“Was it popular? It was not popular. And those decisions are decisions that you have to take on a lonely basis, withstanding the sound and fury as you do so.”
John Bercow is recounting his experience of attempting to reform the rather stuffy and shockingly old fashioned UK parliament. He’s speaking at LEAD 2020, the Advertising Association’s conference that brings together the advertising industry and the political world. The former Speaker of the House of Commons (for international readers, that’s the man who went viral for bellowing ‘orderrr!’) has been invited to talk about responsible leadership, following the days theme of ‘The New Age of Responsibility’.
And for Mr. Bercow, the crux of responsibility is innovation. Changing things, no matter how difficult. “To me, in office of Speaker for just over a decade, responsible leadership meant pursuing necessary, desired and overdue innovation. Not change or innovation or reform or modernisation for the sake of it, but in order to deliver improvements, to make things better. My broad attitude could eb encapsulated int that age-old adage, keep the best and improve the rest.”
Innovation, however, doesn’t come easy when you’re dealing an institution dating back hundreds of years. It can be downright difficult. The crowd gasps and chuckles when John details the challenge of creating childcare facilities at Parliament – particularly when the site he chose was one of (many) bars across the Palace of Westminster. At that point, the estate had, of all things, a shooting gallery, but no creche. “There was no shortage of places to have a beer but no place to leave a baby,” he says.
The pushback on that, alone, was shocking – so when it came to matters of parliamentary protocol and constitution, the fortitude required was staggering. It also comes at enormous personal cost. The former Speaker spoke of being unpopular within Parliament and with the British press, something, he says, he had to rise above. He nearly chokes up when he recalls how alone and vulnerable he was when his wife, a well-known political figure in her own right, temporarily left him – though giving up and not going on was never an option.
For an audience that is used to seeing the word innovation thrown around like an easy, sext buzz word, John Bercows accounts, entertaining as they are, underline the reality that the most necessary reform can be the most difficult to enact – and that’s what makes it such a precious responsibility.
“If you try to innovate, if you try to make a difference, if you try to improve from the status quo, you will court controversy,” he says.
“I had a relationship with the government whips characterised by trust and understanding. I didn’t trtust them and they didn’t understand me!
“As speaker you’ve got a choice as with so many other roles. You can either be a reforming innovating, change-making speaker, making good decisions and making mistakes but delivering change. You can either be a reforming speaker or you can be an uncontroversial speaker. But you can’t be both. I made my bed; I have been happy to lie in it. While I’m flawed as everybody is, because to err is human, I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t just sit there like a nodding donkey or some craven, quiescent lickspittle of the executive branch. I took on the challenges including standing up to powerful prime ministers, and I’m not embarrassed about that.”