Market Speak and the Erosion of Political Truth

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics – Mark Twain

Twain, like most of us, was no stranger to the ‘porkie’; and a modern-day George Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie” would not quite seem the unequivocal assurance of integrity of other times. Taking liberties with the truth, in this more sophisticated age, has come to seem a marginal blemish in the savvy politician, given some suitably contrite shrug of the shoulders. It’s tough out there and fuddy-duddism gets you nowhere.

So we prefer to stick with the notion of a democratically empowered electorate, exercising its individual and collective will, choosing our governments from the competing policies on offer from freely-acting parties bidding for our favour. There are supposedly two key protagonists only – we citizens who exercise the choice, and the parties between which we eventually choose, a straight forward duopoly of interests.

Yet we know, from long and bitter experience, that some ‘parties’ are a good deal more ‘equal’ than others, by virtue of their greater access to resources and to their long-standing allies in our badly imbalanced media; yet we have long tolerated these anomalies – as with the infamous January 2010 decision of the US Supreme Court to remove any limitation on corporate electoral spending “striking at the heart of democracy” as the New York Times described it.

More significantly, as I explained in my “homo economicus” blog, this duopoly has atrophied into an increasingly permanent and totally undemocratic “two-on-one” where the unelected convergence of ‘corporate’ with ‘governmental/political’ power, rapidly expanding across US led, neo-liberal world markets and characterised by a growing complex of semi-covert trade treaties (TTIP etc), is progressively downgrading the future rights of citizens and our national sovereignties.

It should be no surprise that these nefarious practices are accompanied by the progressive degradation of the language of democratic politics, starting with our own Government’s widespread “austerity” attacks on our free public school to university educational traditions; and its systematic erosion of the public service ethic and the prestige of our corps of public servants. Social cohesion and progress requires the recapture of our language from encroaching neo-con grub-speak, to liberate and re-energise the fuller meanings of our failing social and political dialogue.

I regret that, in spite of this imperative need, the UK has just witnessed two shattering examples of how the political lie, unless punctured and cauterised fast, downgrades the national dialogue and feeds a growing cynicism and despair. I refer to the long-awaited – but only recently published – Chilcot Report on our complicity in the tragic Iraq War; and the extraordinary excesses and outcomes of the recent EC Referendum Campaign.

To the surprise of many, including myself, Sir John Chilcot’s over-long (7 Year) enquiry Into the Iraq War supplied a damning judgement on Tony Blair and his entourage. With incontrovertible clarity and logic, Chilcot shredded all the arguments Blair had used, over 15 years, to justify his actions – conceding how his judgements might be questioned, but his “good faith and honesty” were unimpaired. It was Chilcot’s unveiling of Blair’s long-unreported memo to Bush… “I will be with you, whatever” that finally blew the cover on Blair’s duplicity, turning a fawning lie into a virtual treason against his prior obligation to his fellow citizens.

In the words of Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian:

“The Chilton Report is the official judgement on the catastrophic 2003 invasion. For those who stood against the war, including the families of those who lost their lives, that represents belated vindication. For Blair, it means a verdict that damns him for the ages.”

So, when should we expect the impeachment? And should there not be consequences for our future interpretations of the Anglo/US “Special Relationship”? When does the wilful hiding of a truth constitute a lie?

In “Where are we now?” a collection of individual responses to the recent EC Referendum (London Review of Books), one of the most persistent themes was the high incidence of lies – acknowledged and unacknowledged – throughout the campaign. One commentator – Nick Richardson – was one among several to deliver searing accounts of the widespread lying and counter-lying on both sides.

“Huge numbers of Leave voters were swayed, either by the claim that leaving the EU would save us loads of money, to be spent on such things as the NHS, or that it would reduce the number of immigrants coming to live in the UK. Both claims, as leading Leave campaigners have now admitted, were false.”

One of Vote Leave’s bigger fictions – that Brexit would free up £350m for reinvestment in the NHS – was given wide currency; though canny old hands like Ian Duncan Smith knew when to distance himself from the more absurd nonsense. As the lost vote merged into the Conservative Party’s leadership election, the lies lay thick and discarded on the ground; and leavers and stayers found temporary common cause and elected Teresa May to lead them, and thus become our de facto Prime Minister.

Meanwhile several of the leading truth traducers had moved seamlessly from their Referendum Campaign roles to the May Cabinet, where the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, will be handily placed for yet more occasional master classes in the high arts of political fiction. For all its farcical edge, however, it’s good that Richardson, like others of the Brexit commentators, invokes the lengthening time span of our affair with the political lie.

“Deceit is a widely tolerated aspect of the way ‘democracy’ now functions in the UK. In 2010 the Tories said they would ‘balance the books‘ by 2015; be tough on tax avoidance; not raise VAT; protect the NHS; end child poverty by 2020; cut the number of MPs and be the greenest government ever. They were lying egregiously on all counts”.

But did anyone notice or call their bluff? Neil Ascherson, more positively, hazards a prophecy: Britain will spend three years trying to get out of the EC, and the next three years trying to get back in. He may be right that many of our young may prefer to vacate an England of Boris and his Brexit cavaliers with the truth; but most, I suspect, would prefer to rout the cynics and the lie purveyors first.