British Labour Politician
Speaker of the House of Commons (2000-2009)
Michael Martin was the Member of Parliament for Glasgow Springburn (1979-2005) and Glasgow North East (2005-2009). Elected to serve as the Speaker of the House of Commons on the 23rd October 2000, he became the first Roman Catholic to occupy the Speaker's Chair since the Reformation. However his period in office was not an entirely happy experience, and was largely characterised by a series of controversies and scandals that culminated in the great MPs' Expenses Scandal of 2009. On the 19th May 2009 he therefore announced that he was standing down with effect from the 21st June 2009, and so became the first Speaker of the House of Commons to be forced out of office since 1695 when the unfortunate John Trevor was expelled from the Commons after being found guilty of a "high crime and misdemeanour".1
Early life and Career
Michael John Martin was born in Glasgow on 3rd July 1945 the son of a Michael and Mary Martin. His mother was a cleaner and his father was a stoker in the Merchant Navy and also an alcoholic who abused his wife, a state of affairs that inspired Michael junior to become a lifelong teetotaller. He was raised in a classic Glasgow tenement with his four brothers and sisters; however although the Daily Mail journalist Quentin Letts later gave him the name of 'Gorbals Mick', in truth the tenement was located in the Anderston district of Glasgow which was (if anything) a step down from the Gorbals, and regarded as a good deal rougher.2
Martin was educated at the St Patrick's Boys' School in Glasgow, but left school at fifteen without much in the way of qualifications. (It wasn't until the age of forty-two that he obtained his first 'O' level qualification in Italian.) He then took up an apprenticeship at a local train-repairing workshop, and later become a sheet metal worker at the Rolls Royce Aero Engines factory on the Hillington Industrial Estate. He naturally joined the union and was a shop steward for the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) from 1970 to 1974, being later employed as a full-time trade union organiser in the years 1976 to 1979.
Having joined the Labour Party when he was twenty-one, he served as a councillor for the Fairfield Ward of Glasgow Corporation in 1973-1974, and then for the Balornock Ward of Glasgow District Council in 1974-1979. Thanks to the support of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU)3, in 1978 he was chosen as the Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Glasgow Springburn as the replacement for the retiring Richard Buchanan.
Glasgow Springburn was a rock solid safe Labour seat, and Martin was duly returned to the House of Commons with two-thirds of the vote at the General Election of 1979, despite the overwhelming Conservative victory that propelled Margaret Thatcher into office. Throughout the following eighteen years that the Labour Party remained in opposition Martin showed little sign of progressing beyond his back bench status; according to one account he "failed to shine as a parliamentary orator" and thus never became a serious contender for a position on the front bench. For one thing he was on the right of the party, which meant that he was out of step with the direction Labour took in the early 1980s, and for another, as a Roman Catholic he held socially conservative views on such issues as abortion and homosexuality which did not endear him to the progressives within the Party. The closest he got to political office was a few years as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Denis Healey in 1981-1983, although he did spend a decade as chairman of the Scottish Grand Committee from 1987 to 1997.
Martin sat on the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen for many years before he was appointed as First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means in 1997. It was said that it was this appointment as one of the three Deputy Speakers that this whetted his appetite for the top job, and that he began "working the tearoom" and building a campaign team at least two years before the vacancy arose. Of course, the Labour Party won a significant victory at the General Election of 1997, which returned a large number of new Labour MPs with little experience of the Commons. It was said that Martin made an effort to ingratiate himself with the this influx of new blood and paid particular attention to the cadre of new young woman MPs (Blair's Babes), and began "cultivating" these "new young women" by helping them find their feet and sending them handwritten letters congratulating them on their maiden speeches. It was also suggested that he had won the endorsement of his fellow Glaswegian Gordon Brown.
Therefore when Betty Boothroyd decided to step down as Speaker, Martin had a campaign team ready to roll, and had already built up a significant body of support, so that when the ballot was held on the 23rd October 2000, he defeated his nearest rival George Young by 317 votes to 241, despite the fact the likes of Tony Blair and Margaret Becket had indicated their preference for Young even though he was a Conservative.
