So the UK’s Coalition Government of the last five years is now behind us and we are in the process of choosing its replacement. A frantic election campaign has begun, and in fact began ages back, much of it conducted at the lowest possible level by people trained in hitting low. There is a mix (and muddle ?) of parties to choose from, accurately reflecting our own mix and muddle, and general dissatisfaction.
I think a dramatic and important interchange took place in the House of Commons on the Coalition Government’s last day, which has raised an important question, chiefly with regard to the choice we have to make on who will form the next government, but also to our evaluation of the years we have spent under the previous one – how to assess the impact of those years, their meaning, the nation they leave us with and the prospects for the future they suggest.
And the form and shape of this interchange was somehow highly appropriate, even emblematic. A puerile, nasty, crafty plot had been hatched by senior figures of the Coalition Government, relying on last day absences to give them a majority. One of the plotters was William Hague, outgoing Leader of the House. Michael Gove was another. It looks highly likely that David Cameron was another, our Prime Minister. The plot was thwarted. In the process, a speech of unusual and real passion was made in the House. Even more unusual was the use of the word “honour” in that speech. We are so used to slick slogans, catch-phrases, mock outrage, ham-acting, band-standing. The contrast here was startling. And that word “honour” spoken, without notes, in near tears, on a Parliament’s last day. What on earth could it mean, this unfamiliar passion and authenticity ?
The name of the speech-maker was Charles Walker, MP for the Tory safe seat of Broxbourne and Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee. I would guess that few outside the Commons and Broxbourne itself would have heard of him before. Certainly I had not. Now that I have, I admire him. Here is the Telegraph’s account of how he ended his speech :
“Clearly choking back tears, Mr Walker said: ‘I have been played as a fool and when I go home tonight I will look in the mirror and see an honourable fool looking back at me and I would much rather be an honourable fool in this and any other matter than a clever man.’
Before that climax, Mr Walker had said to the House : ‘I do say to the Government, this is not, I think, how they expected today to play out. The Government was hoping that the party would be kept here under a three-line whip for a party meeting and others would have gone home. This does not reflect well on the Government.
‘But can I just say this? How you treat people in this place is important. This week I went to the Leader of the House’s leaving drinks. I spent 20 minutes saying goodbye to his special adviser yesterday. I went into his private office and was passed by the Deputy Leader of the House yesterday, all of whom would have been aware of what they were proposing to do. I also had a number of friendly chats with our Chief Whip yesterday and yet I find out at 6.30 last night that this House, the Leader of this House, is bringing forward my report.’ ”
(For the whole Telegraph article, see : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11497116/Who-is-Charles-Walker-Tearful-Tory-MP-played-as-a-fool-over-botched-Bercow-plot.html)
It is fair to assume that, not only did Mr Walker feel that as a person and in his constitutional role he’d been treated badly, even treacherously, by his colleagues, but also that their whole demeanour in these days, the whole plot, was dishonourable. In fighting back, in refusing to countenance or collude, in voicing a protest, he was taking his honour back from these people who, while making nothing of their own honour, had also made light of his.
Furthermore, I would say that he was taking the honour of the House of Commons back from them, who were threatening it. The honour of the House of Commons, even of all of us, rested with him that day, against its (and hence our) enemies.
This word “honour” then. Does it matter (whatever it means) ? If it matters, should we not include it in the discourse of this election campaign ? Should we not seek to choose a leader and a government which we can trust to act honourably in the execution of their duties, as well as all the other topics being talked about ad infinitum ? Dare we assume we can take our leaders’ “honour” for granted ?
I think we can’t and shouldn’t. I think we can’t afford to. I think we have a duty to ourselves and to the future of our country not to.
Accordingly, I shall now go through various incidents in the life and record of the previous government that stick out in my mind. I shall briefly examine each of them, for what they can tell us, for what they seem to mean. Perhaps I shall then be able to draw some general conclusions from them under the headings of honour and character – the honour and character of the people who seek to lead, and the honour and character of the times and society in which we all find ourselves and for which all of us are responsible, to one degree or another.
I shall start with Charles Walker himself. Something in his situation begs a question. In the last days of the Government’s life, he was treated by his own people in a manner which most of us would see as treacherous and contemptible. Days later, he has had to start campaigning on behalf of that same party, which – if successful – will be led by those same individuals. Obviously he believes in the Tory party and its principles. He also believes in honour. He expects the two to belong together. But not, or no longer, while led by these people, it seems. Where then, is Charles Walker’s true Tory Party ? What does he do next, in search of it ?
