Monday, May 21, 2018

RIP Michael Martin, former Speaker of UK Commons and Champion of Unions

MartinI was struck this weekend by the obituary in The Economist of Michael Martin, former Speaker of the UK House of Commons. His origins were solidly working-class -- an attribute all to rare on both sides of the Atlantic these days. Here's an excerpt from the obit:

[H]e was ... the first Catholic to be Speaker since Reformation times, when Thomas More, another saint, had done the job. His motto, in Gaelic, was “I strive to be fair”.

That was the essence of his job, and it was tricky. The Speaker could favour no party. But, like all Speakers, he was still a constituency MP. Since 1979 he had held a solid Labour majority in Glasgow Springburn. This was where he had first gone to work at “the Loco” [North British Locomotive Company, where he worked as a sheet-metal worker] at 15, with very little schooling. As a long-time shop steward and organiser for the engineering union, he had won the seat with hefty union help. His constituency was infested with heroin addiction, alcoholism, decrepit housing (his chief concern) and, as the old plants closed down, joblessness. He was mindful that he had joined the Labour Party and gone into politics to help working people.


What faced him on the other side was snobbery and disrespect. That rolling Glaswegian accent reminded southerners of pub brawls on Saturday nights. His posh diary secretary called him “Mr Martin”, not “Mr Speaker”. His private secretary, public school and Oxbridge, struck him as pompous. Both left. Because he was not too proud to ask his clerks for advice during debates, critics said he was floundering in his job. The parliamentary sketchwriters, the worst of the mockers, called him “Gorbals Mick”. That was brainless—he was from north of the Clyde, the Gorbals lay south. It also proved they were not fit to wipe the boots of Gorbals people.


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