Politicians & lies

Published : Nov 16, 2007 00:00 IST

Three books that constitute an instructive guide to governance in the United Kingdom.

BOTH authors are extremely careful about their sources, are steeped in history, and write felicitous prose. Peter Oborne begins with Lewis Namiers classic The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929). It demonstrated how idealism, party division and disinterested public service had no relevance at the time. Public men sought office as a means of enriching themselves and rewarding their relations, clients and dependants. A change of government brought about a wholesale transfer of public offices. Politicians sought power to pillage the state machine (emphasis added throughout). Britain departed from this course in the 19th century.

The idea of public duty was born, and with it came the concept of an independent judiciary, a professional civil service and army and a basic divide between the party and the state. Jobs could not be sold and bought. We transfer civil servants when governments change, and politicians become richer in public office.

Obornes central thesis is that in recent years governance has reverted to something close to the situation described by Namier. Factionalism, patronage and corruption have blurred the rules in the mass democracy of today.

Politicians are now fundamentally dependent for funding and prestige upon the British state. Indeed many members of the Political Class abuse their financial and other privileges, and then collaborate with each other, even across traditional party lines, to prevent themselves being found out. Just as farmers want subsidies and brewers argue for cuts in excise duty, so the Political Class now asserts special privileges that are not available to voters. The Political Class not only determines its own regulations, pay-rates, pensions and so forth. It also sets the rules of conduct which everybody else must obey.

This power is exceptionally dangerous because the Political Class possesses a structural hostility to ordinary freedoms, independent institutions and all public rituals and ceremonies which lack an explicit political dimension or meaning. It refuses to acknowledge that some of the most important areas of our national life, like the civil service or the universities, are not political at all in the proper sense of the word.

Indian politicians buried political differences to: (1) revive the Single Directive, struck down by the Supreme Court, to bar even a preliminary police inquiry into corruption by a civil servant without the states sanction; (2) abort legislation to set up an Ombudsman at the Centre (the Lokpal); (3) put off electoral reforms since 1967; (4) do away with the secret ballot to elect Members to the Rajya Sabha and the requirement of permanent residence in the State from which they contested. Oborne points out that in recent times British politicians have sought to use the press and broadcast media as the key method of communication between ruler and ruled the media can more accurately be described as the auxiliary brigade of the new Political Class and an organic part of a courtier-based system of populist rule. In post-modern political society the media can most usefully be understood as an instrument of power.

This debasement of the political process undermines democracy and constitutional values. The techniques of manipulation, deception, smear and institutional capture have taken power away from ordinary voters and placed it in the hands of the Political Class. But this means that democratic politics in Britain no longer does the job most people want it to do. Rather than resolve conflict, it suppresses it. Rather than inform voters, it deceives them. Rather than place a check on the power of the executive, it celebrates it. This is a fantastically dangerous structure. The destruction of the mediating institutions means that swathes of ordinary people and whole sections of civil society have been excluded from meaningful democratic participations.

The Indian situation is far worse. The candidate is not selected by the constituency party by open vote as in Britain. He is selected by the party bosses in New Delhi and remains beholden to them.

In both his books, Oborne states his thesis clearly and proceeds to document it with irrefutable citations. The Spectator of September 23, 1955, carried a famous article by its political editor, Henry Fairlie, defining the Establishment.

His successor Obornes coinage of the new term the Political Class is as instructive. The Establishment man used the Queens English. Members of the Political Class find it a barrier to advancement. They use opaque language and are skilled at TV performances.

The rise of this Class has coincided with sound bites (easy to understand, calculated to mislead), sterile panel discussions and mendacity, the subject of the second book. Together, the three books provide an instructive guide to governance in the United Kingdom, which will baffle constitutional lawyers innocent of politics but will inspire politicians who have disdain for the law.

