The prose piece that follows begins with the mismatch in the UK, between the present Prime Minister’s relative popularity on the one hand, and his long established disregard for the Nolan Principles of ethical conduct on the other. The piece provides a reminder that our Prime Minister has previously been sacked twice for lying and it recommends (again) that lying in democratic politics should be seen and punished as a criminal offence. But along the way, the piece also begs some questions : for instance, if everyone knows that he’s a liar, why is he so popular ? Do we prefer lies and bombast to the truth ? The mask to the true features ? Or do we despise ourselves so much that we think that he is the leader we deserve ?
The Toad kept shaking people by the hand, against the advice of “the science.” He felt himself above and separate from all this virus fuss and just wanted to Get it Done. But you know what ? It was the virus wot took control and gave him a good wacking ! But then our hero recovered. Did you hear the trumpets ? Did you see the Spitfires fly past ?
Even the trumpeters were excited. He’d been away for so long and our government’s crisis management in his absence had begun to seem a little short of heft and glamour. But now things were going to change. Our Leader was “raring to go,” said one of his gang at the week-end, while we waited.
And now here he was, back among us, whistle in hand, smirk on face, the ring-master, ready again to lead us to Never-Never Land, smart phrases and model bridges falling out of his pockets in all directions. With his acrobats, tumblers, sloganisers and wierdos, he’d Get It Done by the Done By Date and in the process drive Death back from ward and work-place, public square and private nightmare. He’d Take Back Control.
And how we’d missed his jollies, his decisive tones and long-practised peccadilloes, his irrepressible self-confidence, and mellifluous literary references, and that fixed smirk that has masked his face since Eton days, and those ebullient, anarchic conceits and deceits that never stop.
What a character, our Toad. What a performer. What a performance. What a hollow performance.
And where is the silliness in all this ? Some of it is no doubt in the writing, maybe even in the writer. But some of it too is surely in the gross mismatch between, on the one hand, the aura and expectancy presently directed towards the Toad’s person and position in the UK and its body politic and, on the other hand, his actual nature and inescapable history, the plain facts. What does that mismatch, so obvious to anyone willing to look, signify ?
At the time of writing, the nation remains in lock-down, due to the Covid-19 virus. In this global crisis, it is surely appropriate that we are able to look to leadership we can trust for its truthfulness, that we know is reliable, steady and competent, that is up-front and seems genuinely to care, that has integrity and reaches out. In our distress, our fear, our confusion, that is what we are all bound to expect and need.
And what we in the UK actually have, in the present tense and on public record, is a living breathing artful dodger, a dishonest salesman, a narcissistic con-artist, a tousled emptiness, a lying Toad.
How can this be possible ? Why do we allow this con-man to fill a space of such importance, at this time of such urgent and serious need ? Why do we accept this mismatch ? Why allow ourselves this pretence ?
What follows has become a bit of a litany. I shall run through it as quickly as possible.
Mr Johnson, our Tousled Mr Toad, has been sacked twice in his life for lying – once by a newspaper editor, once by a prime minister. The reason was different in each case. And both events took place well before his Brexit lies and games, subterfuges and manoevrings began.
We should reflect for a while on this bit of recorded history. It means something. To be sacked once for lying is significant enough. It should set alarm bells ringing. To be sacked twice for lying means fire. No honest employer in his/her senses, at any level, on any scale, would even shortlist an applicant with this in his history, let alone interview him. Manifestly treacherous, a threat to any team, he is unemployable.
Is that why we made this dodgy character, this jovial fraud, our Prime Minister ? And what might that mean ?
I need to continue through my litany. This man who should be a pariah and instead is now our Prime Minister was once a mere MP (Member of Parliament). On the gov.uk website, you’ll find a page entitled Committee on Standards of Public Life. And it says this :
“Like all holders of public office – from civil servants, local council workers to providers of public services – MPs are bound by the Nolan principles. These standards – honesty, integrity, accountability, leadership, selflessness, objectivity and openness – represent the behaviours expected of those who serve the public…”
I do not know at first hand, but have been told by someone whom I believe is a reliable source, that all new MPs actually have to swear openly, before witnesses, to abide by the seven Nolan Principles. Principle Number Six is very simple and reads as follows : “Holders of public office should be truthful.”
