There was always something a little weird about the scene: the heavy lectern hurriedly dragged out into the street from behind the famous front door, as though the premises were suddenly out of action because of flood damage or a bomb threat; on the other side of the road, the hacks and the pap pack awkwardly mustered and jostling for position. And the statement itself, all too obviously scrabbled together by some sleep-deprived spad, failing to match the historic significance of the occasion – an election lost or won, a leader toppled or triumphant. How strange that the queen’s first minister had nowhere to speak to the nation from except a draughty stretch of pavement, competing with the noise of the birds and the rain and the traffic in Whitehall.
Not anymore. Carved out of the old Privy Council Court Room in 9 Downing Street, where judges used to meet to hear appeals from convicted murderers in Barbados or the Cayman Islands, there is now a purpose-built grande salle for press conferences, knocked up for £2.6 million by friendly Russian contractors. It is not a pretty sight, resembling one of those crematorium chapels painted in bright colours to reassure you that death is nothing to be afraid of. The polished pilasters and the Union Jacks hanging limp at either side of the podium suggest a newish nation-state searching for self-confidence, one of the lesser-known stans perhaps. The lectern has ‘DOWNING STREET’ gilded on it, as though we might forget where we are.
But the gimcrack fixtures and fittings should not delude us. This is intended to be a crucial new space in British politics: a place where the prime minister can get his message across, unvarnished and unspun except by himself, mediated by nobody, with only footling interruptions from a tame lobby. The process of disintermediation that swept over the banks fifty years ago has now well and truly arrived in Whitehall. The pandemic gave the PM and his ministers licence to address us directly almost daily, even when they had nothing very new or very true to tell us. Now it looks like becoming a permanent feature.
The new arrangements got off to a sticky start. No sooner was the chamber unveiled than Johnson abandoned his scheme for Allegra Stratton, his chief spokesman, to give daily televised press conferences, suddenly realising that a badly managed press conference could blow any passing contretemps up into a scalding embarrassment. Instead, the lectern would be left to ministers, notably to the Prime Pontificator himself. Alas, Johnson’s own debut didn’t go too well either. In no time some cheeky reporter was asking about his affair with Jennifer Arcuri. All the same, a taste for addressing the nation is as hard to give up as alcohol.
Under the old dispensation, familiar from Bagehot, Dicey and Jennings and surviving into the Crossman era and beyond, the prime minister spoke first and foremost to the House of Commons. By contrast, communications (not yet shortened to comms) to the media and via the media to the public were sparse and obsessively private. In the morning, the PM’s press secretary briefed the parliamentary lobby in a scruffy underground cavern in Number Ten. In the afternoons, as political correspondent for the Spectator, I trooped with the rest of the lobby up a winding stair to a pokey room at the top of the Palace of Westminster. There, on Thursdays, we were briefed by what were coyly termed ‘Blue Leader’ and ‘Red Leader’ – the leader of the House and the leader of the opposition or vice versa – and coded signals and sly digs were doled out to the hungry journos. All on terms of the utmost secrecy. I still have my copy of Lobby Practice, the slimmest of slim volumes, bound in burgundy rexine, which carries among other stern injunctions – ‘Do not “see” anything in the Members’ Lobby’, ‘Do not run after a minister’ – the overarching commandment: ‘Members of the lobby are under an obligation to keep secret the fact that such meetings are held and to avoid revealing the sources of their information.’
Younger members chafed, of course. The etiquette seemed to us as medieval as the Groom of the Stole. We itched for a more open dialogue, in which statements would be on the record and the speakers identifiable and accountable to the public at large. Impatience with the old ways had spread far beyond the media. Sir John Hunt, a former cabinet secretary, broke cover as early as election day 1983 to voice the discontents of the mandarins:
In the absence in our system of a chief executive with his own supporting staff, a ‘hole in the centre’ of government was perceived which an overworked cabinet seemed incapable of fulfilling. It was widely felt that the decentralisation of so much cabinet business made a coherent strategy much more difficult. It was suggested that the hard grind of a subject through the cabinet committee system led not only to unnecessary delay but also to unsatisfactory compromises.
