Just a few weeks ago I told my six-year old daughter the story of the boy who cried wolf. She enjoyed it – the chaos of the villagers fleeing from the marketplace, the silliness of the boy in finding it so fun to make up stories, the excitement when the real wolf finally appears and gobbles him up. It’s our go-to morality tale for teaching our children that it doesn’t pay to lie. At least, that’s the story. We now have a new fable that illustrates that it does, in fact, pay to lie.
It’s about a man of fantastic wealth who spent twenty years lying to his country about the downsides of being a member of an association with its neighbours that helped maintain peace and prosperity; who was rewarded for his lies with an enormous pay check from a leading newspaper and then by being made Prime Minister. Then at a time when the whole country had learned what a tremendous liar he was, he called a general election, lied a lot more during the campaign, persuaded a lot of his friends to lie with him, and then, rather than meeting his comeuppence, was again rewarded, by being re-elected with much greater power, power that would enable him to carry on pulling the wool over people’s eyes for his own advantage, happily ever after. I don’t think I’ll tell her that one just yet. I find it hard to stomach myself.
The election finished just a week ago and yet already—as is always the case—the campaign period is being quickly forgotten as though none of what happened over the preceding six weeks has any relevance to the way the vote went. Issues that held the nation in their grip just seven short days ago—#FridgeGate, Johnson cowardly dodging the Andrew Neil interview, the photo of that poor sick boy on the hospital floor, and even the seemingly endless flurry of untruths that poured out of the CCHQ Press office and rolled off the tongues of Tory ministers—no longer matter as analysts find every more inventive ways of breaking down the mass data on voting habits that technology makes available to explain what happened and commentators seek to spin that data to create a narrative that fits their own perspective.
The discussion now is all about voting habits broken down by age, gender, education, region and by weighty motivations for voting, an already well established checklist that includes Brexit, dislike of Corbyn, the NHS, the economy etc. The lies and the emotions they provoked are dismissed as an irrelevance as we move onto cold, rational discussion of statistics.
I count myself as somebody who, for all the good it did, allowed myself to get caught up in the frenzy of falseness that the Tories were stirring up and yet even I have already forgotten many of the tiny fibs and giant whoppers. There were simply too many. But it’s worth giving just a few highlights to remind you what I’m talking about: there was the CCHQ twitter account rebranding itself as a fact checking site during one of the TV debates, the Conservative party buying the web address “Labourmanifesto.co.uk” and using it to host a website discrediting the party, Johnson claiming that Corbyn wanted to disband MI5, Nikki Morgan parroting Johnson’s line about the Conservatives building 40 new hospitals, the fabrication of a story about one of Nick Hancock’s aids being punched by a Labour activist, Johnson proclaiming earnestly on camera that he’s never told a lie in his political career. That was a good one.
And then there were the bigger lies on which the election itself was based: the lie that it is in any way feasible to “get Brexit done” in the short amount of time Johnson claims it is —vigorously challenged by opponents for months; and the even bigger lie that “getting Brexit done” was ever Johnson’s main objective—largely overlooked by almost everyone (getting Brexit done was never the end game. Brexit was just the means to an ends, a way of stirring up frustration and indignation to gain support for what he really wanted and now has: a majority in the commons. But that’s a discussion for another time).
Conservative supporters would, of course, argue that none of this really matters, that none of it had a decisive effect on the outcome of the election. Some of them would no doubt say that this just all part of the cut and thrust of politics and that there were lies told on both sides, the claim frequently made about the 2016 referendum. It’s therefore worth stressing that the degree of duplicity certainly wasn’t the same on both sides, neither then nor now. In the case of the referendum there is a big difference between promising falsely that Brexit would free up £350 million pounds a week to spend on the NHS and making genuine, though inaccurate, forecasts about the likely economic harm of leaving the EU. And in the election there was only one side that was found to have included lies in a staggering 88% of its Facebook adds. And that was the Conservative Party – though no doubt they will twist this as another Labour lay within the foreseen future.
I wonder if another part of the tacit acceptance of all this, however, might just be that large numbers have been conditioned to think that the ruthlessness of this distortion of the truth is actually what it takes to be successful in the harsh, brutal world of politics, and that having a government good at playing this game is somehow going to be to our advantage in standing up for Britain against the rest of the world. I’m reminded of somebody recently explaining the premise of the series Dexeter to me—with a chuckle at the wonderful ridiculousness of it: “He’s a serial killer. But he only uses his powers for good!”
Well I don’t believe that treating all would-be foreign friends as adversaries will ever be for the good of any country in the long run and I’m can’t help but assume that politicians who feel they have to lie to us continually might not have our best interests at heart. If there’s a case for their policies, I’d be more inclined to consider them if they put more of their energy and money into arguing that case rather than into trying to avoid scrutiny and continually distracting us with deception. Because ultimately that’s what this was all about. Not necessarily trying to convince anybody that any of these lies are trues but simply creating a haze of uncertainty over the whole political process, to keep their opponents continually on the wrong foot and to prevent there being any real focus on what their plans for government actually were. Several observers have already noted the disparity between the thinness of the Conservatives manifesto and the expansive plans for government that they packed into yesterday’s Queen’s speech. Imagine if the election campaign had really focussed on debating that kind of stuff.
So yes, I believe that this campaign of misinformation does matter a great deal. It matters because it does a disservice to voters by destroying any chance of real informed political discussion and, as such, it is profoundly anti-democratic. That shouldn’t surprise because it is perfectly consistent with that other key pillar of Johnson’s agenda—attacking the checks and balances such as the courts, the House of Lords, and Parliament needed to prevent Britain from descending into a populist tyranny.
Yes, it’s true that none of the untruths that were spread during the campaign won the election for the Conservatives but they certainly played a role in preventing other issues from cutting through. People might have voted for the Conservatives because they thought Johnson would make a better PM than Corbyn, because they trust the Conservative’s plans regarding the NHS, or passionately believe that Britain really will be better off outside the European Union but that begs the question: WHY do they believe such things? If we can’t trust politicians on all sides to tell the truth there is no hope of persuading anybody to think differently. None of the voting preferences that the statistics reveal were formed in a vacuum and it would be a real mistake on the part of all those who oppose Johnson, and another nail in the coffin of British democracy, to give up trying to find ways of getting the truth to cut through.
“Let the healing begin” Johnson said in his victory speech last Friday, more disingenuous rhetoric from a man who has played no small part in creating the painful rifts that now run through British society. He knows full well that there can be no acceptance of the path we are now on without also accepting yet another falsehood – the lie that we arrived at this point through victories won fair and square.
For me at least—and I suspect for many more people—opposition to Brexit has never been merely about preventing the economic harm it will do, though that has been the main argument Remainers have made for the last three years. It was not even about fighting to keep freedom of movement, a wonderful opportunity for all British citizens now being thrown in the dustbin and for what? It was about where Brexit was taking us and how it was being used as the pretence for a power grab by a particularly unscrupulous faction of the right wing, intent on refashioning Britain as a post-truth society along the lines aimed at on the other side of the Atlantic by Donald Trump. When the thing we’ve been fighting for is the victory of truth, how can we ever reconcile ourselves to the triumph of lies.
The fears I have for the damage that Johnson’s government will do the UK in the next five years—to healthcare, education, to the environment, to Britain’s standing in the world and the union with Ireland and Scotland—make his election win a bitter pill to swallow. The thing that grates the most, however, is the injustice of seeing the liars and cheats win. Maybe I had too many fairy tales read to me as a child but a world where deceit is the accepted way to get ahead is not a world I am prepared to accept for my daughters’ future. Did somebody shout “wolf”?