It has to be said that the Conservative Party were not happy with the result, since many regarded this as breaching the convention or understanding that the office of Speaker should alternate between the two parties, and that it was 'their turn'. It was certainly the case that almost the entire Conservative Party abstained from the final vote to endorse Martin as Speaker, with eight even going so far as to vote against him. This was either, as The Guardian once put it, "an expression of class-based detestation towards Glaswegian machine politics", a case of sour grapes, or simply because they thought he was not suitable for the job.
Speaker of the House
Whilst Martin was said to have had an "unsteady start" as Speaker, this was not in itself unusual as Speakers often took some time to find their feet. Martin's problem was that the unsteadiness continued, as he often appeared to be unsure of procedure and was obliged to consult his clerks, whilst many on the Conservative side of the House believed that he unduly favoured his former party. However his period in office was to be largely dominated by a succession of controversies.
Perhaps the first of these occurred in October 2001 when he decided to dispense with the services of his diary secretary Charlotte Every, because she was too posh for his tastes. According to reports, Martin was obliged to carry out the dismissal personally because his private secretary, Nicholas Bevan refused to do so. Bevan himself later resigned in May 2003 saying that he could no longer "stand" working for Martin. His successor Roger Daw also resigned just over a year later in June 2004. A former media adviser named John Stonborough later remarked of Martin that "There was a reign of terror from time to time. When he blew up, he would literally go puce in the face." The Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Elizabeth Filkin also stood down in November 2001 claiming that Martin had undermined her role.
Then there was Martin's ruling of the 1st November 2006 that it was not in order for David Cameron to ask Tony Blair a question regarding the future leadership of the Labour Party, since it was not permitted to raise party matters during Prime Minister's Questions. Cameron of course, simply rephrased the question so that it referred to the future occupant of the office of Prime Minister. This caused a certain amount of barracking from the bankbenches who regarded the distinction as being unduly pedantic.
In October 2007 it was revealed that he spent more than £20,000 on legal fees hiring the well-known libel lawyers Carter-Ruck regarding the unfavourable press he'd been receiving. No previous Speaker of the House had felt it necessary to expend public money on obtaining legal advice regarding what parliamentary diarists had to say about their performance. Then in January 2008 it became known that he had used the air miles he'd accumulated travelling on official business to pay for return flights in business class for seven of his relatives, despite the fact that he was chairman of the very committee that had recommended that this was precisely what members shouldn't do. Following which in February 2008 it emerged that he was claiming a second home allowance in respect of his Glasgow house, despite the fact that the state provided him with a free grace and favour home in the form of Speaker's House.
Then there was question of his wife's taxi expenses of some £4,000. His spokesman Mike Granatt, otherwise known as 'Metal Mickey', told reporters that the trips were "entirely in connection with household expenditure that supports the Speaker's duties" and that she had been accompanied by an "administrative official". This turned out to be untrue as the 'official' in question was their housekeeper, and in any case the Parliamentary caterers were responsible for hospitality. Granatt claimed that he had been "misled by officials" and resigned. A subsequent complaint was made to John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards regarding this expenditure, but he ruled that the claims were "not excessive" and in accordance with the rules. It later emerged that Mrs Martin was also the beneficiary of £50,000 worth of free air travel, as it had been decided that she too needed to fly down to London from their home in Glasgow. This too was 'in accordance with the rules', although there were those who noted that since Martin was the man in charge of setting those rules, this did not necessarily mean that much.
In March 2008 the Daily Telegraph revealed that £1.7 million had been spent on the refurbishment of Speaker's House, including £148,900 on furniture, £191,000 on a new air-conditioning system, £13,000 on art, and another £992,000 on the garden, although most of that work related to improved security. What was more, the refurbishment was ongoing, and the Speaker's study and state rooms had yet to be redecorated, and there were plans to restore the upholstery. As one Mark Wallace, the campaign director of the TaxPayers' Alliance, rather presciently noted, there was "compelling evidence that Michael Martin is a completely inappropriate person to oversee MPs' expenses - he enjoys the high life all too much himself".
Then in November 2008 there was the Damian Green Affair when Martin allowed the Metropolitan Police to enter the Palace of Westminster and search Green's office without a search warrant. Martin's defence was that he was not aware the police had no warrant and implied that he had been misled by his subordinate Jill Pay, the Serjeant at Arms. It later became known that certain "senior law enforcement officials" were of the opinion that Martin's account was "not consistent with their understanding of what happened".
