– “So you lied to me just then?”
– “I’m a politician, Ainsley. Of course I lied to you just then”
This little snippet from the West Wing, between recently appointed lawyer Ainsley Hayes and White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, is meant to remind us of the “normal” of politics. It is humorous and is just part of the majestic writing of Aaron Sorkin.
But we currently have a prime minister – a chief servant of the nation – who lies so habitually, with such appalling disregard for any consequence of what he says, that, as Peter Oborne says,
Many…believe that it is in the nature of politicians to dissimulate and lie. They say that it is as futile to complain about this as to complain that wasps sting. My answer is simple. Yes, it is true that politicians lie and cheat regularly. Yes, the culture of political lying and cheating has grown deeper and more pervasive. But that is no reason to let politicians get away with it. Least of all Boris Johnson, who is uniquely deceitful among British prime ministers. I make this statement with authority having been a political correspondent for approaching 30 years. In a short time, Mr Johnson and his ministers have set new standards. They tell untruths at a faster rate than the governments of Theresa May, David Cameron and Gordon Brown. Even more than the Tony Blair government. And I was so appalled by the dishonesty of Mr Blair’s administration that I wrote a treatise, The Rise of Political Lying, on the subject.
So, whilst I shy away generally from directing people to political choices, it would be irresponsible to vote for any party at all before reading the catalogue of calumny that has been compiled by Peter Oborne and colleagues at the website Boris Johnson Lies. Read it, read the explanations, check the facts with those sites linked to, and only then vote.
If we have not got truth, we have nothing in our political culture at all. There are times when politicians have to hide truth for the national good – in matters of security this happens all the time, and because we have a generally inquisitive journalistic culture (well, nosey, anyway), then politicians have to invent cover stories for all sorts of things. That is par. What is really below par is the intentional and amoral distortion of the truth by the current prime minister who is seeking to get re-elected on the basis of those precise lies. As Christians, I do not believe that we can vote for a party whose approach to public policy is consistently based upon lies, where lies form part of the policy making and whose manifesto commitments must of necessity be therefore founded upon untruth. You might want to say, well, what about Labour? The point about Labour is that they have not been in power for 9 years. There are reasons for that, as there are reasons why they may not get elected again for some years. Boris Johnson is lying about things that have actually happened while his party has been in power. This is not a critique of the Conservative Party or an admonition to vote for any other party. It is simply that, uniquely, we have arrived at a place where the rulership of the governing party, who just happen to be the government of the day, use lies so consistently and ruthlessly that they have undermined their own credibility among those who think clearly about the past, who observe the present with care, and who long for a future freed for a more truthful politics. Nothing that they say now can be trusted, because the criterion for whether something is true or not has been completely eroded.
The worst thing about this new culture of calumny is that Johnson (ditto Trump) has created a political culture in which all parties feel that they may as well play fast and loose with the truth. He has used lies to divide (something that lying always does) and to exacerbate the differences between left and right. In this of course, Corbyn and Momentum have helped. But because the vast majority of newspapers back the Conservatives in this election, these lies are being less challenged than they should be. This is the reason that Oborne and colleagues have launched their site, so that we at least have a chance to compare the pronouncements of our foremost public servant with the truth he may or may not be alluding to, distorting or subverting.