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March 25, 2011

Speaker measures up well to these criteria


Editor: The Speakership is, of course, a very British phenomenon. It is thought to have come into being in 1377. As the term implies, the ‘Speaker’ was originally a mere mouthpiece. It was his job to report to Parliament what the King thought and also to report to the King what Parliament had said. His role as presiding officer of the House of Commons evolved as democracy developed in Britain.{{more}}

Today the Speaker’s main task is to keep order in the House. He is vested with several powers which enable him to discharge his duties. He can call members to order for what he deems to be unparliamentary language, unbecoming behaviour, irrelevance and tedious repetition. He can order members to take their seats and withdraw statements. Under the Standing Orders made by the House for conducting its affairs, he can call on a member to leave the Chamber, and if the member fails to do so, he can have him forcibly removed by the Sergeant at Arms with such assistance as necessary. The Speaker can adjourn the House in the case of an emergency, disorder, or if he simply feels a ‘cooling off’ period would facilitate the dispatch of the House’s business.

In Britain, the Speaker is elected by members of Parliament from among themselves. Once elected, the Speaker ceases to be a member of any political party and is expected to be impartial and to be seen to be so. At elections subsequent to his preferment, he is usually unopposed. The tradition is that the Speaker holds office until he retires. The Speakership is a career in itself. On retirement, he ends his days as a peer (Lord). The Clerk of the House, too, is a career in itself. That is why Erskine May was able to remain in the post for nearly fifty years and become such an expert that he wrote what is still the authoritative work on parliamentary practice.

It has proved extremely difficult to replicate the concept of the Speakership, in its entirety, in other countries, particularly so in mini-states. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the Parliaments in these countries being small, the Government and the Opposition will often be separated by razor thin majorities. In such circumstances, it could be suicidal having an elected member neutralized in the way the House of Commons does to the Speaker. Secondly, if the Speaker is so neutralized he would hardly be able to attend to the demands of his constituents and would therefore lose at the next election. Thirdly, because our countries are small, the pressure on a speaker is likely to be greater than in a large country as divisions among us tend to be deep and bitter.

In the circumstances, what many small countries have tended to do is to choose a non-elected person as Speaker. But even this does not always solve the problem. In the final analysis, it all boils down to the personal qualities of the individual. ‘The Times’ of London once listed qualities desirable in a Speaker as:

1. Imperturbable good temper, tact, patience and urbanity;

2. Previous legal training if possible;

3. Absence of bitter partisanship in previous career;

4. Possession of innate gentlemanly feelings which command respect and deferment;

5. Personal dignity in voice and manner

Mr. Hendrick Alexander measures up well to these criteria. He is devoid of pomposity, which is more than I can say of some of his critics. Any fair-minded person looking at his performance on the day in question will admit that he was both courteous and dignified. Indeed, if anything, he may have leaned backward a little too much.