The Speaker, impartiality and procedural reform

The political impartiality of the Speaker is a key feature of the office, while the role's authority has developed over time alongside other procedural reforms.

Impartiality

The political impartiality of the Speaker is one of the office’s most important features – and most emulated or aspired to outside the UK. Once elected, the Speaker severs all ties with his or her former party and is in all aspects of the job a completely non-partisan figure.

Like its independence from the King, this chief attribute of the office was attained gradually – and unevenly – over the last three centuries. The rise of party democracy brought in train practices of majoritarian government in the Commons.

The implications for the Speakership was that it became accepted on all sides of the House that the governing party would effectively chose the Speaker from amongst its ranks, and could expect his support. Arthur Onslow, Speaker from 1728 to 1761, is credited with putting in place the foundations of the non-partisan Speaker model.

And from about the middle of the 19th century, the principle of non-partisanship became firmly established though the tenures of a succession of Speakers who were admired and trusted on all sides of the House, including Charles Shaw-Lefevre (1839-57) and John Denison (1857-72).

Commons procedures and reform

Until the late nineteenth century, the House had no procedural device for limiting or curtailing debate. This lacunae became a problem when, in the 1870s and 1880s, Irish nationalist MPs conducted a sustained and organised campaign of obstruction to prevent the Government from getting its business through the House.

Although the introduction of a closure motion – a procedural device through which the mover requests the Speaker to end a debate and put the question to a vote – had been discussed, it had not yet been adopted by the House.

After Irish nationalist MPs blocked the first reading of a Government bill for five days, Speaker Henry Brand (1872-84), acting on the authority of the chair, effectively invoked closure by putting the question from the chair.

This unprecedented move is regarded as a key moment in the development of the authority of the office of Speaker as well as in the House’s procedures. It and other procedural reforms created a new balance between the needs of government and opposition in days when the work of Parliament was expanding significantly.

Last updated October 2016


 

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