In Cabinet (1986) Peter Hennessy records that, under Mrs Thatcher, ‘cabinet does meet less frequently, it discusses fewer formal papers, it is presented with more virtual faits accomplis at the last moment, and she does prefer to work in ad hoc groups – many of the most important ones remaining outside the cabinet-committee structure.’
At the same time, the role of Parliament as the grand inquisitor of the nation seemed to be slipping. By 1995, the Labour MP Jack Straw was lamenting that ‘in the last six years, every serious newspaper has abandoned its straight reporting of Parliament.’ Almost overnight, a tradition that dated back to the Victorian era of devoting a page or more every day to coverage of the most important speeches delivered in the House had simply vanished. Much had been hoped from the televising of the Commons, which began in 1989, but the networks broadcast only juicy snippets, and fewer and fewer of those as time went by, leaving it to their own correspondents to gloss the goings-on. Only the sketchwriters remained in the reporters’ gallery to squeeze whatever fun might be had.
The stage was set for what Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, claimed would be ‘a change from a feudal system of barons to a more Napoleonic system’. The staff at Number Ten used, notoriously, to be no larger than the staff of a mayor in a middle-sized German town. Over the last decades, it has swelled to a cast of hundreds. Under Thatcher, according to the Institute of Government, fewer than seventy people worked at Number Ten; under Blair the number increased to 225. When asked on Radio 4 to describe being prime minister, Boris Johnson exulted that ‘it’s a job that is brilliantly supported by a massive team of people who have all evolved over hundreds of years into what is a big department of state now … So this is an incredible institution that has evolved over time into this extraordinary centre of a G7 economy.’ All this has been engineered, not simply in the supposed interests of better government, but of dominating ‘the narrative’ – that postmodernist vogue word which was unknown in British politics before Blair. ‘We are going to take the initiative with the media announcing stories in a cycle determined by us,’ New Labour told government press officers at the outset. Less well remembered perhaps is Alastair Campbell’s creation of a head of ‘story development’. The post of official fabulist was filled by Paul Hamill, who would play an inglorious role in the fabrication of the Dodgy Dossier of September 2002.
We weren’t careful what we half-wished for. We did not anticipate the effects a free-flowing, direct, 24/7 style of communication would have on the quality of the output. In retrospect, the stuffy old rules guaranteed a certain vigilance against inaccurate, overblown or deceitful statements. Corrections and withdrawals could be demanded and insisted on, by the Speaker or by a resolution of the House. Careers could be wrecked on a single breach of etiquette, on a casual ‘misspeaking’ (another pretty neologism). Take, for example, three celebrated postwar resignations: Hugh Dalton in 1947 as chancellor for casually letting slip a couple of Budget secrets to a reporter while on his way to deliver the speech; John Profumo in 1963 as secretary for war for lying about his affair with Christine Keeler; and Amber Rudd as home secretary in 2018 during the Windrush scandal for claiming to be ignorant of the government’s immigration targets, although the figures had been sent to her. In Dalton’s case, it was at worst a bit of indiscreet showing off. In Profumo’s case, the lie was outrageous, but more remarkable was the fact that he could be compelled to come to the House to make a statement about a girlfriend (let’s not think about the demands on parliamentary time if such a compulsion still operated). In Rudd’s, if she hadn’t read the figures, she ought to have. But they all had to go. Now ministers stick like barnacles to their ministerial posts, with Johnson’s encouragement. Under previous PMs, the home secretary, Priti Patel, would have had to go for being officially found guilty of bullying her staff; so would Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, for a ripe lobbying scandal.
As for policymaking, a concern for accuracy was supposed to go hand in hand with a thorough and detailed examination of pros and cons, a proper submission of papers and keeping of records, rather than an aide scribbling on a pad during coffee on the sofa. There might, after all, be something to be said for ‘the hard grind’.
