Michael Berkowitz, Historian at UCL, questions whether the toxicity of the Brexit debate has not gone one step too far when it comes to the Speaker of the House John Bercow. With antisemitism resurging strongly in the politics in Europe, it is a question worth asking and a crucial problem to tackle.
On 18 March 2019, Speaker of the House John Bercow caused a sensation by disallowing the scheduled vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan. The Speaker was well within his bounds. It was, above all, a matter of best practise, and a defence of (whatever is left) of the dignity of the House of Commons. And I’m also willing to cut him a little slack—as a Brother Berkowitz. His family “anglicised” its name from “Berkowitz” to “Bercow.” Other Berkowitzes opted for “Berkoff”, “Berkeley”, “Berk”, and “Beckwith”. (I’m a resolute Berkowitz Remainer.) I do not believe, however, that we are related. But I would not totally discount the possibility. I can safely say though that we Berkowitzes, especially of the grey-haired, height-challenged sort, can get a bit testy when pushed. Ironically, as Britain has been derided and embarrassed before the world for its idiocy in voting for Brexit, and its failure to handle it, one of the few saving graces has been a Speaker of the House who appears to keep things, more or less, in order.
It was predictable for the right-wing Brexiteers, and their press organs, to vent their fury on Bercow for re-exposing what’s been in plain sight–that there had never really been a plan for the scheme itself or for marshalling it through the House of Commons. But the form of some of the invective, directed at Speaker, might give us pause. As a historian of antisemitism and modern Jewish history, I think that the anti-Bercow mania is, in fact, antisemitic.
For good reason, there has been vociferous discussion about antisemitism in Britain’s Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the repugnant attacks especially focused on (former Labour) MP Luciana Berger was insufficient, if not spineless. While it may be difficult (for some) to disentangle principled opposition to the current government of Israel from antisemitism per se, those supportive of Labour’s leader are faced with a problem: Corbyn and some of his acolytes do not fully understand, or are insensitive to, mean-spirited prejudice and stereotyped thinking about Jews.
But is antisemitism exclusively in the domain of the Left in Britain? The Tories and their preferred tabloids also have been complacent, to say the least, about the co-mingling of their ranks with outright racists and antisemites—despite the current fashion for the European right to claim its affection for Bibi Netanyahu. So let us raise the possibility that some of this anti-Europe, anti-Brexit, anti-immigrant, racist, and even antisemitic invective is at play in the demonisation of Speaker of the House John Bercow.
Bercow is no stranger to criticism. But the kind of criticism to which he has been subject in the context of Brexit is deeply troubling to those with a historical perspective on antisemitism. Scholars such as Shula Volkov, Sander Gilman, and George Mosse have detailed how cultural ‘codes’ often function to convey antisemitic ideas, even if the antisemism isn’t expressly articulated. The headline in The Sun of 19 March 2019) screams:
“Odious John Bercow’s prejudices are wrecking Brexit and have cost him MP’s trust. The Speaker has violated the impartiality of a historic office which he still holds solely because Remainers disgracefully ignored bullying claims.
Alas, it is Speaker Bercow, alone, who doesn’t play by the rules. The allegation of duplicity, in order to undermine the nation, is one of the most persistent antisemitic motifs.
Do Parliament’s sniggering Remainers and their stooge—the abysmal, discredited “Speaker” John Bercow—have any idea how repugnant their shifty wrecking tactics are to millions of ordinary people?”
In fact, The Sun alleges, Bercow made his decision:
“[b]ecause this supposedly unbiased Speaker deludes himself, like the Remain diehards whose dirty work he enables, that he is the dashing hero of a noble anti-Brexit insurgency (instead of the sweaty, self-important gnome of reality.)”
With Trumpian insult as daily fare, perhaps this does not give one pause. The Sun calls him a “sweaty, self-important gnome”. “Sweaty” I don’t see any evidence of excessive sweatiness displayed by the Speaker. By pointing to some kind of ugly, physical abnormality, The Sun is indeed indulging in an antisemitic insult. Bercow, it says, is at the forefront of the diabolical effort to keep “control for London’s rich, europhile establishment elite.’’. He also, the paper alleges, owes his office to deceit: he is in place “solely because Remainers disgracefully ignored serious bullying allegations against him to secure his help.” What drives this? I dare say, I couldn’t make this up: “those Tories whose weird religious devotion to the EU would now see them sacrifice their own Prime Minister, Government, party, and—more importantly—the stability of our democracy and country.” (Emphasis added)
The Daily Mail, in a slightly lower register, quotes one of its earlier evaluations of Bercow as “an ‘egotistical preening popinjay (who) has shamelessly put his anti-Brexit bias before the national interest—and is a disgrace to his office.” Bercow, a “preening popinjay” among the Tory front ranks? Of course, The Daily Mail might choose to hold back somewhat given the past furore over its claim that Ralph Milliband was “the man who hated Britain” (1 October 2013). This was widely condemned as not only a gross misrepresentation, but antisemitic. It is no coincidence that these targets, attacked with the same variety of poison, happen to be what cousin John and I would call ‘members of the tribe.’
Michael Berkowitz is Professor of Modern Jewish History at UCL.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.