Liars, Hypocrites and Crybabies

David Runciman

During Liars’ Week at the Labour Party Conference last month – when Gordon pretended that he still had a lot of time for Tony, on hearing which Cherie said that’s a lie, but being overheard herself had to deny she’d said any such thing, though the next day Tony more or less admitted that her denial wasn’t to be trusted either, before going on to pretend that he still admired Gordon too, and then pledging himself to the cause of peace in the Middle East – it was no surprise that the boldest liar of all came out on top. Fortune favours the brave. In politics, it is tempting to think that a lie is a lie is a lie, and since everyone is at it, all that matters is what you can get away with. But that is to do Tony Blair a disservice. He is not simply the boldest liar, he is also the best, in that he understands better than anyone the new rules of political fabrication. He comprehensively outmanoeuvred Gordon Brown in Manchester by being truer both to himself and to the spirit of contemporary politics in the way he stretched the truth. Blair was sincere in the lies he told. Brown, by contrast, came across as a straightforward hypocrite.

Take the statement that is said to have provoked the outburst from Cherie. What Brown claimed in his speech was that it had been a privilege to serve under Tony Blair as prime minister. This was too much for Cherie to stomach, but strictly speaking it wasn’t a lie, since every chancellor holds office on the sufferance of the prime minister, and for Blair to have put up with Brown for so long was indeed quite an honour. What’s more, I have a horrible feeling that Brown said it because he knew it wasn’t technically untrue, and his own sense of probity required that whatever he said to smooth over his differences with Blair shouldn’t be a brazen falsehood. Brown is not a born liar: he is, as we keep being reminded, a son of the manse, which, if it means anything, means that. But by not actually lying, Brown came across as something worse, a man who was happy to conceal the true state of his feelings. Because what was transparent, and what Cherie instantly picked up on, is that Brown would never have said what he said in the conference hall if he had been free to speak his mind. It is impossible to imagine Gordon Brown in a private setting, surrounded by his intimates and his acolytes, using the word ‘privilege’ to describe his relationship with the prime minister. Compare this with what Blair said about Brown: he called him a ‘remarkable man, a remarkable servant to this country’. It is easy to imagine Blair holding to this line, through thick and thin, in public and in private, even in the heat of battle with Cherie, because he is happy to allow it to be true. Yet at the same time, when he did say it, he wanted his audience to believe it was false, because the purpose of Blair’s speech, indeed of the entire conference, was to question Brown’s suitability as his possible successor. Blair displayed the liar’s disregard for the truth, but not the hypocrite’s detachment from his own true feelings.

Hypocrisy comes in many different forms, and Gordon Brown by no means ticks the boxes for all of them. The common or garden type is not practising what you preach, which is not Brown’s problem at all. His innate cautiousness, and his apparently settled and blameless personal life, make him almost painfully eager not to fall into this trap. Not for Brown the ghastly contortions of John Prescott, happy to scourge the Tories for their failings as husbands and fathers in the dog days of the Major administration, but equally happy to try it on himself when a comely employee fell his way. Yet this sort of hypocrisy doesn’t seem to bother people much these days, though it gives everyone great pleasure when it comes to light. Prescott is now something of a joke, but he is still deputy prime minister, and he was able to pre-announce his retirement on his own terms, having stage-managed his little moment of contrition at the Labour Conference. Certainly, he had a better time in Manchester than Brown did.

Brown’s hypocrisy is much closer to the classical sense of the term, which involves not believing what you say. The original hypocrites were persons of apparent faith who were simply mouthing the pieties: it meant going through the motions (only later did it come to be attached to the sort of puritans who laid down rules they couldn’t possibly abide by themselves). Even here, there have always been different ways of dissembling what is going on behind the public mask. The pious hypocrites who pretend to be true believers are liars, because what they claim of themselves is not true. But it is also possible to conceal the truth about oneself by sticking to the truth in public: that is, by sticking to a kind of public truth, so that what comes out of your mouth is the bare minimum that allows you to get by. This is Brown’s particular vice, and it makes him appear to be someone who is always holding something back, something he would only ever be willing to share among people he really trusts, which emphatically does not include the public at large. It is Brown’s great misfortune that this now appears to be the kind of hypocrite that the public really detests, much more than they hate the liars and adulterers and fools that populate the political scene. What no politician can safely afford is to look as though he is keeping some private truth to himself.

