There was a clip on Twitter last week of John Bercow, the Speaker of the British House of Commons, doing his best to bring order to an unruly mob of MPs yelling at each other as their country hurtled toward Brexicide. Mr. Bercow has been Speaker for a decade and is good at his job, but even he was flustered by the rowdiness before him.
He yelled “Order!” repeatedly, sometimes in quick succession and sometimes switching syllabic emphasis as way of being heard above the clamour. “OR-dah!” he barked. Or, alternatively, “orrr-DERRRRRRRR!”, as if he were a deranged restaurant customer demanding hors d’oeuvres.
“People talk about respect in this House, but there’s a minister of the Crown shouting,” he says in the clip. “Stop it. You’re capable of much better than that.”
Well, perhaps not. Mr. Bercow has demonstrated during the Brexit fiasco that he is an adult capable of rising above the theatre of petty partisan politics. He has brought some degree of purpose to the Commons while the government of Prime Minister Theresa May flounders and stalls.
But the MPs whose conduct he oversees have done the opposite. They shout, bicker, preen and manipulate, but do nothing to calm a British public that is hoarding food and medicine in advance of the calamity that will come if Britain quits the European Union cold turkey on March 29.
Trucks bringing food to the country could be lined up for 50 kilometres at the border, but one Conservative MP’s most pressing concern was the fact the Mr. Bercow’s wife drives a car with an anti-Brexit bumper sticker on it. The May government is reported to be planning to refuse to give Mr. Bercow a peerage when he steps down this year, breaking a 230-year-old tradition, because his rulings have often gone against the Prime Minister.
A similar brand of kindergarten ethics was on display in Washington last week.
Thanks to the shutdown initiated by U.S. President Donald Trump and perpetuated for political advantage by both sides, more than 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or, if they have essential jobs, working without pay.
Many of them are visiting food banks to get by; a few are pawning family jewels. There are monstrous lineups at some American airports, because Transportation Security Administration workers are among those affected and are calling in sick so they can pick up a little paying work on the side. Federal courts are running out of money. The State Department is basically at a standstill.
One would think that the pain of the shutdown for federal employees and U.S. citizens alike, not to mention the security risks it creates, would be more than a passing concern to Mr. Trump and to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House Leader. But last week, they had other priorities.
Ms. Pelosi took away the room Mr. Trump needed for his state of the union speech, so he took away the government airplane she needed in order to visit U.S. troops overseas.
That’s right. Ms. Pelosi said it would be unsafe to hold the speech in Congress, given the fact that Secret Service personnel have been affected by the shutdown. So, Mr. Trump replied that she and other Democrats couldn’t use a military plane to fly to Europe and Afghanistan.
Over the weekend, Mr. Trump made a ham-fisted offer to give temporary amnesty to some illegal immigrants in exchange for money for his coveted border wall, but that only caused Ms. Pelosi to dig in deeper.
The shutdown is now in its fifth week, the longest in U.S. history, and the two people who could end it are playing the kind of tit-for-tat games that preschool teachers must show patience for, but everyone else should be appalled by.
The same thing is happening in Britain, where the country is headed for a precipice and the government finds the time and energy to scheme about blocking a peerage or fussing about one man’s bumper sticker.
Some might say, well, that’s just democracy at work. It is indeed true that the democratic process is often messy, and that blinkered partisanship is an essential element of it all.
But when crises loom, as they do in Britain and in the United States, politicians need to aim a little higher. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle must rise above the fray and put country and citizens first. They have to govern. In Washington and London, that is not happening. There is no order. Just more chaos.