Martin was born in Glasgow in 1945, the son of a merchant seaman and a school cleaner. He attended St Patrick's Boys' School in Anderston, leaving at the age of 15 to become an apprentice sheet-metal worker. He became involved in the National Union of Sheet Metal Workers and Coppersmiths and joined the Labour Party when he was 21. He later worked in the Rolls-Royce plant at Hillington, and was an Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union shop steward from 1970 to 1974.
In 1973, Martin was elected as a Labour councillor on Glasgow Corporation, a position he held until his election to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. He also served as a trade union organiser with the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) between 1976 and 1979. He was elected as Member of Parliament for Glasgow Springburn in the 1979 general election. Martin is associated with the right wing of the Labour Party, and a social conservative on matters such as abortion and homosexuality. In 1994, he was one of thirteen Labour MPs who voted against the reduction of the age of consent for homosexuals from 21 to 18. He was a supporter of Roy Hattersley and Denis Healey, with whom he served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary from 1980 until 1983. He served as Chairman of the Scottish Grand Committee from 1987 to 1997.
Martin sat on the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen before being appointed as First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (one of three Deputy Speakers) in 1997. Martin was elected Speaker on 23 October 2000, succeeding Betty Boothroyd and becoming the first Roman Catholic to serve in the role since the Reformation. In accordance with a long-standing convention, Martin resigned from the Labour Party. His Glaswegian accent led to his being nicknamed "Gorbals Mick" by Quentin Letts, after the working-class district of Glasgow, although he was actually born on the other side of the river from the Gorbals and represented a constituency a few miles away.
In the 2005 general election, he stood in the new constituency of Glasgow North East, where three quarters of children living in the constituency are classed as being in poverty. The Scottish National Party caused controversy by standing against him both times.
Shortly after the 2005 election, when Liberal Democrat MP Patsy Calton entered the Commons for the last time to affirm her allegiance from a wheelchair and sign register, Martin broke with tradition and left the Speaker's Chair to shake her hand and kiss her on the cheek, saying "welcome home Patsy." Calton, who had just been re-elected, had terminal breast cancer and died three days later.
On 26 February 2006 it was announced that Martin had undergone angioplasty at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary for blocked coronary arteries and would be absent from his duties for some weeks. He returned to the Chair on 18 April.
In an interview on the BBC's Politics Show on 11 February 2007, he said that his proudest achievement as Speaker, in the traditions of his working-class origins, was to establish an apprenticeship scheme for local young people to become craftsmen (upholsters, restorers, electricians, etc.) who maintain the fabric of the Houses of Parliament.
Martin's initial appointment as Speaker caused controversy as his election broke a recent pattern in the House that the post of Speaker alternated between the two main political parties (the Conservative Party and the Labour Party). As Martin's immediate predecessor Betty Boothroyd had been a Labour MP, it was argued that the new Speaker should have come from the Conservative benches. However, contrary to popular belief, there is no tradition of party alternation in the Speakership. In fact, from the Act of Union in 1801 until 1992, every Speaker elected came from the benches of whichever party was in government at the time of transition (see List of Speakers of the British House of Commons) – a convention which had, by coincidence, led to alternation between Labour and Conservative Speakers being elected between 1965 (Horace King, the first Speaker elected from the Labour Party) and 1983 (Bernard Weatherill). It was actually Betty Boothroyd's election as Speaker in 1992 (while the Conservatives were in office) that broke this convention, and the election of Martin merely reverted to previous tradition by selecting the Speaker from the government benches.
Fourteen MPs put their names forward as potential successors to Betty Boothroyd as Speaker. Many observers had considered the Conservative MP Sir George Young to be the favourite as he had support from both the Conservative and Labour leadership, who viewed it as the Conservatives' 'turn' to have a Speaker elected from their benches. However, many backbench MPs, particularly those from the Labour Party (who held a large majority in the House at the time), viewed Young as someone who had too recently been a member of his party's front bench team and who was, therefore, not sufficiently in touch with ordinary MPs. (Young had stepped down from the Shadow Cabinet just before the election for a new Speaker and had been a member of the Cabinet in the Conservative government during the previous parliament.) In the end, Young's candidacy was rejected by the House and Martin was elected as Speaker.