The veteran political correspondent Peter Oborne is unrepentantly nostalgic for the old order. He begins his philippic, The Assault on Truth, by quoting two sentences in the Ministerial Code: ‘It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister.’ ‘Philippic’ is, I think, the right word. The deliverers of the original Philippics, Demosthenes and Cicero, targeted what they regarded as the abuses and perversions of the enshrined practices of the Athenian and Roman republics by Philip of Macedon and Mark Antony (although those of Demosthenes were calls to arms rather than constitutional critiques).
There are at least six books now in print with the words ‘Assault on Truth’ in their titles: Oborne’s; Jeffrey Masson’s polemic against the slipperiness of Sigmund Freud, which after more than thirty years retains its power to enrage Freudians; a book by the fact-checkers of the Washington Post listing the lies of Donald Trump (the only instance I can think of in which that shy fraternity has ventured into authorship); Deborah Lipstadt’s book on Holocaust denial; Daniel A. Farber’s Beyond All Reason: the Radical Assault on Truth in American Law (1997); and Fox Nation v. Reality: The Fox News Community’s Assault on Truth by Mark Howard. I toss these books together to indicate how this digital age, which prides itself on its abundance and freedom of information, has become so uneasy about the pervasiveness of lying. We might add to these indictments three of Oborne’s earlier books: Alastair Campbell: New Labour and the Rise of the Media Class (1999), The Rise of Political Lying (2005), and How Trump Thinks: His Tweets and the Birth of a New Political Language (2017).
Over the past twenty years and more, Oborne has conducted a lonely war against the mendacity of modernity. And much good it has done him. In his journalistic heyday, his columns appeared in the Spectator, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. All these are now barred to him. He’s lucky if he can squeeze a piece into Middle East Eye. As far as I can see, his latest book has been reviewed only in quarters likely to be sympathetic, such as the Guardian and the Observer. From his former comrades in the right-wing press, not a cheep, only frosty silence. He hasn’t been forgiven for his last-minute abandonment of the Brexit cause which he championed so fiercely, or for his relentless exposure of Johnson’s fibs and fabrications. Nor will he be easily pardoned by newspaper managements who remember the way he stalked out of the Daily Telegraph when he discovered they were censoring critical coverage of big advertisers such as HSBC and Cunard and printing advertorial pap instead.
Oborne is not only a doomsayer. He has defended Iran’s right to better treatment from the West; he has pleaded for the people of Zimbabwe to be freed from their dreadful government; he has extolled the beauties of cricket as it is played in Pakistan. But it is his insistence on truth-telling that marks him out among political commentators as ‘obsessive’, ‘erratic’, or ‘eccentric’. It’s not that others fail to mention the lies and obfuscations of the politicians they write about. As Oborne points out, both John Rentoul’s book on Tony Blair and Donald Macintyre’s on Peter Mandelson record the ripest examples of their subjects’ mendacity. But they do so ‘unobtrusively, in the muted, matter-of-fact tone of a bank manager drawing embarrassed attention to a bounced cheque’. Much the same could be said of the normally tigerish Tom Bower’s recent book on Johnson. The prime minister’s oafish betrayals, his ghastly puns, his shameless self-contradictions are not to be taken seriously because he is not posing as un homme sérieux. And the same is true of his lies. You have to laugh, or you are a prig.
From the start Johnson has been a clown, but a useful clown. Now and then he has to be sacked, but he is always taken back, perhaps with a mock sigh. He has never quite equalled the stream of lies that he manufactured as Daily Telegraph correspondent in Brussels in the early 1990s: that the EU wanted to ban prawn cocktail crisps and British sausages, and to standardise the size of condoms because Italians had smaller penises. Week after week, he produced juicy fibs which had news editors on other papers demanding similar stuff from their own reporters in Brussels. Conrad Black, then the owner of the Telegraph and himself on the receiving end of several Johnson lies, was delighted. When Johnson was about to become prime minister in the summer of 2019, Black saluted his old employee, who ‘was such an effective correspondent for us in Brussels that he greatly influenced British opinion on this country’s relations with Europe’.
