John Bercow has been Speaker of the House of Commons since 2009. The MP for Buckingham, who was originally elected to Parliament as a Conservative, was recently named the new chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire.
Where and when were you born?
I was born at Edgware General Hospital on 19 January 1963. Apparently it was one of the coldest winters on record but a) I have no recollection of that cold and b) I am confident that my birth and the extreme cold were not causally linked.
How has this shaped you?
Being a teenager at school in Finchley in the 1970s definitely had its impact. It was the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 that sparked my interest in politics and I rather rebelled against what seemed to be a majority of teachers with left-of-centre views.
Academics fight almost as much as politicians. Is that where the similarities end?
I suggest that both politicians and academics promote principles and exchange ideas. Traditionally, I have thought that we politicians tend to repeat our views as articles of faith whereas academics are engaged in a dispassionate search after truth, ready to shift their stance if the evidence tells them that they must. At any rate, that has been my theory, although some of your readers may think it amusingly romantic.
Do policymakers listen to academics enough and vice versa?
Yes, I think they do – but there is always room for improvement. Parliament must never be a production line in a sausage-making factory. We should always be prepared to review what we have done and to learn lessons from it. In such reviews, the judgements of academics, among others, should feature.
You studied government at university. Is it a concern that there are so few scientist politicians?
While there is only one former research scientist in the Commons, it is important not to forget the role of the House of Lords in the legislative process. No longer is the Upper Chamber the stamping ground of those who simply inherit their seat, but a dynamic scrutinising body that boasts prominent scientists among its number, including Lord Winston and Sir Leslie Turnberg.
Have you had a eureka moment?
Yes, my trip to the Thai/Burma border in April 2004 inspired a continuing passion for the people of Burma and their struggle for democracy. It also sparked an ongoing interest in the fight for human rights and justice around the world.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Become better educated, explore arguments more fully and don’t be frightened by the idea that not everything is black and white in life, as there are many shades of grey.
Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
The passing of Tony Benn has been a profound reminder of the impact he has had on the British polity over the course of half a century. Although I often disagreed with Tony, he was a man of principle, integrity and compassion, as well as being one of the finest communicators I have ever heard. These are qualities you cannot help but admire.
Do you ever forget yourself and shout “order” when your family or friends are arguing?
I have occasionally done so to my children!
What are the best and worst things about your job?
Clichéd though it may be, there is nothing I dislike about my job. It is occasionally challenging but always stimulating; I cannot think of a job I would rather have.
What keeps you awake at night?
When I first took up the role of Speaker, the sound of Big Ben chiming every 15 minutes caused a little disruption to my sleeping pattern for a couple of days – but after four years spent living within such close proximity to the bell, I have well and truly adjusted to the melodic clanging.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Tennis was always my passion as a child. I started playing and watching the game at the age of eight and played as a junior until my late teens. My ambition as a child was to play professionally. Alas, I was not good enough and my career went down a different path.
What do you do for fun?
I remain infatuated with tennis, whether it be playing for recreation or watching the game being played. I am also a season ticket holder at Emirates Stadium and I enjoy watching Arsenal home matches with my elder son, who is also a fan.
What is your biggest regret?
My biggest regret is that I neither did a PhD when I had the chance to do so nor qualified for the Bar, which I considered in the mid-1980s but abandoned. I was much preoccupied at the time with the immediacy of the political battle and the need to earn a salary, but I could and should have taken a longer view.
What is an undergraduate degree worth?
Irrespective of academic discipline, an undergraduate degree has great value. It nurtures a student’s curiosity and affords the opportunity to explore issues of interest in depth, with the support of professionals. But away from academia, an undergraduate degree teaches skills that we retain for life.
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