And the gov.uk page on Standards goes on : “The Nolan principles and the rules that flow from them are a matter of personal responsibility. For MPs, failure to adhere to their letter or spirit can have career defining consequences, leading to a loss of reputation and in some cases, loss of job through recall.”
And the words hang there in cyber space, attached to those other strange words “gov.uk”. As things stand, they don’t mean a thing, except as a public mockery. Mr Johnson lost his reputation for truth-telling ages ago, if he ever had one. Does it count ? Does he care ? The Tories certainly don’t care. It would seem that we, the electorate, don’t care, either.
But, for God’s sake, we must care. Language is our human currency. Above all, the heart of democracy beats according to how language is used in its chambers and corridors. And like money, our language has to be sound, reliable, clean, honoured. Otherwise our forums fall to the hoodlums. It is the hoodlums who TAKE [BACK] CONTROL and GET IT DONE (whatever IT is). And government becomes a madhouse, a dance of delusion and shame. A bent sales operation. Disaster on disaster follows.
I cannot regard Mr Johnson as anything except a felon, a life-long fraud, an anti social element. Hence my name for him – Mr Toad. If and when his crimes catch up with him and he pays his dues, he will become Mr Johnson again. In the meantime, there he squats on top of a dung heap, smirking, sitting pretty.
But we cannot talk just of one individual here, however personally reprehensible and unacceptable that person may be. In their responses to Covid-19, a significant number of “populist” leaders across the globe have been shown up vividly, not just as inadequate to deal with the crisis, but as simply pathological and psychologically inadequate individuals in themselves. Anti-social elements. I am thinking of Trump of course, but also of Bolsonaro of Brazil, Obrador of Mexico, etc. We call them “populists” and certainly they are of a type, and it seems to go with a kind of omniscient self-image which appeals to peoples and times yearning for the messianic and the regressive and the unreal. Better a dream world, a captivating lie, a retreat into blame-games and brutality, than a reality that feels impossible these days to address, a world whose complexity is overwhelming and whose shapes are uncontaining, so that some sort of escape hatch becomes impossible to resist.
The Toad is one of those “populist leaders,” a snake-oil salesman with Brexit his magic cure-all. He has made it and himself must-buy commodities. And we the electorate have bought them both. We have swallowed the Lie. In fact, whether it’s truth or lie no longer counts. It’s the slogan we’ve bought, the elixir, the escape route. It’s the delusional mask for which we have fallen, among all these other masks that presently surround us.
I should touch on a second strand which seems to have contributed to the Toad’s ascendancy in the UK, where there is this blatant contradiction between a system and structure that presumes, and is officially reliant upon, truth-telling, and the present situation in which a political party and the nation’s electorate condone and support a serial liar as its leader.
From this second perspective as well, it is clear that the Toad does not perform his tricks and antics in isolation. On the contrary, the way our national politics has evolved in recent years provides a context in which his present ascendancy is an almost inevitable development.
After the EU referendum of 2016, Sir Andreas Whittam Smith, co-founder of “The Independent,” came up with an observation which seemed to provide a useful starting point for some fresh thinking. He pointed out that, under our noses, and for some years, politics had been transforming and was now a new thing, but still founded on old precepts and assumptions. For, over the years, politics had become a lifetime profession. People entered it straight from university. And stayed in it, if they possibly could, for their working lives. First, you were an MP’s private secretary, or something of that ilk. Then you stood for parliament when a safe seat came up. And afterwards kept your seat if at all possible, since losing it meant losing income and occupation and all that went with it.
So here was another way in which politics must become more and more a sort of bubble, separate from the electorate, facing out towards the People, but never fundamentally of the People. From within your Bubble, which was all you’d ever known since your schooldays, you learned a way of speaking to the People to some extent as foreigners, or in the mass, or as your object, your customer base, your market.
And you went on bubble courses and learned how to field questions from representatives of the “People.” How to sell Party Policies and Products to the People, how to stand on a platform or in a studio and speechify to the People and spell-bind them with slogans. And more and more you spoke a language peculiar to politicians, less and less our common language. Politics becomes a matter of selling a product. Politicians become advertising agents.
And bubble discipline becomes ever more stringent. So directives come down from headquarters on what Party Message to relay in TV interviews, what evasions to practise to avoid any implication of fault or culpability. Politicians learn to roll into the TV studios like armoured cars. It becomes a matter of Party loyalty before truth. It becomes strap line before honest talk, clockwork slogan before human interchange, armour before openness. It becomes Lie. It becomes Toad.