When recalling these peccadilloes, there is a risk of a faint smile crossing one’s face; his japes are comparable in neutralising effect to the softening charm of Tony Blair. How can such a matey, blokey person, ‘someone you could have a pint with’, possess darker, colder qualities, be flawed not merely by an indifference to the truth, but an indifference to the wellbeing of other people, including his wives, lovers and closest colleagues? Ruthless and truthless: these twins were also intrinsic to the rise of New Labour, and to its dominance of British politics for a decade. Oborne charted this in his first two books. Alastair Campbell, the combative political correspondent of the Mirror, who had a reputation for pouring buckets of vitriol rather than for news-gathering, let alone political analysis, was after the 1997 election not only given the grandiose title of director of communication and strategy but the unprecedented power to issue instructions to civil servants – a move vainly resisted by Robin Butler, the cabinet secretary, whose own power was further restricted by Jonathan Powell being given similar powers as Blair’s chief of staff. Johnson would give the same powers to Dominic Cummings. Within two years of taking power, New Labour had sacked or moved on 17 of the 19 information chiefs in Whitehall. Cummings’s treatment of press officers and Downing Street staffers was if anything more brutal. Blair only dabbled in taking over the civil service. Johnson has got rid of six permanent secretaries and refused to allow Sajid Javid to remain as chancellor unless he accepted personal staff nominated by Number Ten. This is not to mention the 21 Conservative MPs, including two former chancellors, who were purged by Johnson. No supposedly dictatorial previous prime minister, not Lloyd George, not Churchill, certainly not Thatcher, came anywhere close to this Stalinist ruthlessness.
As we are now seeing, any centralisation of power tends also to centralise corruption. The lobbyists gather like flies or vultures round Number Ten, because no other department is really worth nobbling. Lobbyists, of course, are always with us. More than thirty years ago, I was taken out to lunch at a restaurant just off Dolphin Square by a sparky junior minster at the Ministry of Defence. He pointed out to me, at table after table, one of his senior civil servants being lunched by a major defence contractor. But in a pluralised system, abuses are easier to identify and root out – over the years several MoD civil servants have been jailed. I doubt if any of Johnson’s frequent phoners will suffer the same fate. The centralisation is one of the principal things that attracts freebooting tycoons like Sir James Dyson and Sir Jim Ratcliffe, along with the press barons, to the Brexit cause. As Rupert Murdoch, always more candid than his fellows, once remarked, the trouble with the EU was that you never knew who to call.
All of Oborne’s books have been published in the mid-career of their subjects. We might wish for a fuller retrospect in each case, but at least it allows the reader to judge the accuracy of Oborne’s insight and foresight. The last thing he can be accused of is hindsight. He catches the bird on the wing. In the first book of this undeclared series, published in 1999, we leave Alastair Campbell as cock of the walk, bullying civil servants and cabinet ministers and often Blair himself, chairing meetings of intelligence chiefs, and often referred to as the deputy prime minister. And yet … Here is the way Oborne ends his book on Campbell:
From his early days Campbell was a vivid and colourful figure, a dangerous man. Before he met Fiona Millar he was a womaniser. Before and afterwards he was a drinker and a pub brawler. In his late twenties, for reasons that are hard to understand, he suffered a breakdown. To his enormous credit, and thanks to the love and loyalty of those around him, he survived and emerged a stronger and better man. But there was a cost. He would seem to have survived only by the suppression of large tracts of his own personality … the demons are lurking there somewhere. They will never go away … People who see a great deal of him say that he is a man who sometimes gives the appearance of being frightened of himself, what he might do or what he might become.
In other words, he was an accident waiting to happen. The Rise of Political Lying came out six years later, in 2005, in time to show the yawning gap between Blair’s claim to the House of Commons on 24 September 2002 that the intelligence on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction was ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative’ and the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessment that the available evidence was ‘sporadic and patchy’ and ‘remains limited’. By that time, Oborne also had access to the memo of 14 March 2002 by Sir David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser, reporting to his boss on his conversations with Condoleezza Rice: ‘I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different than anything in the States.’ But it wasn’t until May 2005, a month after Oborne’s new book came out, that a report dated 23 July 2002 surfaced in the Sunday Times detailing the conversations that the head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, had with his counterparts in Washington. It contained the killer quote: ‘The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.’ This confirmed, if confirmation were still needed, that Blair’s lie to the Commons was not a careless overstatement of the facts but a deliberate untruth. And on top of that, an untruth which utterly failed to foresee its own consequences.