On 1 November 2006, during Prime Minister's Questions, Martin caused uproar in the House of Commons by ruling out of order a question from Leader of the Opposition David Cameron in which he challenged Tony Blair over the future leadership of the Labour Party. Martin stated that the purpose of Prime Minister's Questions was for the House to question the Prime Minister on the actions of the government. This caused such dissent amongst MPs that Martin threatened to suspend the session. Cameron then re-worded the question so he asked about Tony Blair's future as Prime Minister rather than leader of the Labour Party, which Martin accepted. Conservative MPs threatened to walk out if a similar event occurred in the future.
In 2007 Martin used public money to employ lawyers in challenging negative press stories; media law firm Carter-Ruck was engaged for three months at a cost of more than £20,000. The use of public money was criticised by Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker as a "very expensive" way to issue press releases; and by the Taxpayers' Alliance. Martin was also criticised at the same time for trying to block the publication of details of MPs' £5m-a-year travel expenses under the Freedom of Information Act.
On 24 February 2008, John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, was asked by the Taxpayers' Alliance to investigate whether Martin had abused parliamentary expenses and allowances. Lyon is obliged to examine all such complaints although the Commissioner could rule that the complaint is unfounded. This followed a week in which Martin's spokesman, the veteran Whitehall communications chief Mike Granatt of PR agency Luther Pendragon, resigned after admitting that he had unwittingly misled the Mail on Sunday over more than £4,000 in taxi expenses incurred by the Speaker's wife, Mary Martin. Granatt blamed unnamed officials, but not the Speaker, for falsely informing him that the expenses were legitimate because Martin's wife had been accompanied by an official on shopping trips to buy food for receptions. It turned out that she had in fact been accompanied by her housekeeper, and that catering for such receptions is the responsibility of the parliamentary caterers.
On 29 March 2008, The Daily Telegraph revealed that refurbishment of Michael Martin's official residence, Speaker's House, has cost the taxpayer £1.7 million over seven years. The house is located inside the Palace of Westminster.
On 14 May 2009, The Daily Telegraph reported that Martin had claimed £1,400 for using chauffeur-driven cars that included visits to Celtic Park, home of Celtic Football Club, and his local Job Centre.
Following the arrest of Conservative immigration spokesman Damian Green, Martin's spokesperson was asked if he has approved police searching Green's Commons office without a search warrant and replied: "There is a process to be followed and that was followed."
In 2009 Michael Martin was involved in a row over expenses incurred by MPs on taxpayer-funded British Council trips. In 2008 Conservative MP Mark Lancaster flew business class to Bangkok with the British Council for a two-day conference, at a cost of £5,018. Labour MP Sally Keeble flew out economy class and returned business class at a cost of £2,452. MPs must normally declare any hospitality they receive from outside organisations, and the British Council does not appear on a list of bodies whose gifts are exempt from the requirement. Martin signed a special certificate preventing the release of information about these trips, citing "Parliamentary privilege".
On 12 May 2009 the BBC reported that Michael Martin was under pressure to resign.
On 17 May 2009, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said that Michael Martin should stand down, saying he had become an obstacle to much-needed reform of Parliament.
On 19 May 2009, Douglas Carswell tabled a motion of no confidence, which was signed by 22 MPs. Later that day, Martin announced he would resign from his position as Speaker of the House of Commons effective 21 June 2009. If the motion had been successful in a vote, Martin would have been the first Speaker to be forced out of office by a motion of no confidence since Sir John Trevor in 1695. Martin said of his decision to resign:
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 21 June. This will allow the House to proceed to elect a new Speaker on Monday 22 June. That is all I have to say on this matter.
He was made the Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead to be able to stand down as an MP on the same date, forcing a by-election in his constituency of Glasgow North East.
Speakers are normally elevated to the House of Lords when they retire, and the Government said it considered this a "formality". A vetting panel for the House of Lords pointed out to the Prime Minister that nominees had to "enhance rather than diminish" the standing of the house, which some Labour MPs interpreted as a slur against Martin. Sixteen MPs signed a Commons motion requesting that the peer responsible, Lord Jay, withdraw his comment. In accordance with tradition, as soon as Martin's successor as Speaker was installed, the first motion passed by the House of Commons was a resolution directing that a humble Address be presented to The Queen, asking her "to confer some signal mark of Her Royal favour" upon Martin "for his eminent services during the important period in which he presided with such distinguished ability and dignity in the Chair of this House". The "signal mark of Her Royal favour" is traditionally the grant of a peerage.
Martin was created a life peer on 25 August 2009 as Baron Martin of Springburn, of Port Dundas in the City of Glasgow. He was introduced in the House of Lords on 13 October 2009. Like previous Speakers elevated to the Lords, he sits as a Crossbench peer.