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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 15:24 GMT
How to be Speaker
Matthew Laban
Matthew Laban
Queen Mary, University of London

Mister Speaker, Michael Martin
Our current Mister Speaker, Michael Martin
Every Wednesday, at midday, Mr Speaker bobs up and down refereeing one of the most-watched and most-anticipated parts of the political week: Prime Minister's Questions.

Michael Martin, the current Speaker, and his immediate predecessor Betty Boothroyd, are familiar figures - well-known in Parliament and well-liked, if sometimes regarded warily by ministers.

Yet the change from 50 years ago could not be more stark.

Then, the job was a kind of swan-song for a distinguished former minister or party grandees.

Mr Speaker (and it was always a Mister) would be chosen by the prime minister in the same way that he would select someone to become a minister.

All change

That all changed in 1983 when Bernard Weatherill became Speaker.

Mister Speaker, Bernard Weatherill
Mister Speaker, Bernard Weatherill - the backbenchers' choice

Former Speakers, like Selwyn Lloyd and "Shakes" Morrison, had been high-ranking cabinet ministers.

Mrs Thatcher wanted to continue with tradition and give the job to a former minister.

But she was overruled by her backbenchers, who plumped instead for Weatherill, who had limited ministerial experience and had served as Deputy Speaker instead.

From that moment onwards it has been the backbenchers rather than the government who have selected who they want as their referee, and they usually had experience in the Speaker's chair, rather than on the government benches.

Betty Boothroyd and Michael Martin both served as Deputy Speaker and were both elected instead of the government's preferred candidate.

Loneliest job

The tone of the Speakership has changed, too.

Madam Speaker, Betty Boothroyd
Behind the charming smile, Betty Boothroyd was a stickler for discipline

It has been called the "loneliest job in Westminster" because the Speaker is not supposed to socialise with other MPs in the bars and tearooms for fear of being called biased.

One former MP said the Speaker used to be so remote from other MPs that he was more like a High Court judge!

These days, things are very different.

In the 1970s George Thomas threw open the doors of Speaker's House, the grace and favour residence that comes with the job, and held lots of parties and dinners for MPs and their wives.

The current Speaker has removed a lot of the stuffy formality of the job and is happy to sit in the tea room with backbencher MPs.

Mister Speaker, Michael Martin in procession
Mister Speaker, Michael Martin keeps impartiality to the fore

Media in the House

This is a complete culture change for the Speakership and is all part of the evolution of the office.

The biggest change in the Speaker's role has been brought about by the introduction of radio and then television broadcasting of the proceedings of the House of Commons. It has made the Speaker a far more famous political personality and allowed millions to enjoy George Thomas's thick Welsh accent and Betty Boothroyd's school mistress style.

Whilst many of the powers of the Speaker have remained unchanged, the office has evolved thanks to the personalities who have occupied the Chair. In many ways, the Speakership is like how Asquith summed up being Prime Minister, it is "what its holder chooses and is able to make of it".

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