Campbell and Blair and others involved in the WMD lie have never apologised for it, stoutly asserting that they did what they believed was right. Which reminds me of the many respects in which it resembles the Suez lie. Selwyn Lloyd, foreign secretary at the time, continued to assert that ‘I have no sense of guilt about the events of 1956. Whatever was done then, was done in what was genuinely believed to be the national interest.’ ‘I have always thought collusion [with France and Israel, which he denied in the Commons] a red herring – I did not mislead the House of Commons – I certainly did not tell them the whole story.’ The unanswered question, according to Lloyd, was ‘supposing we had reoccupied Egypt, what would we have done with it?’ This of course was the question that bedevilled the Allies when they did reoccupy Iraq. In an essay on Eden’s premiership the historian Robert Blake wrote that ‘no one of sense will regard such falsehoods in a particularly serious light. The motive was the honourable one of avoiding further trouble in the Middle East.’ But how would a successful invasion have assisted that project? The big lie often seems to be a means of avoiding serious calculation about the future, designed not only to deceive the public but to lull the liar into a false belief that the problem has been solved.
Oborne claims that ‘had Tony Blair been open with the British people about the fact that his objective was regime change, he might well have taken voters with him.’ But Blair was right in thinking that neither the Labour Party nor the British public would have tolerated such a flagrant breach of international law. The lie was essential. No lie, no British participation in the invasion. Oborne quotes Churchill’s reply in 1940 to a young rating on a battleship who asked him whether everything he told them was true: ‘Young man, I have told many lies for my country, and will tell many more.’ In wartime, and in sterling crises too, Oborne accepts that the truth is not only the first casualty but a legitimate one. But deceiving the enemy about the location of the D-Day landings, or speculators about a forthcoming devaluation, is one thing, deceiving the Commons and the country quite another. Oborne insists again and again that the deliberate lie is not simply a sort of venial slipperiness but a serious betrayal of the democratic contract between the rulers and the ruled.
Lies are not forgotten. It was the sense of having been duped over Iraq that led MPs to refuse to support Cameron over Syria ten years later. To this day, the Iraqis have not forgotten Churchill’s insistence on ordering not-yet-Bomber Harris to machine-gun defenceless women and children from the air in 1921, an episode Churchill then hushed up for fear of public outrage. Nor have the Iranians forgotten the coup fomented by the CIA and MI6 – and approved at a distance by Churchill – which toppled Mossadeq in 1953 and installed the shah, with consequences that are with us still. In retirement, Churchill was sort of in favour of the Suez invasion, though he thought the Allies should not have given up so easily – rather reminiscent of Thatcher’s private view after the first Gulf War that ‘we should have gone on to Baghdad’ in defiance of the UN mandate. It would be hard to deny that deceit and manipulation have been the hallmark of Western policy in the Middle East ever since the Sykes-Picot Treaty, that shameful secret carve-up, and even harder to argue that it has all been a glorious success. The term ‘blowback’ was first used by the CIA in its internal history of the 1953 Iranian coup. It has had plenty of outings since.
The temptation to resort to lying is all the more irresistible when power is concentrated in Number Ten, where the PM is surrounded by toadies he appointed, and alternative sources of criticism are silenced or sidelined: for example, the sceptical advice on WMD proffered by Dr Brian Jones, head of the nuclear, biological, chemical, technical intelligence branch of the Defence Intelligence Staff, and totally ignored.
During the Brexit negotiations, Johnson didn’t have a problem with telling outright lies. Starting in Parliament on 22 October 2019, he repeatedly stated that ‘there will be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,’ although his own Brexit secretary and the Treasury briefing on the Northern Ireland Protocol said precisely the opposite, and so did the government’s own impact assessment. A purge of his advisers was required if he was to maintain his favourite line that it was possible to have our cake and eat it, to enjoy a free trade agreement with the EU with none of the disadvantages of being a third country. One after another, Sir Oliver Robbins, Sir Ivan Rogers and others who persisted in telling truth to power were eased out, culminating last year in the departure of the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, leaving Michael Gove and the acerbic David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, in charge.
