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John Bercow has made history as the first Speaker to be elected after his predecessor was forced from office. He is also the first Jewish Speaker since members of the faith were permitted to sit in the House of Commons in 1858. So does Mr Bercow’s election signify a new era?
Hardly. Since 1869, when Sir George Jessel became Solicitor-General, professing Jews have held almost every minor and major position in government bar the prime ministership. It was truly a landmark when Herbert Samuel became Postmaster General, with a seat in the Cabinet, and even more so when he was appointed Home Secretary in 1916. As Secretary of State for India from 1917 to 1922, Edwin Montagu held one of the top jobs in the empire.
Nigel Lawson was a powerful and influential Chancellor of the Exchequer, while Malcolm Rifkind, the first Jewish Foreign Secretary (1995-97), had far more importance in British and world politics than John Bercow can ever dream of achieving. If Jews, before Mr Bercow, had not offered their services as Speaker, it may be because they didn’t consider it worth the candle.
However, it is ironic that a Jew has been chosen to clean up corruption when traditionally in British politics they have been blamed for causing it. Herbert Samuel’s political breakthrough was tarnished by the Marconi Scandal, in 1912, an alleged case of insider dealing. Just after the Second World War, a Jewish black marketeer, Sidney Stanley, was accused of suborning members of the government.
In every case, Jew-hatred fuelled the allegations and, until quite recently, the accession of Jews to positions of power in British politics has occasioned dark mutterings. Perhaps, then, the arrival in government of Sir Alan Sugar marks a more profound change.
Sir Alan typifies the prejudiced image of the Jewish “spiv”, yet his appointment as an adviser has been criticised for nothing more than exemplifying celebrity politics. We have come along way since the late 1980s, when Viscount Macmillan quipped that there were “more old Estonians than Old Etonians” in Mrs Thatcher’s second administration and the Conservative Party bridled at the prospect of Lord Young as its chairman.
Bercow is a beneficiary of battles fought and won by Jewish politicos long ago. Whether it was worth the bother remains to be seen.
David Cesarani is research professor in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His most recent book is ‘Major Farran’s Hat. Murder, Scandal and Britain’s War Against Jewish Terrorism, 1945-1948’