In the fierce disputes between the king and Parliament in the early 17th cent., the Speakers were in an extremely difficult position. Speaker Finch reminded the Commons in 1629 that ‘I am not less the king's servant for being yours’: nevertheless, he was held down in the chair when he tried to carry out the king's instructions to adjourn. But in 1642, with the wind blowing the other way, Speaker Lenthall defied Charles I demanding the arrest of the five members, and declared, ‘I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me.’ By the end of the century, the Speaker was relatively free from royal pressure, though elections continued to be made on a party basis. In 1841, however, Peel urged the Conservative majority not to oppose the re-election of the Liberal Speaker on the grounds that it should not be a party matter. The first Labour Speaker, Dr Horace King, was elected in 1965, the first woman Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, in 1992.
In the last 100 years or so changes in parliamentary procedure have laid new duties on the Speaker. They began with devices to overcome Irish parliamentary obstruction in the 1880s. But governments are always short of time, with more legislation than the House can consider in a session. Hence the imperative to limit debate. The two most important devices involving the Speaker are the closure, and the selection of amendments (the kangaroo). The Speaker must see that the right of the majority (normally the government) to pass legislation is balanced by respect for the rights of the opposition and the other minorities. The closure is a motion ‘that the question be now put’. With a government bill, this will be moved by a whip. The Speaker must decide whether or not to accept the motion: if carried, as is likely, debate ceases forthwith. The opposition may feel that the matter has not been adequately discussed and the Speaker has to balance their view against that of the government.
A bill may attract a lot of amendments and, indeed, one way of delaying the passage of a bill is to propose many changes. The Speaker has the power of selecting amendments for debate: those not called fall by the wayside. Moreover, the chair seeks to focus debate by grouping amendments according to subject-matter. The decision whether or not to call an amendment may have important political consequences: for instance, to call an amendment tabled by a rebel faction on the government side may expose the government to defeat, at the least to unfavourable publicity.
The impact of the Speaker is even greater when the House is dealing with private members' bills. Rejection of a closure motion is inconvenient for the government but further time for debate can be found (though at a cost). With a backbench bill, failure to enforce the closure in the second reading debate may be fatal: the private member is allowed no second chance.
The modern Speaker has to be an impartial chairman. The office needs tact, sensitivity, and skills of an unusual order. The responsibility for calling members to speak (and even more for not calling) may become contentious; the use of unparliamentary language may have to be checked; members may need protection against unfair interruptions. The Speaker has to reconcile the almost inarticulate assumptions of parliamentary government with the needs of a mass democracy.
The Speaker has a ministerial scale salary, a pension, a suite in the palace of Westminster, and a peerage on retirement. In precedence, the Speaker comes after the royal family, archbishops, lord chancellor, prime minister, and lord president of the council. In the House of Lords, the lord chancellor acts as Speaker, but may speak and vote in debate.
J. A. Cannon; and Professor Hugh Berrington
speak·er / ˈspēkər/ • n. 1. a person who speaks. ∎ a person who delivers a speech or lecture. ∎ a person who speaks a specified language: he is a fluent English and French speaker. 2. (Speaker) the presiding officer in a legislative assembly, esp. the House of Representatives. 3. short for loudspeaker: a cassette player with two speakers. DERIVATIVES: speak·er·ship / -ˌship/ n. (in sense 2).