This at least had the effect of persuading the Brexit ultras that any deal this residual cabal came up with must be kosher. The story of the negotiations that led to the trade deal on Christmas Eve is really rather peculiar and strangely neglected. As the bargaining reached its frenzied climax, leading Brexiters such as Martin Howe QC, a member of the Eurosceptic Tory MP Bill Cash’s self-styled Star Chamber, said that Johnson should reject the EU’s ‘one-sided and damaging trade agreement’: ‘Once the EU has pocketed its huge concessions on goods, with the UK getting almost nothing in return,’ he argued, ‘it becomes impossible to negotiate something better later.’ Robert Tombs, the leading academic Brexiter, agreed: ‘We must not make unreasonable concessions over fish. Even more importantly we must not sign up to one-sided legal obligations – the so-called “level playing field” – keeping us tied indefinitely into the EU system.’
Yet when Christmas Eve arrived, what happened? After a hasty examination of the terms, the Star Chamber could find no serious flaw in them. Tombs himself exulted that ‘the EU knew what it stood to lose and backed down’. But what do the 1246 pages of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement actually say? At the outset, the European Commission emphasises that ‘the agreement goes beyond traditional free trade agreements and provides a solid basis for preserving our longstanding friendship and co-operation.’ In particular:
Both parties have committed to ensuring a robust level playing field by maintaining high levels of protection in areas such as environmental protection, the fight against climate change and carbon pricing, social and labour rights, tax transparency and State aid, with effective domestic enforcement, a binding dispute settlement mechanism and the possibility for both parties to take remedial action.
And all that’s before we get on to a fisheries agreement which preserves a huge share of the catch for Continental fishermen, and that pesky border in the Irish Sea. If I were Michel Barnier or Ursula von der Leyen, I would be quietly pleased with my handiwork.
How then do the wizards of the Star Chamber reconcile themselves to this settlement, which appears to contain most of the things they hate? They argue that the TCA enshrines the legal sovereignty of the UK and that a ‘robust’ – that word is always a sign of bluster – UK government can weasel out of anything it finds inconvenient. If the EU protests, then under the TCA we can give twelve months’ notice to quit, or wait to renegotiate the whole thing in five years’ time. In other words, the main reason for signing up to the agreement is the ease with which we can get out of it. Not exactly a good start to what Gove is now calling a new ‘special relationship between sovereign equals’. The whole performance seems to be based on mistrust or actual deceit, with a large measure of self-deception thrown in. We can live with it only if we maintain a state of denial, which seems to come quite easy to the right-wing press, where you have had to look very hard these last three months to find any reports of lost trade, infuriating hold-ups or disillusioned exporters who have simply given up on Europe. The burning vehicles on the streets of Belfast early in April were harder to overlook.
Now that trade in goods with the EU is recovering at a decent rate, the denial seems to be taking a different form. Only by making a success of the TCA in all its aspects (many of them still under negotiation), can we continue to enjoy relatively free trade with the Continent. In other words, we are not nearly as far out of the EU as we like to boast (or lament).
The idea of the ‘noble lie’ has an ancient parentage. Karl Popper points out in The Open Society that it won’t do to pretend that Plato was merely talking about ‘a bold invention’ – to quote Francis Cornford’s formulation – or a ‘necessary myth’, as it is also sometimes translated. The word Plato uses is pseude, ‘lie’, not muthos, ‘myth’. The Greeks in general weren’t soft on lying. On the contrary, Liddell and Scott cite about two hundred compounds of pseude to fit every kind of deplorable falsehood. I am disappointed only not to find my own coinage of pseudagora, or ‘fake market place’, to describe the new press centre at Number Ten. Plato’s praise of the high-flown lie is a deliberately shocking flight of fancy, designed to emphasise the artificial, fragile nature of a good society, and the need for its guardians to deceive the common people, and as many as possible of the upper echelons as well, in order to keep the show on the road.