Now let’s go all the way back to 2009, a few months before the Coalition Government was formed. New Labour was still in power, with Cameron Leader of the Opposition. The expenses scandal was erupting, unearthed by the Telegraph newspapers. And how did Cameron behave as things began to come to light ? Somehow the image of his wisteria still sticks in the memory. And the sheer rapidity with which he paid back that money he had claimed from the taxpayer to cover the expense of trimming the wisteria that graced the walls of his comfortable cottage in Oxfordshire. And then the air of clean-limbed virtue and decisiveness he emanated in addressing the scandal as it spread and destroyed a number of political careers and reputations across Westminster, and did such massive damage to the credibility of UK politics as a whole. In originally claiming that money he was apparently acting strictly and entirely by the book, the letter of the law. Yes indeed. But by the spirit ? This man already so very wealthy ? His second house ? Wisteria ? Surely Cameron was less claiming necessary expenses than grabbing as much as he could for Me and Mine, without too much compunction as far as ethics go ?
And then am I right in thinking that he somehow managed to magic that neat footwork in paying the money back, into an illustration and display of his virtue, the decisiveness of a true leader ? The thief proclaims his high moral rectitude after hastily returning the spoils just before the cops arrive. And we buy his line.
But what part does real honour play in this story ? And where is the boundary here between actually doing right and merely creating the illusion of doing right, to please the gullible punters ? Or to pull the wool over their eyes ? Did Cameron get away with something there ? A Wisteria Will-o’-the-Wisp ?
Here is a short piece from the Telegraph, written in 2009, detailing Cameron’s claims : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/5315163/David-Cameron-repays-680-bill-for-wisteria-removal-MPs-expenses.html
I shall try to define lying at this point, since telling the truth surely has something to do with keeping honour. My understanding of lying is quite wide. Lying is more than saying something you know is not true. The following distinction might help to make clearer what I am trying to say. People who tell the Truth are the servants of Truth. They try to serve Truth faithfully, as best they can, seeking always to serve better. By contrast, those who lie, according to my understanding of it, are seeking to re-work the facts so that the facts serve them and their self-interest, whatever they perceive their self-interest to be. If I am the servant of Truth, I regard the truth as being larger than I am. In lying, I put myself to the fore, larger than all else, perhaps all that counts. If the facts do not suit me, I shall dress them up so that they suit me better. I shall cover or distort them. I shall conjure them into something new. I shall create a delusion, an alternative image, whose aim is chiefly to deceive, mollify, win over.
This wider definition of lying means of course that great swathes of our society are set up, if not as enemies of the Truth, then with priorities which do not have Truth at the top of the list. Thus, advertising is a form of lie, putting a spin on what you have to sell, so that the customer will be seduced into buying it. (Regulations exist in the advertising world that seek to prevent the worst abuses, but still the overall aim is one of manipulation). Another form of lie is the system by which organisations in many spheres now have departments often (and ironically) called “Communications.” People are employed there to put a spin on events, or decisions, or policies, which shed a positive light on the employing organisation, or otherwise serve and promote its interests. In this case it is the employers’ perceived self-interest that comes before those of Truth. This is what Peter Oborne was objecting to when he left the Telegraph a few months ago. But where in our Society can Oborne now go, in search of fellow-servants of Truth ? Where can he go to escape the slaves and creatures of Self and the Lie ?
And insofar as in our present search for political leaders we are looking to select people we can trust to lead us well and responsibly, and hence to keep their Word and their Promises, we are bound to expect more of them than we see in so much of the behaviour and conduct around us, more of them perhaps than we expect even of ourselves. For in the final event we have to trust someone. Without trust there is no Society.
People of honour can be trusted. People of honour tell the truth. So we need leaders who are honourable. Maybe they will inspire us to be more honourable ourselves. Even if they are also fools. Honourable fools, let’s have more of you.
Now let’s also carry on with the list.
The Coalition’s lie about who was to blame for the international banking crash of 2008. It was all Gordon’s fault, was their immediate line, Cameron to the fore, Clegg obediently and unforgiveably in tow, sharing in the lie. And for the past five years the lie has kept on coming. And highly successful it has been. Many still believe it. If it’s not Tweedle-dum, it must be Tweedle-dee, they think. But it was brought about by the banks and it began in the States ! Ah yes, they say, but Gordon was responsible for de-regulating the banks here in the UK. But the Tories wanted to de-regulate them even more ! Exactly the same thing would have happened to them, had they been in power. Ah yes, but no-one’s listening to this discussion any more. Tee-hee.
And Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten years, awe-inspiring figure, received international praise for his response to the crisis. Would Osborne have done as well ? I have no doubt whatsoever that it would have simply swept him away.
The banking crisis of 2008 raises huge questions about our whole system and Western way of life. Those questions remain unanswered and in fact have been largely ignored. There was never a chance that the Coalition Government was ever going to address them.
I am not equipped to go further on the subject of the banking crash except to make some points and ask some questions, all about process. Many of the UK electorate have been fooled by the Cameron lie. But there is no chance that foreign leaders will have been. Insofar as they were paying any attention, they would have seen that Cameron’s a reckless and transparent liar and street-corner bruiser above all else. Surely they would have taken note and surely there would have been consequences ? Yes of course Realpolitik has its own rules in international relations, but personal relationship plays a part as well. What creative relationship can there be with a shrill and brazen liar, who plays games with the truth without apparent thought of wider or long-term consequence ?
How can a country led by such a man be seen as a reliable ally, a partner to be trusted ?
I believe the facts about the crash are so plain, that many who accept Cameron’s lie, actually know it for what it is, a mischievous fiction that feels comforting in some fashion. Perhaps it acts as a block to ensure that awkward questions on its real implications stay in the bottle. One can only guess at why the lie has proved so durable, but whatever the reason, this behaviour, this ritualistic defiance of the adult facts, the truth, cannot increase the standing of the role of Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is a high office. In Cameron’s hands it has been hugely lowered and cheapened. Being successful in selling a lie is not leadership, it is merely pollution, hooligan mischief. It has harmed and dishonoured the House and all our communities north, south, east and west of the House.
I shall keep adding examples to my list, insofar as doing so yields new insights or helps me in my search for an overall understanding.
A few years ago, George Osborne, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, voiced a rhyming distinction, a rhyming opposition, a duality. We have the “Striver,” he said, and then we have the “Skiver.” Was that phrase his coining, or did some bright and fresh-faced Tory staffer come up with it ? It has hung in the air ever since, spewing all sorts of divisive poison. It has been extremely powerful and “agenda-setting,” appealing to a certain mind-set that is not at all interested in fact, or in truth, or in community, or in humanity. It is a lie and I cannot call it anything but a wicked lie. Osborne will never admit it, nor will his colleagues who failed to challenge him on it, nor the creatures of the still unregulated, Tory-supporting oligarch-owned press that have followed it up in a bid to reinforce it, but his entire purpose in voicing it can only have been to gain some cheap and unworthy popularity among some of the population at the expense of others. Divide and rule. Fiendishly clever.
Osborne is such a clever chap and will know that he was telling a lie, making a fiction, a false distinction. Further, if he had been bothered, he would also have known that he was instantly further excluding, and adding to the burdens upon, a large number of the population who are already extremely vulnerable and stigmatised. For instance, a very high proportion of people on long term benefits (“skivers”) have long term mental health problems or learning disabilities (it is interesting that the parties are all now competing to show how much they care about the mental health issue).
So what enabled Osborne to throw out that little fizzing sack of verbal poison, with no reference to, or interest in, whether or not it was true (incidentally reminding us of just how powerful words can be, for ill as well as for good) ? Clearly he saw some advantage to himself and to his Party and to his strategic purposes, in doing so. But did he not think through all the possible harms that phrase would do, to the community at large, to individual mental states in particular ? (Remember “we’re all in this together” ? Good one, George). Did he balance harm against good, or did he simply not care ? Or – and this is what I believe is likeliest – the world outside the window of himself is simply not very real to him. History’s likely judgement of him cannot be very real, either. The world he lives in is simply a chess board with pieces on it which he likes to play. It is a computer game created just for George. People are creatures you manipulate to do your will.
Here is Zoe Williams on the striver-skiver addition to UK political discourse : http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/jan/09/skivers-v-strivers-argument-pollutes
We’ll soon be heading for Offa’s Dyke, but let’s stay with Osborne for now, and another of his fiendishly clever lies.