As a result of the above there were many who came to the conclusion that Michael Martin was not quite the right person to occupy the office of the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Daily Telegraph leader of the 1st January 2009 explained why 'The Speaker must go', whilst The Observer similarly called for his removal on the 19th April 2009 and accused him of "plundering the public purse for an almost grotesque array of personal perks and foreign junkets".
The Scandal of MPs' Expenses
When the Freedom of Information Act finally came into force in 2005, a number of journalists sought to use its provisions to force the House of Commons to reveal details of the level of expenses being paid to Members of Parliament. As Speaker, Martin expended much effort over the next few years in seeking to frustrate the publication of these details; he refused to accede to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, resisted the subsequent determination by the Information Commissioner in favour of the requests, and only finally gave in after losing a case in the High Court. Unfortunately whilst the House was in the process of gathering the information to meet the set publication date in July, the Daily Telegraph obtained an advance copy of the data, and on the 8th May 2009 it published the first of what proved to be a long series of exposes.
On the 11th May 2009 Martin was keen to express his anger at these revelations. Naturally his anger was directed at the Daily Telegraph for making the information public as he announced that he had asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate. When the Labour MP Kate Hoey questioned this decision, and argued that since the newspaper had not divulged any personal details it would be "an awful waste" of police resources and rather suggested that the House had something to hide. Her remarks were rudely dismissed by Martin, who similarly dismissed the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker as "another member who is keen to say to the press what the press wants to hear".
His unhappiness was no doubt magnified by his inclusion within the Daily Telegraph's series of exposes, as the paper revealed that Martin had claimed £1,400 for the cost of being chauffeured around Glasgow on various occasions as he visited Celtic Park and sundry other locations within the city. And as the Telegraph continued with its naming and shaming of various allegedly avaricious members over the following days, and the level of public anger grew and grew, many began to believe that Martin's handling of the affair was largely responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs.
On the 17th May 2009 the Leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg went so far as to describe Martin as the "dogged defender" of a "rotten Parliament" and called for his resignation. Others were not quite so blunt but dropped broad hints that they would be quite happy to see him step down. No doubt headlines such as 'If Michael Martin fell in the canal I'd walk away' which appeared in the Sunday Herald clearly didn't help his cause that much, nor did the reports that the Commons Fees Office had apparently colluded with at least one member in claiming the cost of a mortgage that he had already repaid.
Dead Speaker Walking
Given the level of disapproval expressed, it was no surprise to see Douglas Carswell, the Conservative member for Harwich and Clacton tabled an Early Day Motion of no confidence in the Speaker. Of course, as an Early Day Motion it was more an expression of opinion than anything else, as few such motions was ever put to the vote in the Commons, but nevertheless it was an indication of the level of discontent within the Commons.
On the 18th May 2009 Martin made a statement to the House of Commons in which he apologised for the expenses scandal and set out his reform plan in the hope that this would be sufficient to enable him to continue in office. Apparently he wanted to remain in the Speaker's Chair until the next General Election, firstly because it was in his own financial interest to do so, and secondly because it was said that he hoped that his son Paul Martin, who was the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow Springburn, would be able to 'inherit' his Westminster seat.
It has to be said that his statement did not meet with universal approval. Many in the chamber were more interested as to when they would get an opportunity to vote on the no confidence motion proposed by Carswell. However when the Labour MP Gordon Prentice asked when the matter would be brought to a vote, Martin replied that there would be no vote as it was not a point of order, only to be met by shouts of "oh yes it is" from the chamber. As "one of Martin's closest friends" later put it, it was "a ritual public disembowelment" as members rounded on the unfortunate Speaker in what the BBC News described as "unprecedented scenes in the chamber" and the Daily Mail called an "unprecedented parliamentary mutiny against his rule".
As far as The Times was concerned Martin was now "doomed as Speaker" since "all the political parties and their leaders concluded that he had lost the authority to stay in office" and that the "question was no longer whether he would go but when". Just in case anyone failed to get the point its leading article boasted the headline 'Next Speaker, Please'.
