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Core issues

Brian Taylor | 10:42 UK time, Monday, 1 December 2008

Michael Martin, it would seem, is in a spot of bother.

There is a view abroad that, as speaker, he should have done more to prevent the police from entering the Commons to search the office of the Conservative front bencher Damian Green.

For those with an historical perspective, the controversy will be intriguing.

There has been conflict for centuries, both intellectual and physical, as to whether the speaker primarily serves the state or the members of parliament.

This dates back before the Act of Union - but persisted thereafter and is still salient today.

In 1629, Speaker Finch told the Commons: "I am not less the king's servant for being yours."

By contrast, in 1642, Speaker Lenthall declared: "I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the house is pleased to direct me."

'Beyond the pale'

How do you imagine the house would have directed Speaker Martin in this case?

According to one unnamed MP, Mr Martin, the MP for Glasgow North East, should have deployed his tongue and told the police to "b . . . r off".

Others say his eyes should have seen that this was beyond the pale.

Britain does not become a police state overnight because officers are enabled to search the office of an MP - and arrest said MP - in connection with an inquiry into the leak of supposedly sensitive Home Office papers.

However, it is scarcely a blow for liberty. It is the job of Her Majesty's opposition to find out what is happening in government.

It is the job of Her Majesty's opposition to ventilate issues in the interests of the people.

Just ask Gordon Brown. It was his daily delight, while in opposition, to publish leaked Government papers, with a helpful commentary from himself.

Classic dilema

Yes, there must be secrets - although governments and State authorities often find it difficult to distinguish between secrecy which protects the interests of the UK and that which protects the interests of ministers.

It does not seem to me that it is the job of the police to set out on fishing expeditions in the elected House of Commons.

Nor to arrest an MP when his only apparent "crime" is carrying out his job as a front bench spokesperson.

As to Speaker Martin, he faced the classic dilemma. The police are officers of the state, of the crown.

Does he serve the crown? Should he therefore permit them to go about their declared business?

But he is an officer of parliament. He is speaker (or spokesman) FOR the Commons - TO the crown.

His primary role is to represent the opinion of the elected members to those in authority. This is not an arcane issue. It goes to the very core of his role.


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