Monday, 18 March 2013


At midday every Wednesday in the House of Commons, the weekly fisticuffs between the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and the Prime Minister begins again. If you have ever watched it, you will know that it would be better described as the politico's pugilistic preprandial punch up.

For as long as I can remember it has always been like this; before 1997 it was twice a week until Tony Blair, rightly in my view, reduced it to just Wednesdays. With few exceptions, these exchanges are a tragic witness to the Parliamentary culture we are possibly becoming. A cold, aggressive, tribal culture, more suited to the terraces of a lower league soccer club than to the mother of all parliaments. If Members of Parliament are supposed to be 'honourable', you wouldn't know it from the midweek mudslinging.

It was William Wilberforce who said that alongside dealing with the slave trade, he wanted to see a reformation of manners. If the House of Commons in the 18th Century was a rowdy as it often is today, it is easy to see why he yearned for such an ambition.

For the most part, questions are asked not to extract a meaningful or thoughtful answer, but are asked to trap or embarrass the other person. Regardless of whatever the answer is, the questioner comes back with another pre-rehearsed statement aimed at building on the crippling effect of the last. This is the way of things, but it serves no purpose whatsoever. It turns what could be quite a helpful part of our legislature's week into little more than a cross between a  Punch and Judy show and TOWIE*.

To his credit the Commons Speaker John Bercow, has done a great deal to try and address this problem. Like a stern class tutor, scolding primary school children, he occasionally chides the class by pointing out how pathetic they look to the viewers at home. Maybe he should introduce the 'Speaker's Naughty Step' behind his chair, where Members of Parliament who are braying too enthusiastically should be sent until they learn to calm down.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus is quoted as saying “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Good advice for everyone, especially for those in positions of leadership, and particularly for those in politics. Certainly for when they are inside the chamber.

Imagine a democracy where politicians listened, and not only listened but actually heard what was being said to them. How would the world look if those in power actually heard the voices of the people above the shrieking of their adversaries, or perhaps the roaring of their inner demons?

If like me you are sick of the knock about, tired of the noise and want something better. Write to your MP and ask them what they think could be done, also write to Speaker Bercow thanking him for what he trying to do, but ask him to go further. If we can see Wilberforce's dream of a reformation of manners in the House of Commons, you never know where it might spread.

*The only way is Essex (apparently!).

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