By 10.30 am on the following day Sky News was reporting that Martin would announce his departure in a statement to the Commons at 2.30 pm. Shortly afterwards the Metropolitan Police announced that officers from the Economic and Specialist Crime Command and met with lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service and concluded that a police inquiry into the source of the Daily Telegraph's material would not be in the public interest. 4
At 2.30 pm that day Michael Martin made what was described as an "historic statement";
"Since I came to this House 30 years ago, I have always felt that the House is at its best when it is united. In order that unity can be maintained, I have decided that I will relinquish the office of Speaker on Sunday June 21st. This will allow the House to proceed to elect a new Speaker on Monday June 22nd. That is all I have to say on this matter."
Which indeed it was. His statement lasted all of thirty-four seconds. Or anything between thirty and thirty-six seconds, depending on which reporter was holding the stopwatch. He thereby became the first Speaker of the House of Commons to be forced out of office for over three centuries.
Life after the Woolsack
It subsequently became clear that Martin would be vacating his parliamentary seat shortly after stepping down as Speaker, with a by-election set sometime for the autumn. By resigning in this manner he was not only forgoing his salary as Speaker, but also the customary 'redundancy payment' received by members of the Commons who left office at a General Election. Not that Martin faced penury in his retirement, since it had been announced in December 2008 that he would be retiring with an index-linked pension based on half his salary as Speaker, and half of his MPs salary.
Tradition also dictated that a retiring Speaker was entitled to a peerage - the going rate being a viscountcy, although the last retiring speaker, Betty Boothroyd, made do with a life peerage as a baroness, as the granting of hereditary peerages to non-royals was regarded as being not in keeping with modern Britain. However many in the House of Lords felt that Martin was not a suitable recruit for their venerable institution, and it was reported that Nigel Lawson, now the Baron Lawson, was at the forefront of a campaign to prevent his ennoblement.
Martin married Mary McLay in 1996. They have one son and one daughter. He listed his recreations as hill walking, local history, and piping.
1 To whit accepting the sum of 1,000 guineas from the Common Council of London in return for supporting the London Orphans Bill.
2 Incidentally Anderston is where the comediam Billy Connolly (born 1942) spent his teenage years as well. There is no evidence that the two were ever acquainted.
3 The Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU) was formed in 1992 from the merger of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union EETPU and the AEUW.
4 Specifically it was said that a public interest defence would be a "significant hurdle" to any successful prosecution. Which was another way of saying than no jury in the land would have convicted anyone from the Daily Telegraph for anything in connection with publishing the material. More likely they would have recommended them for a peerage, sainthood. or held a victory parade in their honour.
- ‘MARTIN, Rt Hon. Michael John’, Who's Who 2009, A & C Black, 2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2008 http://www.ukwhoswho.com/view/article/oupww/whoswho/U26818
- Speaker's legal costs criticised, 11 October 2007
- Frances Elliott, Speaker, Michael Martin, broke his own rules to arrange cheap flights for family break, The Times, February 18, 2008
- Andrew Johnson, A working-class boy made good, The Independent on Sunday, 24 February 2008
- Nicholas Watt, Pressure mounts on Speaker amid complaints over his expenses, The Guardian, 25 February 2008
- Rachel Sylvester and Robert Winnett, Michael Martin's home gets £1.7m makeover, The Daily Telegraph, 29 Mar 2008
- Andrew Pierce, Controversy has dogged the Speaker from the beginning, Daily Telegraph, 03 Dec 2008
- Telegraph View, The Speaker must go, Daily Telegraph, 01 Jan 2009
- Editorial, Gordon Brown must rediscover his moral compass, The Observer, 19 April 2009
- Speaker angry over expenses leak, BBC News, 11 May 2009
- Andrew Porter, Ministers break cover to attack Michael Martin, Daily Telegraph, 14 May 2009
- Nicholas Watt and Severin Carrell, Michael Martin profile: pride before a fall, The Guardian, 16 May 2009
- Christopher Hope, Michael Martin: Speaker spent £1,400 on chauffeurs to his local job centre and Celtic Park, Daily Telegraph, 17 May 2009
- Profile: Michael Martin, BBC News, 19 May 2009
- Ben Macintyre, Michael Martin: a Speaker as subtle as his nickname, ‘Gorbals Mick’, The Times, May 19, 2009
- Nicholas Watt, Michael Martin: steady rise and abrupt fall of the boy from Anderston, The Guardian, 19 May 2009