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Colorful speaker of Britain’s House of Commons takes the high road on Boris Johnson, Donald Trump

The finale to the latest Brexit crisis is anybody’s guess, John Bercow says. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

John Bercow, the stentorian speaker of the British House of Commons, wouldn’t take the bait. In an interview Tuesday, Bercow wouldn’t criticize fiery Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whom last week he compared to a bank robber.

The speaker wouldn’t comment on whether he opposes a “no-deal” Brexit, which Johnson has said he is determined to implement Oct. 31, even though the House of Commons last week demanded an extension if no exit agreement is reached with the European Union.

And Bercow wouldn’t cast stones at President Trump, either, despite withering criticism in the past of his immigration policies.

Instead, like a tennis player using the angles, Bercow took aim at all three subjects without challenging them head-on. In precise, passionate language that has gained him global notoriety, Bercow returned again and again to the critical role that legislatures — in this case, the House of Commons — play in a democracy.

“The role of a parliamentary democracy should be preserved, nurtured, and celebrated,” Bercow said. “If we degrade Parliament, we do so at our peril.”


Bercow, who announced last week he is stepping down in October, visited the Globe amid heightened tension between Johnson’s Conservative government and Parliament, where the prime minister does not command a majority. Many British legislators viewed Johnson’s decision last week to suspend Parliament until mid-October as a cynically transparent ploy to run out the clock before the Brexit deadline, when Britain is scheduled to sever itself from the European Union.

Like Trump, who has championed Johnson, the prime minister portrays himself as a populist fighting an entrenched political establishment, and his intentions to honor the Commons-approved extension are uncertain.

Such defiance of Parliament would stir further controversy and unease in a country that, despite its ancient roots of representative government, does not have a written constitution. Bercow said he has procedural options to prevent a no-deal Brexit without Commons approval, but he would not specify them.


“In the end, Parliament will be at the heart of the decision-making process and nothing is going to change that fact,” Bercow said. “There’s a very old saying in our country, ‘Be you ever so high, the law is above you.’ ”

Bercow, 56, has been looking up throughout his life. At 5 feet, 6 inches, he is not a towering physical presence in the speaker’s chair. But what he lacks in height, he has made up with a sense of aggressive flamboyance that mixes hubris, humor, and polysyllabic rhetoric.

His booming calls for “Order! Order!” have become a stylistic trademark for this son of a North London cabdriver and grandson of a Romanian immigrant.

“Order,” however, is elusive in British politics at the moment. And the finale to the latest Brexit crisis is anybody’s guess, Bercow said.

“I have no way of knowing. Anybody who thinks he or she can predict with great confidence the outcome is either much, much cleverer than I or a reckless fool. I really find it impossible to say,” Bercow said.

A written constitution for the United Kingdom is worth considering, he said.

“I think there is a compelling case in the light of all that has happened in recent times,” Bercow said. “I think there is a case for saying, ‘Could our constitutional arrangements be done differently and better?’ ”


During a decade as speaker — the first Jewish lawmaker to hold the position — he has upended convention.

Instead of being a low-profile referee who blandly interprets the rules, Bercow has used the job to champion the rank-and-file, the so-called parliamentary backbenchers who previously had been expected to follow the orders of party leadership in lockstep.

The backbenchers now have a voice, and that has infuriated many Conservatives. Bercow had been a member of the party until he became speaker, when he dropped his party affiliation, as is customary.

“The speaker should be looking to ensure that their voices, their opinions, their concerns, their anxieties are heard,” said Bercow, who climbed the political ladder in the Conservative Party but has since drifted from the right. “So that people can question, can probe, can scrutinize, can challenge, can contradict, or even expose the errors of omission or commission of the government.”

Bercow’s stop at the Globe was part of an American speaking tour that took him to New York University and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, among other appearances.

In the interview, Bercow lamented the political hostility that finds voice on social media.

“The fact that there is a democratic space through social media for millions of people to express their views who didn’t previously have a forum in which to do so because they weren’t elected politicians, or senior public officials with a public voice, or journalists is a good thing,” he said.


The ugly side features “keyboard warriors who think they have a right to berate, harangue, intimidate, or threaten anyone who dares to take a view that differs from their own,” Bercow said. “The particularly alarming feature of it is the descent into threats and intimidation and, in some cases, violence.”

Bercow cited the 2016 murder of Jo Cox, a Labor Party member of Parliament.

“She was murdered in the cold light of day simply for being who she was and doing her job and standing up for her constituents and for the values that she cherished,” Bercow said. “And she was murdered by an extremist, a fascist, a neo-Nazi.”

Bercow declined to comment directly on Trump administration policies or the president’s effect on populism in Britain.

“Relations between the United Kingdom and the United States are of the highest importance, and they will be preserved indefinitely. The prime ministers come and go, the presidents come and go, but the relationship continues,” he said.

Bercow, however, did offer an unsolicited compliment for Barack Obama.

“I very greatly enjoyed welcoming President Obama to Westminster Hall in May 2011,” Bercow said of the centuries-old seat of the House of Commons and House of Lords. “He delivered a fine address to both houses, and I remember it as keenly today as if it was delivered yesterday.”

Trump, by contrast, has not been invited.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.