Bobby Friedman’s book is for anyone who could do with understanding the man who, against the odds, now sits at the heart of British parliamentary democracy. Most of us know that John Bercow has been on a political journey, but this maps that journey for the first time.
While occasionally it seems too light that means it has the advantage of being easy to read and not ponderous like many political biographies. It’s particularly good on Bercow’s background and how that’s shaped his own sense of being an outsider.
An intellectual, broadsheet-reading child at a comprehensive school, he ‘ended up like a fish out of water’, a situation exacerbated by his not-quite-Jewish-enough family: to non-Jews he was a Jew but to many Jewish families he wasn’t. Neither group would have him.
Friedman is in no doubt about Bercow’s right-wing credentials. He joined the right-wing Monday Club, was ‘on the side of voluntary repatriation’ and became chairman of a Federation of Conservative Students in which singing Orange Order songs and wearing ‘Hang Nelson Mandela T-shirts’ was commonplace.
But by 2000 he was publicly changing, part of the emergent Conservative modernisers surrounding Michael Portillo, eventually resigning from the opposition front benches because he would not vote against allowing gay people to adopt.
Peter Hain is quoted saying
It wasn’t just a tactical thing. It was a genuine conversion on issues like apartheid, race, gender, sexuality and all those things on which he’d actually become more radical as he got older.
Friedman is not only convinced it was genuine, but finds traces of it throughout Bercow’s career. When he was Aitken’s special adviser, according to Aitken, ‘he was often involved in policy discussions but noticeably tried to stand up for the underdog.’
In this respect, Sally’s influence, while important is seen as merely part of a longer term shift from the right to the left of the political spectrum.
There are some great titbits too, such as his exceptional tennis-playing skills which took him to the junior tennis circuit and, best of all, that at school, Bercow was well-known as a big David Bowie fan but his own singing was so bad that ‘he remembers being expelled “with some insistence” from the school choir.’