Obituary: Michael Martin, Baron Martin of Springburn

29 Apr 2018

Had life gone better for Michael Martin, his dramatic rise from the slums of Glasgow to the speaker’s chair of the House of Commons would have been the subject of his obituaries.

 

Yet it is the ignominious end of his role as chairman of the country’s legislature for which he will be remembered.

 

The parliamentary expenses scandal, which broke in 2009, rocked Westminster and forced Martin to vacate the chair in disgrace.

 

He was born in Glasgow on 3 July 1945 in grim circumstances: his father’s alcoholism made life even more difficult for a young Roman Catholic boy living in poverty.

 

It was during his time as a metal worker in the railway yards of Glasgow that Martin first became involved in politics, becoming a full-time shop steward for the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.

 

His work in this role secured him the candidacy for the seat of Springburn in the north of Glasgow, for decades one of the safest Labour seats in the country. He entered the Commons in 1979, later making a name for himself on the Scottish Grand Committee, which oversaw political matters north of the border before devolution came in 1997.

 

Martin was elected Speaker in 2000, attracting some unlikely support from the then relatively few Conservative MPs who sympathised with his conservative stance on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

 

But from the beginning he was criticised for his command of the chamber, his dithering delivery of the legendary ‘order order’ enjoinment lacking the thrust of his predecessor Betty Boothroyd.

 

The affair which became known as the expenses scandal had been brewing for years – many MPs had spent tax payers’ money on second homes in order to keep up with hectic parliamentary life, with the Commons leadership doing little to keep the bills under control.

 

When the Daily Telegraph broke the story in 2009, Martin’s role was widely condemned. He had previously blocked inquiries into the nature of MPs expenses while his own finances also came under attack.

 

It was revealed he had spent £1.7 million refurbishing the speaker’s apartment during his tenure, while his wife Mary took taxis at public expense to go shopping, although they never went as far as buying porn videos, engraved drains or the duck island which became symbolic of the crisis.

 

The expenses scandal brought public trust in Westminster to a new low just years after the debacle of the Iraq War and at the height of the financial crisis. Martin’s resignation in June 2009 preceded a vote of no confidence which he would have almost certainly lost.

 

So poor had Martin’s reputation then become (he was the first speaker to resign since 1695) that it was doubted he would take up a seat in the Lords as was traditional for retiring speakers. His final years as Baron Martin of Springburn were of low profile, he leaving the upper chamber just last year.

 

Much like Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister at the time of the expenses scandal, who had an almost unhealthy lust for the top, Martin long coveted the job of speaker and positioned himself to take over despite not having mass support.

 

Again like Brown, he was eventually to find that the job he had so long sought would get the better of him in trying political circumstances.

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