In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Democracy & the Lie: do they go hand in hand ?


During July, two articles by Andreas Whittam Smith appeared in The Independent newspaper on successive days.  Here are the links to them: ;

Whittam Smith co-founded The Independent and his two pieces are worth reading. They explore the Brexit campaign’s “victory” and contain proposals for starting a process of renewal of the UK’s political system. They are full of a strong and realistic sense of urgency.

I think Whittam Smith’s analysis of the inadequacy of our present politics and politicians is telling and very helpful. On the other hand, I am unsure of his detailed proposal of “fixed terms” for any public office. True and adequate leaders are rare. When the odd one emerges, we are surely unwise to let him/her go too swiftly. But neither should we let go of the observation upon which Whittam Smith’s proposal is based, that a large percentage of present day politicians have no experience of any world beside that of politics. That observation is indisputable, its implications dire and we need solutions to it.

Further, his point about the adoption by politicians of the commercial marketing model is revealing and important. The result is that government tends to speak less to communicate than merely sell, its constituency no longer neighbours and colleagues – just a market ripe for moulding, putty to its wheel.

I agree with Whittam’s Smith’s view that Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum in the first place was, inexcusably, just a tactical Party stratagem. It is good to have this observation made by such a respected source. In my opinion, Cameron’s decision was extraordinarily and outrageously and almost criminally careless of the welfare of the nation as a whole and it trivialised to a devastating degree both the issue and how to decide it. That hollow man. Then the manner in which the referendum “debate” was conducted (on the part of both sides) was despicable – profoundly un “democratic” in all respects, more like a rumble between hooligan gangs. And the result – so close, so ill-informed and so rife with mere outrage and alienation, with more than a hint of racism included  – is radically unsound and damaging in many ways. It is not the result of a debate at all, in fact, just an illustration of a national malaise, the culmination – as Whittam Smith suggests  – of years of deterioration in our democratic practice and processes. To apply grand phrases such as the “People’s Will” to this frantic cacophony and noisome puddle merely amplifies the madness and farce and shame of it all. The “People” has not “spoken” in any way whatsoever. We have merely crashed our car, having revealed it to be totally unroadworthy. One simply dreads any election from now on, unless or until we change radically the way we conduct such things.

I have my own pet proposal to help counter the malaise, in some small way.

The medical profession has the Hippocratic Oath, plus a code of conduct. Medical practice that contravenes that code can lead to doctors being struck off.

I suggest something similar should be introduced urgently for politicians, above all concerning their use of language. Language is the currency of democracy and requires honest dealings, if our democracies are to survive. Thus, lying and deception must be recognised as a form of material fraud and forgery and for a public figure to lie or deliberately misinform should lead to that person’s disgrace and disqualification – not promotion (for example) to the high office of Foreign Secretary.

Neither democracy nor society as a whole can survive “truth-free” politics. Disaster faces us all unless we take this on. It undermines other democracies too. Look at what threatens us from across the Atlantic. If Trump wins, we all must tremble, whatever our politics. Has not Theresa May shown some recognition of the issue, in the agreement for honourable conduct which she proposed to Andrea Leadsom a few weeks ago ?

And if politicians can be persuaded to tie themselves to the mast of honourable conduct, so must the press. Just look at the brutal and personally vindictive way the Sun and the Daily Mail have recently gone after Baroness Wheatcroft, Tory peer, for seeming to challenge their precious Brexit, using all sorts of poisonous innuendos to belittle her to their readers. They use the same loutish and irresponsible verbal techniques as the politicians do. See  for Roy Greenslade’s excellent analysis of their respective reports.

Our public forum has become a maelstrom of poisonous propaganda, misinformation and lies. We can’t afford to allow these hooligan abusers of language and truth their licence, least of all in times as fraught as our own. Even the perpetrators can’t afford it.

We have to make fact and honour respectable again. I think the word “sacred” might even apply.

For while the UK’s disaster has a range of features very much home-grown, there are currents at work here which are affecting countries and democracies all over the world. Much of what afflicts us, afflicts them too, in their various ways and versions.

The only positive which I can see coming out of Brexit is the learning and action which might result. We in this nation might then be able to share our learning with others, while those others – also floundering – might choose to share their learning with us. Otherwise I can see democracy – which after all is an honourable aspiration, centuries in the building  – crashing everywhere. And then what ?