Parliament: the Quiet Revolution

It took just 35 seconds for the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, to announce his resignation yesterday. The House was at its best when united, he said; and it would best serve that unity if he resigned on 21 June to allow for an election on 22 June. "That is all I have to say on the matter".

It was a momentous moment. The last time a Speaker was ejected was 1695, when Sir John Trevor was found guilty of accepting a bribe of 1,000 guineas from the City of London to smoothe the passage of a bill.

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Michael Martin was himself not above accusations of venality: like dozens of MPs, he had been exposed as being greedy in claiming for expenses, stretching to the limit a liberal allowances regime which has fallen under the spotlight this past fortnight following leaks to the Daily Telegraph.

But the reason he had to stand down was less because of his own claims than because he had lost the confidence of the Commons following yet more evidence on Monday of his disastrous handling of the scandal. The Speaker is supposed to represent the interests of the House as a whole, not his party. That meant that he was under intense scrutiny.

He didn't cope well. From the beginning of this crisis, he fought the disclosures and reacted angrily to MPs speaking to the media about the issue. In the face of mounting public anger, he was the symbol of prevarication and tone-deafness. For a whole host of reasons, the consensus was that he should go.

As party leaders took the unprecedented step of hinting that they would welcome his resignation, Martin decided enough was enough and fell on his sword.

His term as Speaker has not been a happy one, and few will regret his demise.

But watching the tight-lipped ferocity with which MPs rounded on him yesterday, it's hard not to be put in mind of the scapegoat mechanism identified by Rene Girard. The Speaker is the red meat which the MPs have thrown to the crowd in order to deflect some of its anger.

This, at least, is the view of the Catholic bishop of the Scottish city where Martin (a Catholic) has his seat. The Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, says in a letter to a newspaper that the attacks on Martin have been "unseemly and undignified", and he likens the MPs to an "assembly of unruly pupils, seeking to humiliate their headmaster for misdemeanours they themselves had perpetrated".

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