As Oborne points out, Machiavelli too urges that the prudent prince must be ‘a great feigner and dissembler’ if he is to survive. He must break promises when he needs to, because other men are equally dishonest. The benign reading of Machiavelli as the first modern political scientist rather glosses over this, as it does the awkward fact that the statesmen Machiavelli most admires, such as Julius Caesar and Cesare Borgia, came to sticky ends largely because people had come to hate them. There is a gusto about Machiavelli’s descriptions of notorious acts of treachery and brutality which goes far beyond the value-free analysis which is now so often attributed to him. As commander of the Florentine troops in Pisa, his treatment of the local inhabitants would have disqualified him from membership of most senior common rooms.
Mendacity in its various forms retains a strange fascination for intellectuals. I was struck in reading Political Advice, the excellently quirky collection of essays edited by Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose, how often deceit or dissembling comes up. You could be forgiven for thinking that a successful adviser is one who tells half-truth to power. Joanne Paul, for example, describes the debate in More’s Utopia about the obliquus ductus, the indirect approach – that is, the tactful wiles the adviser uses to hang on to his job or his head. In More’s History of King Richard the Third, the preacher Dr Ralph Shaa, discussing Richard’s ‘ghostly purpose’ to prove that the sons of Edward IV were bastards, declares that ‘ye matter should be touched a slope craftily.’ Esther Eidinow describes the way Pericles and other Greek leaders, though themselves lacking in superstition, used divination and the local oracle in order to build consensus and authority around their decisions.
For Nietzsche, lying isn’t a desperate expedient, but one of the ways the Great Man demonstrates his indifference to conventional morality, and hence his superiority. Mendacity is a sign of greatness: ‘He must be forced to fight his way up with ingenuity and disingenuousness; his will to live must swell into an unconditional will to power and to supremacy.’ Nietzsche repeatedly emphasises the need for total unscrupulousness. ‘The great man senses that he has power over a people and that his concurrence with a people or a millennium is only temporary; he has an enlarged sense of himself … This forces him to adopt new means of communication; all great men are ingenious in devising such means.’
This sense that telling the truth is for little people pops up among the American neocons, as it did in Leo Strauss’s belief, quoted by Oborne, ‘that not all truths are always harmless’: the popularisation of some truths ‘might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion’. There were, according to Irving Kristol, ‘different kinds of truth for different kinds of people’; some were suitable only for highly educated adults. This was only to repeat the view of Senator Buzz Windrip, the anti-hero of Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935), that ‘it is not fair to ordinary folks – it just confuses them – to make them try to swallow all the true facts that would be suitable to a higher class of people.’
How Trump Thinks was published in May 2017, after his inauguration. It sets out to show how the Donald carefully invented himself (including his own nickname), drawing inspiration from the populism of Andrew Jackson, whose inauguration in 1829 brought ten thousand poor folks to Washington, where their riotous drinking terrified the citizenry; from William Randolph Hearst, where he found the slogan ‘America First’ (Citizen Kane is his favourite film); from Lewis’s novel, which uses the phrase ‘the forgotten Americans’; from Richard Nixon’s ‘silent majority’. The 35,000 tweets that Trump put out between signing up in 2009 and his apogee were designed first and last to propel him to greatness, their intense direct bombardment leaving far behind Roosevelt’s fireside chats and Reagan’s weekly radio broadcast – ‘I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter,’ he admitted. (Now he has been permanently banned from his beloved medium.) The lies just kept on coming, which is what made them so hard to squash. To update the old adage, the lie is halfway round the world while the truth is still rebooting.
Oborne initially rather approved of Trump’s low-interference foreign policy, just as he had admired Blair’s reforming zeal and the panache of Boris Johnson’s journalism, which he had seen first-hand when he worked for Johnson at the Spectator. His readiness to be enchanted gives a bitter edge to his subsequent disenchantment. He quotes with deadly effect the tweets that Trump issued between 11.29 and 11.39 p.m. on 6 November 2012, after Obama’s re-election: ‘We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!’; ‘Let’s fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us’; ‘More votes equals a loss … revolution!’; ‘He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election. We should have a revolution in this country!’ These last two tweets were later deleted. But the damage was done. Eight years before he provoked the catastrophic march on the Capitol, he was promoting the same lies and the same system-smashing – what Johnson has made light of as ‘all the to-ings and fro-ings and all the kerfuffle’. The Trump-led campaign to overturn the Democrats’ majority continues today with an even more intense ferocity. Republicans in 43 states have introduced 250 bills to stiffen requirements for voter ID, restrict voting hours and postal voting and limit the number of drop-off boxes, despite the absence of any significant evidence of voter fraud last November.