“Holders of public office should be truthful.” But as things stand, our whole political system militates against that central principle, prioritising instead Party Loyalty, Selling the Party’s Products and Keeping Power. These priorities are in a way understandable and hard to resist, but ultimately they act against all our interests as citizens of a healthy cohesive democracy and society. And they inflict on us a Toad and a blindness on our parts – it seems – to recognise both him for what he is, and ourselves for our shame, our dolor.
One more thing before moving on to the final points of this line of thought. Essentially, I am concerned here with the centrality of truthfulness, even while noting the ubiquity of its absence. In fact, it is astonishing how much agreement there is always likely to be on the importance of truthfulness and of being addressed truthfully – even while, everywhere, perfect truthfulness is such a rare commodity. For it is not just politicians who put truth relatively low on their list of priorities. It has become a feature of our consumer society, that the image of the product, the face of its producer, must always be presented in a good light, in preference to the true light. Does not every established company now employ someone under a Public Relations heading, whose job it is essentially to spin ? To sell, to twist, to obscure, to cover up, to wriggle clear ? Putting Caesar’s cause before Truth’s cause ?
Truth needs defending as never before. For Untruth is in the ascendant as never before and truth is necessary for our survival. I must therefore protest yet again that the people of the UK, my neighbours, have recently chosen a liar and charlatan as their leader. So can it be true that untruth is our preference ? Do we as a people really want to follow untruth ? Perhaps we do.
“Holders of public office should be truthful.” “Should ?” And if that word “should” is every day and everywhere ignored ? We need something stronger than a broken word for our forum to flourish again. Recently, I have come across three different and separate initiatives in the UK, seeking to make lying in public office a criminal offence. They come from the following sources : Compassion in Politics, Plaid Cymru, Stop Lying in Politics.
I cannot tell whether those three different new shapes in the nation’s political landscape suggest the beginnings of real change, and will resolve into a significant force for reform ; or whether they’re just another symptom of, and testament to, our system’s comprehensive ill-health, like three boils on a failing body. Certainly, I can see that to set out on this path will present enormous challenges and have wide implications.
But it is surely essential that we should. Trust must have something solid to stand on and thence to extend from. Fundamental and wide-ranging reform is needed, based on and beginning from the sixth Nolan principle. Do not expect the Toad or his party to embark on that reform of our parliamentary democracy. They are entirely the products and beneficiaries of its corruption. But the preparatory work should begin now, as an expression of impatience for the corruption to be cleansed.
I would propose, as starting points, the following :
1/ that before entering politics, all prospective MPs should have been employed in work other than politics (and journalism ?) for a significant length of time.
2/ that all prospective MPs should be able to demonstrate stringent standards of probity in their previous work records, before being allowed to stand for office. In effect, there should be a job specification for this occupation, (a job specification is a familiar item in many other fields of employment). Had there been one operating when the Toad came by, dragging his minotaur by the nose, with his doom-beetle familiar hissing on his shoulder, he would have been turned away.
3/ people highly qualified to do so should work on definitions of lying and deception that can stand up in court and are stringent and sophisticated enough to cover various forms of deception and manipulation, so that appropriate penalties can be meted out to those found guilty. I do not regard loss of reputation as anything like a strong enough penalty to deter felons as shameless as those now familiar to us. Permanent dismissal from public office would seem appropriate in all cases for which guilt is proven. And in the more serious cases, I would favour the imposition of lengthy community service, on top.
I can see why the criminal justice system might blench at involvement in this area, and maybe a different but independent system will need to be instituted for its supervision. However, I do find it crucial that lying in public office should be seen and treated as a criminal offence on a par with theft and fraud, and that those who lie from this position of power should be seen and penalised as felons. For lying in public office is a plain felony. It is a form of theft as well as fraud, and a threat to social health and well-being. And it is a threat to democracy, making unsound and unsafe the currency upon which a sovereign people relies.
Lying from a position of public responsibility (as a journalist no less than as a politician) is pure disgrace, an attack upon the community. It makes self and apparent self-interest the only facts that matter. It puts self before truth and is the negation of honour. It puts the dishonest and self-interested individual before the sovereignty, the reality, the honour, of a people. It is a direct attack upon a sovereign people.