Order! Order! The Speaker, celebrity politics and ritual performance

“It’s a circus, isn’t it? But, well, a fun circus. And the best thing about this circus is the speaking master: John Bercow.”

On October 27, the Dutch satirical news show Zondag met Lubach spent a 7-minute item on the popularity of the Speaker of the House of Commons and his omnipresence in the Dutch news media. Throughout 2019, Bercow was the object of much press coverage, was interviewed on television and appeared in a live talk show twice. Clips that showed him screaming “Order! Order!” regularly popped up on television and went viral on news sites and social media. The phrase became an emblem for the particularities of British politics. It was amusing to European audiences but at the same time a symbolic marker of the otherness of the UK.

Bercow’s “Order! Order!” became a daily incantation that afforded an international public to relate to the political spectacle in Westminster. However, it also became the epitome of increasingly desperate attempts to avert political chaos in an ongoing political pandemonium. Both through its literal meaning and its repetitiveness it provided ritual stability to a political process that became increasingly hard to comprehend in the media coverage of the Brexit debates.

Providing order in Parliament and safeguarding its procedures and rules of debate is the main task of the Speaker. He needs to assure that “the rules laid down by the House for the carrying on of its business are observed”, as the House states itself. The function of Speaker is therefore key to the democratic process. When accepting office, Speakers resign from their party and during elections they do not campaign on political issues but stand as the “Speaker seeking re-election”. As laid down in the regulation of the House: “The Speaker must be above party political controversy and must be seen to be completely impartial in all public matters”.

The Speaker does not take a stand on political issues and has merely a procedural, ceremonial and ritual function. He needs to perform the written and unwritten rules of parliamentary politics. By using ritual phrasing and performing ritual acts he safeguards the integrity of the democratic process without interfering in the political content. We could therefore hypothesise that public attention for the role and person of the Speaker, especially in politically turbulent times, is limited, and even more so compared to political leaders.

However, the extensive media coverage from the Westminster theater has turned the Speaker into a lead actor on the political stage. Bercow became a celebrity politician.

When we take the number of visits to the English-language Wikipedia lemma about Bercow as a proxy for public interest, we see that throughout 2019 it attracted on many days a similar amount of visits as the lemmas of Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson – and regularly more. There is a clear relation with events in which the Speaker interfered, such as Bercow deciding that the House could not vote twice on an agreement between the government and the EU. Numbers then spiked to 51,276 visitors on October 21. Moreover, and even more when examining the number of visitors to lemmas about Bercow in other European languages, there is also a clear relation with press coverage. After Bercow had been a guest in the Dutch talk show Jinek in April and September, for example, there was a steep rise in the visitors to the Dutch language Wikipedia page.

Similar patterns are observed in the data in Google Trends. Although these don’t provide absolute numbers, it allows for the analysis of the relative importance of search terms. Moreover, it gives insight in the geographical distribution of search queries. This shows that searches for Bercow are more numerous in countries in which there was also more press coverage. The Netherlands, again, scores particularly high here. The Dutch public broadcaster NOS even reported in April about Bercow’s fame under the headline: “Mr. Speaker (from order, order!) attraction at Schiphol”.

The substantial public attention for Bercow on the one hand aligns with a trend towards celebrity politics and representing politics as a spectacle. It provided foreign media with a narrative and an angle that appealed to a mass audience. The Speaker, and the phrase “Order! Order!” in particular, thus became a recurring trope in an unfolding and – at least for an outside audience – increasingly chaotic and incomprehensible political situation. Coverage was colored by the irony of the outside observer describing an unfolding tragedy.

The public attention for the Speaker also points to the importance of rituals in politics. They not only provide stability to the political process, but also provides something to hold on to in political reporting. Rituals function to produce order out of chaos – even where order is hard to find.