It came a fair time after his Striver-Skiver conjuring trick. UKIP were looming large and Osborne and Cameron were accordingly in a barnstorming, band-standing lather of indignation at a UK surcharge to be paid to the EU. Off to Brussels rode Osborne on his white horse borrowed from some Oxfordshire stable, to sock it to the EU bureaucrats. He came back claiming a famous victory. There had been “hard-fought negotiations” he said, with the result that the EU had agreed to halve the bill.
It was all a propaganda fiction, of course. The bill had indeed been halved, but by an automatic rebate which was always going to apply and everyone concerned had always known it would. Osborne was rebuked for his lie by the all-party Treasury Select Committee, chaired by a truth-telling Tory called Andrew Tyrie. The Committee said : “The suggestion that the £1.7 bn bill demanded by the EU was halved is not supported by published information.”
Andrew Tyrie said: “The terms of the UK’s rebate calculation are set out in EU law. It should, therefore, have been clear that the rebate would apply.”
But when these points were put to the relevant government spokesperson, that person merely repeated the Osborne fiction. It was as if the Committee had not existed or reported. As if fact and reality were not the point. The chosen lie, the propaganda fiction, were the only currencies of exchange HM Government would accept on this matter. A fantasy Dragon slain by a fantasy St Georgie-boy.
Here is the Guardian’s report on the exchange : http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/feb/27/george-osborne-rebuked-for-boasting-he-halved-17bn-eu-surcharge
Now let’s head off to Offa’s Dyke, that impressive old Mercian frontier constructed to keep out the Welsh. Cameron likes the image and has used it more than once. His use of it has caused outrage but that has not deterred him. Whereas there is life here in Tory England east of the dyke, there is death to the west of it, he has proclaimed on successive occasions. A powerful image that stays in the mind and slithers about in dark corners. That ancient divide still operates. Of course Cameron was talking tribal here, Tory English vs Labour Welsh, misusing statistics in order to do so, trying to convey the Tories’ (highly ambivalent) championship of the NHS. Dr Peter Carter, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Nursing, was sufficiently exasperated to write him an open letter in protest. Was Cameron aware of the effect on NHS morale of his casual yah-boo imagery ? What will NHS staff in Wales, striving to save life, make of this utterly irresponsible untruth ? I know Peter Carter personally and honour him. He is level-headed and person-centred and fills his role to capacity. Contrast that with yah-boo Cameron who seems unable to do Prime Minister of a Nation, only ever Head Rude-boy of a Delinquent Street-gang. The picture seems to fit : where there is a divide, however ancient and left behind, Cameron fingers it lovingly, as if yearning to widen it. Maybe division excites him. “We’re all in this together” is absolutely the opposite of what he is about.
Here is more detail on Cameron’s interest in Offa’s Dyke : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-31628749
I think the above examples have some common themes and these have become clearer as the list lengthens. But also there are differences, particular shades and features in this or that example which can throw new light on the others, and make the whole picture clearer. Before trying to draw some conclusion about that picture, I’ll mention one more example, very briefly – Cameron’s manoeuvrings to avoid a proper TV debate with Miliband or Farage. He will have been advised on this, of course, by Crosby and others. There would have been no thought of the needs of the electorate, or of democracy, or of democratic accountability, or of honour, of course. Just of Cameron winning. And with that as the only measure, it seemed better to keep Miliband draped and hidden behind Tory slander than to allow him to be seen for who he is. And yes, of course there would be flak, and embarrassing references to Cameron’s earlier stated enthusiasm for the debate format, but the plebs would soon forget all that and the flak die away and the electoral gain for Cameron would out-weigh any short-term loss he might suffer as a result of his game-playing. And any loss we the nation might suffer was of absolutely no concern.
But we know all that. The particular point I want to draw out, the aspect that makes this example worth including, is the utter contemptuous transparency of Cameron’s and the Tories’ ploys and prevarications to make sure they got their way in blocking democratic process. S’not fair – you should include the Greens. Just one example. Yeah, yeah. As if he cared two hoots about including the Greens.
Everyone knew what was going on. The Tories knew we knew, but didn’t care. Their game of pure self-interest, wrapped in a succession of careless lies, was played out to its utterly cynical conclusion, bringing yet further contempt upon our system and upon our very use of language. Was Cameron bovvered ?
Every parent has to deal with a child who learns to lie and then wants to experiment with what advantages lying can bring. I wonder if Cameron has ever done so with his own children. Now listen to me, children, he might say. If you start lying to people, they’ll never believe you. If you want people to trust you, you should tell them the truth. Just so. Talking to liars is a wasteful use of precious time. How much of our talking is just an exchange of lies ?