The most striking example of the pitfalls that face the wrong kind of hypocrite in contemporary politics comes from Australia, and it will have given Brown a lot to think about over the summer. In July this year, the Australian treasurer, Peter Costello, finally spilled the beans about the deal that he said had been struck with Prime Minister John Howard in 1994, whereby Howard had agreed to give up the top job after serving for a term and a half, paving the way for Costello to succeed him. Such a deal had always been rumoured, but unlike the equivalent bargain said to have been struck between Blair and Brown in the same year, in the Australian case there were apparently witnesses. One of these, the former Liberal MP Ian McLachlan, came forward to announce that he had been in the room, along with Costello, when Howard promised that he would not stay in office for more than two terms. It was McLachlan’s statement that prompted Costello to confirm that the rumours were true. In doing so, he also insisted on three other facts. First, that when Howard had reneged on the agreement by standing for a third time in 2001 (and then a fourth in 2004), Costello had never wavered in his commitment to the government. Second, that he had never spoken a word about the deal before now. And third, that he would not have said anything at this point had McLachlan not broken his silence first. It was only because his recollection of the event tallied with McLachlan’s ‘word for word’ that he felt he had no alternative but to speak the truth as he saw it. Howard, unsurprisingly, denied the whole thing.

In the flurry of polling that followed these revelations, two things became clear. More people believed in Costello’s version of events than Howard’s. In one poll, almost half of those questioned said that they thought Howard was lying when he said there had been no deal, whereas only 36 per cent were willing to take him at his word. But in the same poll, a huge majority said that they still preferred Howard as prime minister to Costello (63 per cent to 25 per cent). Among supporters of the two men’s own Liberal Party, the margin stood at an astonishing 86 per cent to 11 per cent in Howard’s favour. Among all voters, the Liberal Party’s ratings went up in the polls after Costello’s statement, putting them back ahead of the Labor opposition, but only on the assumption that Howard would remain in post. When voters were asked for their preference if Costello were leading the Liberals against Kim Beazley’s Labor Party, Beazley (who has already led Labor to two general election defeats) had a commanding lead. Howard’s long-standing reputation as a liar was confirmed by everything Costello said. But so also was his electoral appeal. Meanwhile, Costello seemed to confirm his own reputation as a whining hypocrite, despite the apparent veracity of his recollections. What people resented was the thought that he had been storing all this bitterness and rage behind a public mask of loyalty. The apparent truthfulness of his claim that he had always held his tongue made things worse, not better, as did his insistence that he would have carried on suffering in silence had it not been for McLachlan’s coming forward. This may all have been technically true, but it sounded politically false, because it was hard to believe that Costello had had no hand in the timing of the revelations. Finally, Costello came across as a man who could dish it out but couldn’t take it. As one internet comment succinctly put it, ‘Tell the crybaby to shut up. Hasn’t he ever made a promise and then changed his mind?’

The similarities between Costello’s predicament and Brown’s are striking. They both have a reputation for possessing values that are somewhat different from those of the governments they serve (Costello as more socially liberal, Brown as more socially democratic), but which they have never had a proper chance to articulate. They have both presided over a decade of strong economic growth in their domestic economies, the credit for which both of them believe they deserve, and have not fully received. Meanwhile, their bosses have spent the second half of that decade taking a strong hand in the war on terror, which has not only used up considerable amounts of national wealth but also sizeable chunks of political capital, adding to the resentment of their possible successors. Both Blair and Howard now have well-deserved reputations as men who are willing to stretch the truth to serve the cause of freedom, and are widely mistrusted by the general public. But although both Brown and Costello have good personal reasons to mistrust their respective prime ministers as well, neither has managed to forge an alliance with the public at large over this issue. Instead, the opposite seems to have happened. The only point at which the voters seem willing to rally round the incumbents is when they are faced with a realistic prospect that they might be replaced by their long-serving, long-suffering and palpably seething rivals in the Treasury. The result of Costello’s outburst was predictable, but shocking all the same. Howard, who had been dithering about standing for a fifth term, sniffed the wind and decided that he had no choice but to put himself forward, for party and for country. Costello is now back in his box at the Treasury, tongue re-bitten, bouncing off the walls. Brown, by contrast, had a notably quiet summer, keeping his silence even as Lebanon went up in flames. It is hard not to believe that his attention was less on the Middle East than on the terrible warnings coming out from down under. And it may have been this that unhinged his otherwise sound political judgment in the autumn, allowing him to get mixed up in a desperate, cack-handed and ultimately counter-productive coup attempt that left him looking more hypocritical than ever.

Blair, meanwhile, must have been looking at Howard and thinking, if only I had kept quiet about not serving a fourth term, what mightn’t be possible now? It hardly seems to matter that the governments of Australia and Britain are ostensibly on opposite sides of the political spectrum; when it comes to the politics of personal integrity, party allegiance is almost irrelevant. Nor does it much matter that Blair and Howard have such different personalities: one all surface sheen, eager to please, endlessly giving the impression that he is happiest in the moment; the other dour, banal, palpably nostalgic for the values of the older generation to which he belongs. What they share is an ability to convince people that they are what they seem, and are not holding back some private part of themselves. Blair gives the impression that he is just as shiny and eager with his inner circle as with anyone else, and Howard that he is just as dour. This is why Costello’s accusations were like manna from heaven for his boss: they seemed to confirm that Howard didn’t treat his intimates any differently from the way he treated the voters – he was happy to screw them too.

