John Bercow’s recent summation of last week’s rhetoric in parliament is a signal, if not a plea, for change. Within a few short minutes, he denounced the behaviour of both sides of the government and described the atmosphere as toxic. This is not what we expect of our politicians, even if many have given up on them months, if not years, ago. In some ways, he reveals what is already in many people’s hearts and minds – across the political spectrum – that the system seems to be falling apart. And what is so particularly damming about Bercow’s speech is that it is to the countries elite, those trained in and working to ensure good governance of the United Kingdom.
What becomes clear through these recent events of parliament, and those leading up to it over the years, is that we are not being led, as Plato would have it, by those whose wisdom reigns supreme. No, what Bercow was calling out was far from that, it was behaviour riddled with emotion, bullying and without inquiry. What is particularly significant, is that his subjects are those with the BEST education and they are not immune from the workings of their passions, positions and preferences. In his ideal, Plato would have the ruling class be trained in the use of the intellect as the highest form of human endeavour and therefore able to rule over the passions of the heart or the desires of the body. And to that we accept the need for education, we even tolerate an exclusive schooling system on the promise of getting the best for the country. Unfortunately, as others have pointed out, the ideal of the philosopher king is not only difficult to achieve, it is a fallacy because those leaders will always also be human. And as Bercow says, our leaders’ behaviour is “worse than any I have known in my 22 years in the House.”
Whether he intends it or not, this damnation extends beyond the behaviour of those in parliament last week. It is also toward our hope for a well-governed society, filled with people schooled in governance and able to take our country to a better future. Education is one of Britain’s great exports and traditions. What we saw this week is not just further despair at our government, but evidence that the system that props it up is no longer fit for the task.