But more than that, the community needs protection from people who lie as a matter of policy. For to lie and to keep lying to your neighbour implies a detachment from and contempt for that neighbour that makes you dangerous.
And yet further than that, lying as Cameron did in this case, as if you can’t be bovvered even to seem to be trying to come up with something a bit plausible ? How to understand that ? Massive and angry arrogance is the only answer I can think of. The fucking plebs have gone along with his lies up to now. They don’t need or deserve that he make even the tiniest effort this time.
I shall now do what I can to make some sense of this succession of examples, to see if a fair portrait emerges, a profile or set of features that can in turn instruct us on what might lie ahead. I remain mindful of the words “character” and “honour,” mentioned towards the beginning of this piece.
The first thing to say is that I do not think the story of the Coalition Government has followed its initial script. That initial script belonged with Cameron. He was to create and offer a cool and “modernised” Tory Party in much the same way as Blair had done with New Labour. But there has been a major difference. Whatever New Labour’s sins of commission and omission during its decade in power, real and substantive change took place in the party itself (though not of a kind to avoid a possibly disastrous loss of support among the population). Far less real change has taken place among the Tories. Cameron is a public relations man. He thought a few slick ad-man images would do. Hug a Husky. Hug a Hoody. (And in doing so, always focus the camera on Davey-boy). And as some of the above examples have shown, he continues to act not just as if his message is the only medium that counts, but is a substitute for reality. No need for the truth. Block it out by just repeating the message, the ads, the selling lines, the lies. The fucking pleb will get it in the end. My message will lodge in the plebian brain like an advert jingle and eventually the pleb will buy.
The next thing is the amount of division and dividing lines we can discern in the examples I have listed in this piece. Several are explicit, others implicit. Might we say that wherever Cameron goes, division appears to go with him, so that where there was already division he adds to it, and where there was none before he seems somehow to introduce it ? England vs Scotland ; UK vs EU ; Wales vs Mercia ; rich vs poor ; “skiver” vs “striver” ; “us” vs “immigrants” ; govt vs bishops ; spin vs fact ; lies vs truth ; delusion vs reality. The image is of the family man chopping Little Gem lettuces, the wisteria wagging trimly outside the door. The reality may be very different. The indulged and slick-tongued bully-boy addicted to battle and reduction, turning the Commons into a playground where delinquent rowdies rule, at all times needing and fermenting division and fragmentation.
Thirdly, the arrogance of these people, their disconnection from, and disdain for, so much the rest of us know to be true. To establish the cause of their arrogance, their disregard for plebian concerns such as truth and honour, we cannot discount the class and education so many of them have come from, if only because it was so noticeable and pronounced in the Coalition. Those schools so many of them went to still signify and encourage separation, difference and superiority. That is what these people were sent there for and that is what we as a nation have suffered from them. There are many other reasons for disconnection and disdain in modern life, but this particularly English one surely features here, to an unknown extent.
I am talking character here. In doing so I must be careful not to simplify. We are looking at Cameron’s character, and that of much of his government. It counts and influences how he behaves, in his position of power, his role of Prime Minister being now so much more “presidential,” or at least continually in the camera’s spotlight, than it used to be. But it is not the whole story and while Cameron is to be held individually responsible for what he does with his power and his role as leader of a nation, for how he uses it and abuses it, the character I am loosely drawing here is also our character, as a people and as a generation. In a sense Cameron is because we let him be. Cameron, at the head of his “team,” acts out what he thinks we like to see and hear. He will do so as long as he thinks enough of us like it. He is an aspect of us. If he is a creature of division and fragmentation, so to a great extent are we. Do we want to continue down this road ? If so, we’ll vote for Cameron.
Finally “honour.” There has been a terrible and inexcusable lack of honour in the policies and behaviour of the Coalition Government, right up to its last day. The examples I have given in this piece wreak of dishonour. Honour is not some luxury or relic from a bygone era, romantically remembered, rose-tinted. It is a staple for civilisation, since it is necessary for mutual trust. And I will say again to Charles Walker MP, bring on the honourable fools. Let’s have more of you. You are better and also safer company than the clever men we can assume you were talking about.
But I would add this : I do not think you need be a fool to be honourable. Nor do I think dishonourable people are clever at all. Far from it. Being honourable is the only clever thing to be. As individuals and as a Society, being honourable is our only hope.