ANAND MOHEEPUTH

The first Speaker of the Legislative Council in colonial Mauritius, Sir Robert Stanley, said in his swearing-in address on 26 February 1957 that he would perform his duties in accordance with    the principles and traditions pursued in the House of Commons.

The appointment of a Speaker by the Secretary of state for the colonies, Alan Lennox-Boyd, came in the wake of the Constitutional development triggered in 1955 when one of the main topics ascribed on the agenda was the introduction of a ministerial system for Mauritius.

In fact, with the Constitutional reform in view, the Governor of Mauritius, Sir Robert Scott, proposed, in a letter dated 7 January 1955 to the Secretary of state, an overhauling of  the structure of the Legislative Council. The nomination of a Speaker to preside over  the Legislative Council was central to the demand of Governor Scott who, by the way, advised the Secretary of State that the choice of the Speaker should fall on someone “who should be a wholly independent person selected for his judgment, detachment and capacity”.

The Governor’s suggestion was endorsed by Mr. Lennox-Boyd. In a letter dated 10 February 1956, Lennox-Boyd wrote that the first Speaker should be appointed from outside the colony and that he would assist in the search of a person “of the required experience and competence”.

Indeed, during the head-hunting exercise, the “competent” person turned out to be Sir Robert Stanley who, as Speaker, was going to take over from the Governor the duties of conducting the usual business of the Council.

Sir Robert was introduced to members of the Council by the officer administering the colony, Robert Newton, as “a wise and understanding friend who will assist in the development of legislative practices along sound and democratic lines”.

After the welcome address delivered by Dr Edgar Laurent, the second member for Port Louis, the Speaker said the rules applied in the House of Commons would be no different to Mauritius.

In the course of his exposé, the Speaker dwelt on some of the essential features that would go in the making of  a “good” Speaker.

“First and foremost”, he said, “impartiality” and a “strong sense of justice” should prevail. There must be no room for political partisanship and the Speaker must guide members in their debates “in order that business may be smoothly and effectively conducted”.

Other characteristics expected of a Speaker mentioned, he said, were a “super abundance of patience, a complete knowledge of the practice and procedures of the House”. But a Speaker, he said, “must not be too procedure-minded. He must be calm and of equable temperament, have good voice”. At the same time, he should be endowed with “a sense of humour”.

When Sir Robert finished giving his speech, the first member for Grand Port-Savanne, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, rose to speak about the Government’s decision of closing down some of the railway lines and inquired about the fate awaiting railway workers. It was when Bissoondoyal began criticizing British officials based in Mauritius that the freshly sworn-in first Speaker broke the momentum of Bissoondoyal’s fiery intervention with the first call of  “Order! Order!” that has become a familiar Speaker’s trademark.

Sir Robert’s short stint as Speaker in Mauritius came to an end in 1960. He groomed Harilal Vaghjee, his Deputy who went on to become the longest-serving Speaker so far in Mauritius.

With Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Aunuth Beejadhur, Vaghjee formed the triumvirate contesting the 1948 and 1953 general elections.  A barrister by profession, Sir Harilal Vaghjee was a man of keen intellect and a prolific writer who  skillfully steered the Council out of the stormy pre-independence days, especially when fierce debates were raging in the Council. He inspired respect from all sides.

But since Sir Robert Stanley spoke about perpetuating the age-old parliamentary traditions observed in the House of Commons, it is worth noting that sweeping reform of the parliamentary system was initiated by Sir Arthur Onslow during his Speakership between 1728 and 1761. Of significant importance was the notion of the Speaker’s independence. The new era in parliamentary history spearheaded by Sir Arthur saw the beginning of the Speaker distancing himself from the dictatorial grip of the Royal Court and assuming an independent posture free from outside interferences.

The first sign of resistance came earlier in 1642 when Speaker William Lenthall defied King Charles 1 who barged into the Parliament’s Chamber with a body of armed guard to arrest five MPs who, accused of treason, fled before the Royal party arrived. On being asked where the fugitives had gone, Lenthall replied, “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak”, thereby alluding to the fact that he was only accountable to the House. The King retorted, “I have eyes to see. I see the birds have flown….” And the King left empty-handed. But Lenthal continued to serve as Speaker for quite a long time.

The origin of parliamentary Speakership could be traced back to the medieval times, when Peter de la Mare in 1376 was chosen by King Edward III to act as the Royal spokesperson transmitting messages from the King to the Lords and Barons representing the shires and towns in Parliament. The Speaker would in turn convey to the King the views and opinions expressed in Parliament. Because he was the authorized agent to speak to the king, he was given the title of Speaker.

Though described as the go-betweens doing the links between the King and Parliament, the job of a Speaker was a perilous one in that he was exposed to death by execution depending on the news he was bringing back from Parliament. If the news seemed unpalatable to the King, it was most likely that the Speaker himself was signing his own death certificate. Between 1399 and 1535, seven Speakers were executed by beheading because of the fury vented by reigning Kings not being able to  digest  « bad » news  brought from Parliament.

On his part, King Henry VIII was merciless to Speaker Edmund Dudley. He ordered his execution because the offence Dudley committed was that as a Speaker of the House of Commons and being a “government official”, he “profited greatly from his position”.

In the case of Peter de la Mare, the first Speaker of the British Parliament, after serving for four months in 1376, he was removed from office and imprisoned by the King’s son, John of Gaunt, for connivance against the King during the troubled period of the reign of  Edward III.

Those who were unwilling to take the job of a Speaker in medieval times needed persuasion to accept the role.  That’s why till today, the tradition is maintained that when a new Commons’ Speaker is elected, he is physically dragged in a symbolic gesture to the Speaker’s chair by two MPs. It implies that the job awaiting a Speaker even in today’s context is a tough one. “It matters for democracy”, Vincent Cable, a former Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat wrote, “that someone with integrity and strong reforming instincts chairs Parliament so that its reputation is preserved” and that the “appointment of a respected Speaker is a first step” in that direction.

….

ACCROCHE

« Other characteristics expected of a Speaker mentioned, Sir Robert Stanley said, were a “super abundance of patience, a complete knowledge of the practice and procedures of the House”. But a Speaker, he said, “must not be too procedure-minded. He must be calm and of equable temperament, have good voice”. At the same time, he should be endowed with “a sense of humour”. »