The Establishment was civil. The new class is boorish as parvenus are. MPs seem to think that their status demands special treatment at airports, upgrades on flights, advantageous treatment from commercial firms, while allowing them to display uncalled-for rudeness to ordinary people. The author has private information, for example, of shatteringly rude and arrogant conduct by MPs denied upgrades to the first-class compartment on overseas trips.

Geoffrey Howe, sacked as Foreign Secretary, fought to retain the use of the country house available to the Foreign Secretary. Our MPs and Ministers cling to their bungalows long after demitting public office.

The Establishment revered institutions. The new class despises and subverts them. The Indian politician of 2007 is as contemptuous of constitutional values as the politician of, say, 1967, was respectful. In India, the decline began with the Congress split and intensified political warfare in 1969; in the U.K., with the Thatcher era. The chapter on Client Journalism must be read by every Indian journalist. The Political Class denounces journalists whom it fails to coopt.

The study on political lying is as erudite and traces the disease to the days of Plato. Britain now lives in a post-truth political environment. Public statements are no longer fact based, but operational. Realities and political narratives are constructed to serve a purpose, dismantled, and the show moves on.

This is new. All governments have contained liars, and most politicians deceive each other as well as the public from time to time. But in recent years mendacity and deception have ceased to be abnormal and become an entrenched feature of the British system. Under Tony Blair New Labour perfected the technique devised by the Tories.

The presence of a group of shameless, habitual liars at the centre of power is an amazing state of affairs, without precedent in modern British history. It is responsible for a widening abyss in standards of integrity between government and the wider world of British public.

The charges are made good. The result is loss of trust in the government and public disenchantment with politics itself and with the process of governance. Public discourse ceases to be about seeking a common solution to the problems that affect us all, and instead becomes an exercise in manipulation, intrigue and brutal power. This is why lying is an attack on civil society. In the end voters despair, and lose the appetite to vote.

Both Oborne and Geoffrey Wheatcroft describe the insidious roles of Blairs spin doctors Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell and expose the depths to which Blair sank on the Iraq war. Even Homer nods. There is a small error in the second book (page 16). Sir Patrick Mayhew was Solicitor General, not Attorney General, during the Westland episode.

Wheatcroft recalls that at the St. Petersberg summit of the G-8 in 2006, a bored and resentful Bush greeted the Prime Minister with good-natured disdain Yo, Blair! and treated him like a put upon valet, a part Blair played very convincingly, bowing and scraping as he obsequiously offered to help the Americans in the Middle East [West Asia], in any way they might want: I dont know what you guys have talked about, but, as I say, I am perfectly happy to try and see what the lie of the land is... When Bush reminded him that Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, was going there, Blair added in still more revealing words, Well its only if, I mean you know. If shes got a or if she needs the ground prepared, as it were Because obviously if she goes out, shes got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can go out and just talk. Wheatcroft proceeds to strip off every layer of defence that has covered Tony Blairs obsequiousness to Bush and his mendacity to his people.

Blair emerges not only as a Pharisee but also a Philistine. Like a brides outfit, Blairs rhetoric was something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. The blue was the purloining of rhetoric, and for that matter policies, from the Conservatives. He coined a new lingo Blairspeak.

One mystery survives. If an Indian judge had done the kind of job that Lord Hutton did in the David Kelly inquiry, the press would have gone for him. He was treated with undeserved respect despite his disgraceful refusal to recall Blair to respond to the charges against him. Bush never treated Blair with respect. Kendall Myers, a senior State Department analyst, said that every British attempt to influence American policy had been pointless: we typically ignore them and take no notice. He even felt a little ashamed at the way Blair had been treated by Bush.

Wheatcroft crowned his elegant and erudite book of polemics with a devastating article in the International Herald Tribune (July 4, 2007), in which he exposed the hollowness of Blairs mission to Palestine.

The United States had no role for him. If Tony Blair were George Bushs poodle, it would be a case for the Royal Society for the Prevention Cruelty to Animals.

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