The great exemplar of what can be achieved by a politician who doesn’t hold anything back, even when he is playing around with the truth, is the man whose later career in the White House overlapped with the early years of Blair’s and Howard’s premierships. Bill Clinton was the sincerest liar in modern political history, and what he, and his opponents, and the American public discovered was that the sincerity could easily trump the lies. Clinton’s popularity rose as his mendacity was exposed. He got away with the lies, including the blatant falsehood that he never had sexual relations with ‘that woman’, because it became clear that the absurd stories he was telling (oral sex is not sex when you are only receiving and not giving) were not just for public consumption: they were ones he was willing to try out on anyone, even himself. By the end of it all, there is no question that he would have comfortably won a third term in office in 2000 had he been permitted to stand. The people who suffered were those of his opponents he managed successfully to portray as hypocrites, pursuing some technical definition of the truth at the expense of basic human values, and with blithe disregard for their own difficulties in meeting the standards they set (who hasn’t told a little lie now and then to protect the people they love?). Unfortunately, however, for the Democratic Party and for the wider world, one of the people who also came out of the Clinton years looking like a hypocrite was his deputy, Al Gore, who couldn’t be as sincere about Clinton’s lies as the man himself, and who was therefore vulnerable to an opponent who appeared to have no side, and whose dumb sincerity stood in contrast to Gore’s crabbed and wooden rectitude. Gore suffered the fate that awaits anyone who must serve in silence under a politician skilled in the arts of public deception and personal revelation – they get left with the lies but without the means to defend them.

Gore tried during the 2000 campaign to distance himself from Clinton by moving to the left, to an apparently more principled, because more conventionally ideological, form of party politics. Yet it had been part of Clinton’s genius to recognise that triangulation, which ought to leave a politician more vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy, actually serves as insulation against it. The skills of the political cross-dresser – stealing your opponents’ clothes, staying a step ahead of your party, camping on the centre ground, and always putting instinct before ideology – fit perfectly with the politics of personal revelation, because they allow a politician to be himself, instead of having to put on a public face for the sake of party unity. For far too long, Clinton’s opponents, like Blair’s, were waiting for the public to see through the charade of what they believed was an obviously superficial political personality, because so obviously tailored to win votes; their mistake was not to realise that tailoring your personality to win votes can come across as a form of integrity, because it is consistent with being open-minded about everything. In the world of political triangulation, nothing is out of bounds, least of all changing your spots, and people who are willing to change their spots often seem more sincere than those who don’t. The problem is for the people who have to follow on behind.

There is no doubt that Blair learned a great deal about how to play the game of political hypocrisy from Bill Clinton, as David Cameron appears to have learned almost everything from Blair. But Blair also found out quite a lot of it for himself, above all during a single week at the beginning of September 1997. Stephen Frears’s new film The Queen beautifully re-creates this moment, when it became abundantly clear, following the death of Princess Diana, that the British public weren’t interested in truthful displays of reticence anymore; what they wanted was sincerity, whatever the cost in lies. It is this fact that Blair had to impress on the royal family, who believed they were living in a world where the traditional British pecking order of vices was still in place, which meant that hypocrisy (the English vice) was OK but lying (a thoroughly foreign practice) wasn’t. The queen was happy to go through the motions of a public show of mourning, playing everything by the book. But what she wasn’t prepared to do was open her heart about her true feelings for Diana, because what was in there was not fit for general consumption. Blair persuaded her that she had no choice but to give something of herself to the public, and what she eventually gave was a mendacious little speech composed for her with the help of Alastair Campbell, in which she spoke about how she felt as a queen and as a grandmother. No one believed she really meant it, but that didn’t matter; she got through by showing she wasn’t above sharing, and that was enough. Still, she was bested throughout by Blair, who not only understood the public mood much better than she did, but who also understood how important it was to let the words scripted for him by Campbell come from the heart: hence the choke in the voice when he extolled the people’s princess, and the tear in the eye at her funeral. Yet even Blair was outshone on that occasion by Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, whose funeral oration truly was the Gettysburg Address of heartfelt bullshit, and brought the crowds outside to their feet.

