Lord Martin of Springburn obituary

Scottish Labour MP who served as Speaker of the House of Commons

The former Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin, Lord Martin of Springburn, who has died aged 72 after a short illness, was the first blue-collar worker to occupy one of the most senior posts in British public life. But he was also the first to resign the post in more than 300 years, after he lost the confidence of many members over his handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009.

His rise from a poverty-stricken and abusive family background in Glasgow to become the Speaker was a source of great pride, but it did not make him at ease in the job which he held for more than eight-and-a-half years. He was thin-skinned with a tendency to bluster and a poor grasp of Commons procedure and sometimes of the names of MPs.

His thick Glasgow accent earned him the jeering nickname of “Gorbals Mick”, a legitimate source of grievance against public school snobbery – though, as he pointed out, he actually came from an even more deprived part of the city, Anderston, north of the Clyde, not south of the river in the Gorbals: “Most of my friends would have considered there a step up.”

Martin’s father, also Michael, was a stoker on merchant ships with a tendency to alcoholism. He would beat up his wife Mary, a cleaner, when he came home on leave, so much so that she periodically took her children into hiding. The family home was a tenement with a shared outside toilet. Michael left school at 15 without qualifications and was apprenticed at a train engine manufacturers in Springburn, which would become his future constituency.

Working later at Rolls-Royce in Hillington he became a shop steward for the AUEW engineering workers’ union and, in his early 30s, a full-time organiser for Nupe, the public employees’ union. He also served as a Glasgow city councillor before becoming the MP for Springburn, a safe Labour seat where his majority never fell below 11,000, in May 1979. He held the seat until its absorption into Glasgow North East in 2005 and held that too until his resignation.

In the house, Martin became known as a committee man and backroom fixer – he was not an accomplished parliamentary orator – working on procedural matters, the Speakers’ panel and the ways and means committee. But he was also an assiduous networker among backbench MPs, which stood him in good stead in his campaign in 2000 to become the Commons Speaker.

The Speakership had not traditionally been seen as a post for which to campaign, except discreetly and, by convention, it might have gone to a Conservative when Betty Boothroyd, previously a Labour MP, announced she was standing down. Such was Labour’s Commons dominance and so carefully had Martin cultivated new MPs, especially women elected for the first time in the landslide of 1997, that he was swept into office without much of the customary show of reluctance that Speakers are supposed to demonstrate. He became the first Roman Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation. However, partly because of the way he was elected, there were resentments – and not just from Tory MPs.

Complaints arose of him favouring Labour backbenchers over Tories in calling them at Question Time – Speakers by custom and practice leave their party allegiances behind – and there was uncertainty over his handling of the Chamber. He did not endear himself by his protectiveness of his dignity and the lack of an easy or genial manner towards MPs. He occasionally even insulted them from the chair. But he was capable of kindness, as when he stepped down to greet the mortally ill, newly re-elected Lib Dem MP Patsy Calton in 2005. “Welcome home, Patsy,” he said; Calton died three days later.

Martin quite soon became embroiled in rows over his own parliamentary expenses, even before the swelling scandal that derailed his career in 2009. There was the cost of refurbishing Speaker’s House - £1.7m by 2008 – and also questions over £4,000 in taxi bills incurred by his wife Mary in going out food shopping: refreshments for official entertaining are provided by the Commons caterers. Questions were also raised about the extent of his air travel claims and over the £20,000 bill submitted by Carter-Ruck, the libel lawyers, called in to defend him from stories in the press. He was also criticised for not intervening to protect the Tory MP Damian Green when police searched his office.

Such costs were approved but perhaps made him more defensive when in 2009 newspaper reports exposed MPs’ exorbitant expenses claims. As the crisis grew with more and more MPs called to account, Martin initially strove to curtail the coverage under parliamentary privilege, but it could not be covered up. It soon became evident that support for him was draining away: 23 MPs signed a motion of no confidence.

Instead of offering a defence of his position, Martin announced that he would be standing down – the first Speaker to do so since Sir John Trevor in 1695. He told MPs: “Since I came into the house 30 years ago I have always felt [it] was at its best when it is united. In order that unity can be maintained I have decided that I will relinquish office.” He stood down the following month, applauded in a demonstration orchestrated by the Labour whips.

Although he entered the Lords as a crossbench peer, Martin retained an interest in Labour affairs, earlier this month telling the Guardian that he was appalled by the row over anti-semitism in the party and calling for a one-day conference of party members to sort out the issue.

Martin is survived by his wife, Mary (nee McLay), whom he married in 1966, and by his son, Paul, an MSP, and daughter, Mary Ann.

• Michael John Martin, Lord Martin of Springburn, politician and trade unionist, born 3 July 1945; died 29 April 2018


Stephen Bates

The GuardianTramp

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