The late Michael Martin will most likely be remembered for his fall from grace in the expenses scandal, and the raid of then-Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green’s office (this event would cause Green’s downfall, 9 years down the line). However, what the story of Michael Martin’s speakership symbolises is the innate classism of Westminster as an institution, particularly towards working-class MPs.
I’m now going to go back to a video from the mid-1980s that did the rounds on social media. Tory MP Terry Dicks (ironically replaced by John McDonnell in 1997) was arguing that MPs that fail to meet certain sartorial standards should be barred from addressing the house. The man that was defending a sweater knitted by his mother and a Coop-bought shirt was none other than a young Jeremy Corbyn, maintaining that an MPs dress has nothing to do with their ability to represent their people. This probably has nothing to do with Corbyn’s close friend from union days, except that it is an example of how there is an inherent feeling of disdain towards MPs of a certain background (often Labour) that was symbolised by the treatment and opinion of jim.
Being elected as Speaker as 2000, he was the first Catholic to serve in the role. This is notable not because of his faith per se (although his opposition to abortion put him out of step with most of his colleagues) but what was notable was that his background wasn’t hushed up. He was proud of his roots and didn’t feel the need to try and disguise them. Throughout his time as speaker, he was referred to pejoratively as ‘Gorbals Mick’ – they didn’t even get the right area of Glasgow (He grew up in Anderston and represented Springburn). The Guardian’s obituary of Martin refers to the fact he was “the first blue-collar worker to occupy one of the most senior posts in British public life.” His tenure shows that people that are born into the bottom rung of society can make their way into the British establishment. However, the traditions and the archaic manner in which the House of Commons functions means that it can often be a hostile place for MPs from a poorer socio-economic background, and this extends to the Speaker. Michael Martin was keen to help get MPs from a similar background to himself settled in. To try and make sure that, in the spirit of Jeremy Corbyn’s defence of his dress, that the House of Commons functions as a place where the people are represented, no matter who those people are.
Upon being elected as the MP for Glasgow Springburn in 1979, he was known within the Commons more for his work behind the scenes and in Committees rather than through public means. The only notable post he held prior to his election was his chairmanship of the Scottish Grand Committee (the meeting of all the Scottish MPs) from 1987-97. Once Betty Boothroyd, previously a Labour MP, had decided to retire, it would normally been the turn for a Conservative to be ceremonially dragged to the Speaker’s chair – therefore, the favourite to succeed her was Sir George Young. However, Martin was able to capitalise on his connections across all the different political parties to ascend to the post and quietly modernised the post, ditching the buckle court shoes and tights. He also broke tradition in a very compassionate way. In 2005, when the terminally ill Lib Dem MP Patsy Calton affirmed her allegiance in a wheelchair, he descended from the Speaker’s chair in order to shake her hand and kiss her on the cheek with the words “Welcome Home, Patsy” – for which he was universally praised and despite complaints of bias towards Labour MPs, Alex Salmond praised his “fairness as Speaker” and
The legacy he will leave is ostensibly one of social mobility – a man who was able to rise from the humblest of origins to one of the most senior posts in the land. However, we can hope that his legacy of trying to make the House of Commons a more welcoming place to people of a similar background is protected – so that nobody needs to feel out of place in such an august House.