The Queen offers a useful test for thinking about the electability of the current crop of party leaders. Would they, like Blair, have seen what was going on, and mastered it? Or would they have blown it like William Hague, whose declaration, on the morning of Diana’s death, that people would probably miss her lively personality (but by implication nothing more) was one of the truer things said that week, but nevertheless something that for ever identified him in the public mind as un-prime-ministerial material? Menzies Campbell, almost certainly, would have blown it: too old, too upright, too ready to wait on how things (such as Charles Kennedy’s alcoholism) will play themselves out. Cameron, who has at least as much in common with Charles Spencer as he does with Blair, would equally certainly have got it; indeed, with his Tory connections and plausible manner he might have had the queen back in London smelling the dead flowers a day or two before Blair managed it. But what about Brown? I suspect he would have been torn, understanding the mood of the crowd and what was at stake, but also unable to free himself from an instinctive mistrust of so much raw and unfounded emotion. He would have half-wanted to side with the queen, unlike Blair, who merely sympathised with her, and is never torn about anything. Brown, I fear, would have blown it too.

Brown’s apparent inability to connect instinctively with the British electorate is being taken as evidence by Blair’s supporters that the succession should not be viewed as a foregone conclusion. In poll after poll, Brown scores well behind Cameron on the human qualities the British public now looks for in a prime minister. He also scores behind some of his possible Labour rivals on the same count in focus groups. John Reid, who has many more skeletons in his closet than Brown does (the drinking, the hard-left thuggery, the weekend as the guest of Radovan Karadzic), still manages to give a convincing impersonation of someone with nothing to hide. Were he to run for the leadership, he would doubtless gloss over the truth about his past in a spirit of great openness, as a no-nonsense man of the people. Brown, on the other hand, is forced to traipse round the television studios shedding a tear or two for his dead baby. So it almost seems too late to say how crazy all this is. Hypocrisy, particularly the hypocrisy of carefully picking your way through and around the truth, is not worse than disregarding the truth altogether. Often it is better. Brown might have got Diana’s death wrong, but that doesn’t mean he would have made a worse prime minister than Blair, who got that right but so much else wrong with his willingness to trust his instincts over the hard evidence. Reticence in politics is not always a vice, and sometimes it is a virtue, since it often goes with other virtues, like caution, and clarity of purpose, and seriousness. All politicians ought to hold something back, and to insist that they don’t is simply to encourage vacuity. There is no reason to suppose that Cameron would make a better prime minister than Brown, and lots of reasons – his shallowness, his inexperience – to think he would be worse. Cameron wants politics to be facile, as that is the way for him to win. And since politics under Blair has become increasingly facile, he may well get his wish.

Brown’s predicament is not new. The clash between the sincere liar and the truthful hypocrite has a long tradition in British politics. Michael Sheen’s brilliant performance as Blair in The Queen is reminiscent of another superb cinematic portrayal of a sincerely devious prime minister, Antony Sher’s turn as Disraeli in Mrs Brown. Like Blair, Disraeli had to get his queen back from Scotland to show something of herself to her impatient people, though in Victoria’s case it was because she was grieving too much, not too little. Disraeli was a flatterer and a fibber, and as a flatterer and a fibber he knew that the key was to hold nothing back. He was also a political cross-dresser par excellence, and understood the importance of sincerity when you steal your opponents’ clothes. Gladstone, by contrast, was a thoroughgoing hypocrite, but never less than conscientious about the truth. He would change his party sooner than he would change his spots. So the liar and the hypocrite slugged it out for twenty years. But at least it was an equal battle, and the hypocrite won as often as he lost (slightly more often, in fact). What’s different now is that everything seems stacked so much against the hypocrites, and in favour of those who are willing to share their personal view of the truth, however false. The relentless focus of contemporary politics on the inner lives of political leaders has made it too easy for the Disraelis and too hard for the Gladstones; too easy for Cameron, and too hard for Brown. It’s true that Cameron is no Disraeli – he entirely lacks the sense of a man who has had to work any of this stuff out for himself. But he has all the advantages of someone comfortable in his own skin in a political world where a sense of comfort is what counts.

At the Manchester conference, Blair said of Cameron’s Tories that ‘if we can’t take this lot apart over the next few years, we shouldn’t be in the business of politics at all.’ What he meant was he was sure he could take them apart, because he could out-Cameron Cameron: trump Cameron’s sincerity with his own, trump Cameron’s comfort zone with his own, trump Cameron’s disregard for the truth with his own. But can Brown? All the evidence suggests he will struggle, because the more he insists on the real-world disparities between what Cameron promises and what he can achieve, the more he will remind people of what they don’t like about him: that he is a kind of snob for the facts, a natural chancellor, just as Peter Costello painted himself in as a natural treasurer, by telling the truth. What Blair also meant was that he could continue to take Brown apart if given the chance, as he has taken him apart for over a decade, by playing on Brown’s natural caution and his need for certainty. Blair may well believe that the only person able to take on Cameron is himself. If only he hadn’t promised not to. But then what’s a promise these days? It would be the ultimate test of the advantages of dishonest disclosure over honest reticence if he attempted to rewrite that little piece of history, by making a new promise, one more in keeping with the spirit of the times, to rescue the Labour Party from its terrible predicament, saddled with a new leader who can’t win. He wouldn’t get away with it. Would he?