The spectre of being censured for bullying now hangs over the Speaker, Mr Bercow, and the Leicester MP Keith Vaz. Vaz was also in the news a while back for getting entangled with rent boys.
I find the bullying issue deeply disturbing, and, more so, because a man accused of bullying is supervising an investigation into its prevalence within the Palace of Westminster. When someone challenges a bully, they sometimes respond by saying they are the victim or asserting further power. It is odd, because it is the bullying behaviour that has become so inbred, so alot of people in power have no idea at all that this is what they have been doing. Many of these people would be quite shocked, I am sure, to be told that they are bullies. More than that, to recognise that it is a habit they have got into, and a nasty habit at that.
I am sure that both Mr Vaz and Mr Bercow, friends incidentally, would be the first to object to any suggestion that they were not in control of their actions, but moments of madness happen to us all. What is needed in this whole bullying campaign is to find a way to make people in power behave better without going to court and without recrimination. These people are in power because they do power, on the whole, rather well. Sadly, it goes to their head a bit, and they need to be reined in. This is a time to give them some serious life-changing help and to make sure that help is readily available for others further down the line who also have to learn how to manage power.
Of course, some government departments and high street offices are simply designed in the 21st Century to facilitate bullying. The whole security process on the end of a telephone help-line is institutional intimidation and needs to be called out for what it is.
I remember when the TSB was the “Listening Bank” sporting wonderfully inventive adverts. Not any more. Today, it is the bank that “is sorry we have not met your high standards and that”, because of the great backlog, “may be taking a while to process your complaints.” It can take ten minutes to get through their security and even then, they do not function properly. Bullying masking incompetence. Shocking!
Mr Bercow’s problems lie in the alleged treatment of his private secretary, Angus Sinclair and Sinclair’s successor, Kate Emms. Mr Vaz’s problems seem greater in so far as when he posed as Jim, besides getting involved with rent boys, he also discussed buying them cocaine. His treatment of Ms McCulloch seems to be centred on the fact that she was from Northern Ireland and he had apparently suggested that she was therefore “a security risk”. Fairly shocking racism if true. She also criticises his hospitality expenses. Bluntly, much of this seems to be the sort of stuff that some timely guidance could have sorted out, but there was little of that and there looks likely to be little offered. A shame all round.
As for the abuse of parliamentary privilege, that is something that needs testing. There are astonishing stories in the last 300 years where privilege has been invoked, most notably when the MP elected to serve the constituents of Northampton, practically my own area, refused to take the oath of allegiance in Parliament. This was not disloyalty to the Queen but committed atheism. At one point, he suggested that, like John Morley who had taken the oath and kissed the testament, he might just say the words and not mean them: that was not good enough for the die-hard believers. It was God or nothing. Charles Bradlaugh was elected in 1880 and finally took his seat after 6 by-elections in 1885, taking over the India office and asserting the rights of Indians in the process. He died six years’ later, a spent man. Taking on the establishment bullies in this case as well as dealing with the intricacies of Parliamentary privilege must have “done for him”.
The problem lay in the conflict between the courts and the House of Commons. What was acceptable in the courts was not deemed right in the House, specifically to affirm rather than swear. So there was one rule in Parliament and another outside. Absurd and yet defended by the principle of Parliamentary privilege. But I suspect there were other issues of snobbery, spite and a basic fear of the modern that were at play. Bradlaugh was a self-made man who advocated family planning and universal pension. He made enemies. He was lampooned by Churchill’s father. But after 6 elections, he won. In a way. And he has a statue in Northampton to prove the point.
Common sense finally won out against an abuse of Parliamentary privilege.