George W. Bush with then Portuguese prime minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, Tony Blair, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Pubic Domain.
Is the role of lies in politics getting worse? Have we entered a ‘post-truth’ era as it is claimed (just recently in The Economist among many examples)? Is the “brazen disregard for facts” that marked the UK’s recent referendum a qualitative shift, as Guardian Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner sets out, in her argument for asserting qualities of honesty and respect on the web. Or are such concerns a storm-in-the-elite stirred up to displace attention from the real issues posed, however demagogically, by the rise of a populist right? Issues that 83% of people want to be solved by policies that are evidence based, as Tracey Brown of Sense about Science argues eloquently in a recent Guardian article.
I’ve a specific starting point. Working on the implications of Brexit I’m struck by the sheer venom of many on the Remain side directed at the lies of the Brexiteers for having won the vote fraudulently. Yes, they lied. Emphasising this aspect of Brexit, however, can imply that the Remain side was honest. True, vote Leave was more cunning in its deceit, but I’ll argue that the government with its greater power and authority was the more profoundly fraudulent – and it set the terms.
For example, before he even called for a referendum, there was a key moment when Cameron echoed the way Blair told president Bush privately he would make sure the UK supported an invasion of Iraq but did not say this to parliament. In November 2012, prime minister Cameron told Chancellor Merkel in Downing Street how he planned to call for a referendum but that he was utterly committed to staying in the EU. He then explained to her that he would not tell the voters how strongly he felt, but would instead assure them it would be OK if they chose to leave. Just like Blair and Iraq, Cameron ‘spun’ the referendum with falsehood from the start.
Since Machiavelli, there has been a secular argument for the necessity of deceit as an instrument of rule. The Florentine understood that claims of religious, royal and dynastic legitimacy could not be relied upon to generate and renew loyalty; rulers needed to exercise calculation as well. Was Cameron just very bad at being Machiavellian? Or is something new really taking place?
I’m not convinced we are in a ‘post-truth’ era. Partly because the concept seems to presume that politics was previously a form of rational behaviour based on factual calculations. Be that as it may, there are three ways in which the early twenty-first century might be seen as ‘post-truth’.
First, to go back to the Iraq war, Blair’s approach was defined by president Bush’s advisor Karl Rove. He scorned the New Yorker (and people like myself) as belonging to “the reality community”. “We're an empire now”, Rove claimed, “when we act, we create our own reality”. But Rove’s stark claim was enabled by the belligerent malevolence of Bush’s tabloid media supporters including Fox TV; and this is also a tradition that goes back to the end of the 19th century, with the birth of yellow journalism and the Spanish-American war.
Second, neoliberalism: today’s dominant economic policy denies that it is a policy. Instead, it counterfeits itself as an expression of the market to which ‘there is no alternative’. To demystify the dishonesty of this is different from saying that austerity is wrong or that globalisation is being mismanaged. It concerns economic policy being a conscious masquerade. Neoliberalism has dishonesty and lack of responsibility built into it – it's systemic and central in a way it was not under Keynesianism.
Third, there is the rise of data to replace facts, as argued by Will Davies of Goldsmiths, whose brilliant blogs led to a summary of his argument in the New York Times. Big data may allow our rulers to track sentiment, i.e. what different segments of the public are feeling, and to respond accordingly, bypassing engagement with the reality of actual problems altogether.
For all this I’m unconvinced that we have entered a ‘post-truth’ era, if by this we mean realities no longer matter in the way they did. Rather, so far as the UK is concerned, I think that a political system, which historically was relatively honourable and principled, has been corrupted. Just as the City’s ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ was both efficient and profitable in its heyday but degenerated into post-war complacency and was then blown up by greedy maximisers after Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ in 1987, so its Westminster counter-part was wrecked in a longer parallel process which ended up with the MPs expenses scandal in 2009 – that fed into the rise of UKIP.
The Brexit referendum from beginning to end was dishonest, contrived and rotten on both sides, with each defining its approach via focus groups. It takes a dishonest system to permit a country to be governed in such a way. In asking why this has come about there is another important question: are the British as a whole as delusional as their political masters? I’d say not. Relatively speaking, I think the different publics of the UK are not enamoured of lies and prefer to act with integrity, compared to some other countries at least (I leave you to name them).
One of the many tragedies of the referendum was that only the Leave side successfully appealed to people’s sense of self-belief and self-worth. Michael Gove’s now notorious claim that, “The people of this country have had enough of experts” followed on from his saying, “I am asking the public to trust themselves” (you can see it for yourself here). Insisting that membership of the EU was economically destructive, when asked about his own interest in being prime minister Gove replied “count me out”. He could not have been more definitive. It proved to be one of the more glorious lies of the referendum.
Brexit may mean Brexit but there was more to the referendum than the referendum. I was for Remain. As the evidence of the economic harm of Brexit becomes clearer so does the case for reversing it. But in terms of our politics and political culture I’m against wishing to return to the dishonesties of the situation before the referendum. After all, they got us to where we are now.
The lies of the Leave campaign succeeded because they were rooted in the soil of deceit tilled and prepared by Blair, Cameron and their crews. A majority of the population said that they had enough of them. We should indeed say goodbye to that farmyard.
This reflection is feeding into my new book, WHAT NEXT: Britain after Brexit, which has to be crowdfunded by pre-orders to be published. Please pre-order a copy.