In the UK, Johnson is pressing ahead, on equally scanty evidence, with his plans to make people show ID at polling stations, and with the introduction of first-past-the-post voting for mayors and police commissioners. He also has plans to limit the right of judicial review. It is claimed this is to protect judges from being drawn into politics, but in reality it’s to protect politicians from being drawn into the courts. Unspecified menaces against the BBC and the Electoral Commission are also part of the right’s long march through the institutions, accompanied by background noise against the anti-patriotic, woke Fifth Column, just to keep the paranoia bubbling nicely. There is of course no evidence to justify any of this: voter fraud is almost invisible, cases of judicial review are dropping. It’s all patently fraudulent, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Discussing the lies told by recent governments that have been uncovered and caused humiliation to the liars, we must not succumb to the comforting temptation to believe that the truth will always out. On the contrary, history offers plenty of examples of big lies that had a very long shelf life. For two millennia, Caesar’s De Bello Gallico has been taught by schoolmasters as a model of military history – limpid, economical and true. Only in the later half of the 20th century did it dawn on scholars that Julius Caesar might have made a lot of it up, that he was ‘an artful reporter’, to quote from the title of a recent academic symposium on Caesar’s deployment of his war commentaries as political instruments. Even at the time, Gaius Asinius Pollio, who served alongside Caesar and crossed the Rubicon with him, said his account had been put together with little regard for the truth. Some of the figures for the casualties and the size of the opposing armies are grotesquely improbable. At one point, the Nervii are described as having been wiped out, but then they reappear, only to be wiped out again.
Queen Elizabeth managed to suppress the humiliating failure of Drake’s Counter-Armada to Coruña and Lisbon in 1589 so brilliantly that for three centuries no Englishman was aware of it – though English losses were far worse than Spanish losses had been the year before. Then there’s Oliver Cromwell’s vain attempt to censor the ghastly fate of his expedition to capture Hispaniola, by closing the newspapers and keeping the ships bearing the bad news in quarantine and then pretending that the consolation prize of Jamaica was the real goal all along. Or Clive’s glorious and decisive victory at Plassey, largely secured by bribing the Indian generals to stop fighting.
Habitual lying may be accepted as cosmetic, merely the wrapping on the pack. That is certainly Boris Johnson’s calculation, and so far he is doing quite nicely. The braggadocio of Napoleon’s bulletins gave currency to the expression ‘to lie like a bulletin’, but had no serious effect on his reputation until after the retreat from Moscow – and even then, I imagine, caused less resentment than his endless demands for cannon fodder via the levée en masse. Besides, millions of Frenchmen had too great an emotional investment in the destiny of the Grande Armée to abandon the cause. In a tiny way, the Brexit cause sings the same siren song. Even if its costs become painfully apparent over the coming months and years, they may continue to pale beside the vision of absolute sovereignty.
Are there any answers? First of all, reliable facts and figures, and honest assessments of the national finances. As Oborne points out, nothing has done more in recent years to preserve decency in public debate than the establishment of three particular bodies: the Office for National Statistics, the rather older Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Office for Budget Responsibility. Similarly, parliamentary select committees date back to Tudor times, but it is only since 1980 that their coverage has been made systematic and permanent, and they have been more or less properly staffed. Broadsheet newspapers have only to look to their own City pages to see how sustained engagement and criticism can be maintained and their wretched coverage of politics improved. TV news programmes have become stale and trivial, often falling below the standards of the tabloids. Unfortunately, the facts do not speak for themselves. Like the alternative facts, they too need to be woven into – the word cannot be avoided – a narrative.