming the latter to address parliament, “Of course, the Indian Prime Minister is the representative of a great democracy.”