The House of Commons

Order!! John Bercow going viral

5 minutes to read
Column
Jan Blommaert
01/10/2019

Brexit has become many things since 2016, and one of the most recent things it has become is high-octane entertainment. The stage for it, remarkably, is one of the world's oldest and most ceremonial places - the British House of Commons. And the protagonist is its most ancient and venerable actor, the Speaker of the House. Speaker John Bercow has become no less than a global media celebrity.

Order!!

True, British politics is, even to relatively well-informed people, exceptionally complex and arcane. Ask anyone in late 2019 to speak coherently, for just five minutes, on how the Brexit issue developed politically since the referendum of 2016: chances are that you leave the conversation more confused than when you entered it. And ask anyone to explain the rules of speaking in the House of Commons: chances are that no one would get further than one word.

"Order!!"

Audiences across the world learned the crucial importance of this word in 2019, and many learned how to pronounce it in a highly peculiar way: as an elongated groan that sounds somewhat like "Awe... daaaaaaaaaaaaah", with the stress on the "daaaaaaaah". For this is how Speaker John Bercow loves to use it whenever his House erupts in shouting across the aisles.  "Order", when pronounced by the Speaker in the House, is indeed and in the most literal sense, and order. It commands the members to hold their peace, resume their places in the House and yield the floor to the Speaker, who will return to the "order" of the particular debate. Transgressions can be sanctioned in a variety of ways by the Speaker.  Bercow favors sometimes lengthy and exquisitely worded reprimands administered to unruly members, but members can also be expelled in case of serious violations of the rules of "order".

The more the political handling of Brexit shifted from the corridors of EU Brussels to the UK Parliament - something that happened in the critical months of Theresa May's Premiership in 2018-2019 - the more we saw media attention becoming focused on parliamentary proceedings in the Commons. And this is when the Speaker became a global media star.

John Bercow: the star

Undoubtedly, 2018-2019 was the time when a great many people first watched footage of British parliamentary debates. Now, every parliament in the world has highly specific and tightly enforced rules for its proceedings, but those of Westminster are exceptional - from the spatial arrangement of representatives in the neogothic kitsch of the House, over the elaborate rules of courtesy in addressing and referring to each other, to the strange (and seemingly anachronistic) voting rituals: there is something extraordinarily theatrical about British parliamentary debates.

The public sessions of the House are recorded through parliamentlive.tv and shared with BBC and other channels. But they aren't immediately what most would call great television: many sessions are poorly attended, treat esoteric matters and have a degree of monotony hardly bearable to most of us, television spectators. Viewing figures, consequently, are generally mediocre.

But Brexit debates changed the game. Their extraordinary importance attracted much larger audiences to the live debate broadcasts, and it also led to something which we have come to know quite well: derived media products such as "highlights" extracted by various mass media outlets, and especially dramatic and/or amusing fragments being formatted into social media items. Long and boring political debates are being turned into short and entertaining formats, taken to other platforms and given a life of their own there. We can now see John Bercow coming.

In no time, his idiosyncratic ways of maintaining order in the House became the stuff of YouTube clips going viral. Consider the following example.

 

This short collage of the Speaker's attempts to impose or restore "Awe... daaaaaah" in the Commons was produced by The Guardian and attracted nearly a million views on YouTube. Other news channels compiled his most amusing interventions, or made mini-documentaries about John Bercow, also focusing on the many creative ways in which he maintains order, and equally attracting large numbers of viewers.

In another segment of that market, gyphy.com has a large range of John Bercow GIFs on offer. And - here is the ultimate popularity test - tons of John Bercow memes can now be found on the internet - something which in itself drew media attention.

Bercow meme

Observe how in almost every example given here, the absolute essence of the message is Bercow's now-iconic usage of "order!!". This, in itself, has become the stuff of secondary memes.

Order meme

When Bercow dramatically announced his withdrawal as Speaker of the House (coincident with the equally dramatic moment of prorogation of Parliament in September 2019), this item became a global news headline. By late 2019, John Bercow had become a global media star, and he had done so by means of one feature of performance: "awe ... daaaaaah!!"

Politics as cultural material

"Order!!" as pronounced by the toga-clad Speaker of the British House of Commons has become global cultural material, now inserted into countless new forms of occurrence, some of which are directly related to when and why they were were first produced - as in summaries or highlights of parliamentary debates - while others are far removed from their original context of production.

"Order!!!" has become a popular culture item, to be used and exploited in any near-appropriate context. To give one example: I was attending a local football game just the other day, and when the referee made a contestable decision at one point, fans started shouting "order!!" at the referee in what we could call the Bercow mode. Like "oh my god!", "order" has made it to the league of global passe-partout utterances full of intertextual irony and performative power.

I have commented on previous occasions on the fact that in a hybrid media system, politics can be a source of endless creative cultural reconstructions: new formats of political discourse can be developed and adjusted to specific social media, new modes of political argument can be built on seemingly unsuited platforms, metapolitical battles can be fought through carefully designed political memes, and so forth. In the case of John Bercow, we can see how the potential to turn elements of political discourse into free-floating, largely ludic cultural material can also propel the politician-producer of such material to great hights of popularity and stardom. The capacity to turn political one-liners into phrases that can also be thrown at an erratic football referee may be something that political marketeers wish to further explore.

And as for John Bercow, whenever he wants attention, from anyone and anywhere in his post-political life, the only thing he needs to do is to shout "Order!!" Thunderous cheers will erupt at once and a long line of selfie-takers will instantly be formed. How is that, as a reward for a decade of service as Speaker of the venerable House?