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There has been no book on the speakership of the House of Commons for nearly fifty years and it is fitting that this surprising gap should be filled by Philip Laundy, Librarian of the Legislative Assembly of Southern Rhodesia, and compiler with Norman Wilding of the highly-praised standard work of reference, An Encyclopaedia of Parliament.
The Speaker is the representative of an institution which is a microcosm of the British nation and his prestige is immense. As the historic guardian of its privileges and its spokesman in its relations with the Crown, the House of Lords and authorities and persons outside Parliament, he is approached with ceremony and deference. His is a high and lonely office, above sectional interests and immune from party influences, and an extremely onerous one. He presides over debates, maintains discipline, interprets Standing Orders and gives rulings, and in addition has many administrative duties.
The idea of an impartial Speaker is a modern one. From the end of the fourteenth century, when the Speaker's name first appeared in records, he was for more than 250 years the King's man and as such liable to sudden rises to power and even quicker, sometimes fatal, falls. After the Civil War the office became the perquisite of the government of the day and things began to improve, though of one Speaker it could still be said that 'nothing can exceed the badness of his character even in this bad age'.
Great Speakers stalk the pages: Onslow, who served for a record thirty-three years in the eighteenth century and who is largely responsible for the modern concept of the Speaker; and Peel who, with his austere personality and splendid figure, dominated the House like a great actor and whose very presence was sufficient to quell disorder. Less happily, there was Speaker Gully who, in one of the House's worst moments, called in the police in 1901 to remove some recalcitrant Irish members.
A particularly valuable part of the book is devoted to the speakership in Commonwealth Parliaments and the author also includes a brief discussion of the speakership in European countries and in the United States.