Did Boris Johnson Really Invent Lying?

Peter Oborne powerfully documents the lies of Boris Johnson in his book The Assault on Truth. But when did lying in politics really begin? Can the oligarchy that runs the UK really be expected to tell the truth?

I have just finished reading Peter Oborne’s The Assault on Truth, which is an account of how standards of truthfulness in the UK’s establishment have rapidly declined, to the point that Boris Johnson, a well known and repeated liar was elected to lead the Conservative Party and the UK Government. The book is powerful testimony from someone who has worked for Johnson at The Spectator and is a well respected journalist who understands both how government and the media works.

I have met Oborne briefly, and he was an impressive figure. We were both attending an event hosted by a Right-wing think tank which was exploring whether the Big Society was really delivering. For a short while I was invited to events like this in London, when I had a shallow reputation as a ‘reformer’ and before my equally shallow reputation as a ‘radical’.

Today, Oborne has discovered the price that you pay for speaking truth to power is, not the Gulag, but career termination; for he is now no longer able to find work in the mainstream media. His career, like the careers of honest politicians like Kenneth Clarke or Jeremy Corbyn, lies in ashes. Lying is no longer a shameful action. Lying is the business of the UK Establishment and it is reinforced both by the allies of Johnson, but also by those who are formally independent or even opposed to him.

Oborne comes from the philosophical tradition of conservatism, which is associated with thinkers like Burke, Scruton and Oakshott. These are not the most famous of political philosopher and conservative political philosophy suffers - in marketing terms - by stressing the importance of what is uncertain and by denying the reality of utopias or simplistic theories. Personally, just as I prefer the lost cause, I have always found these thinkers interesting and persuasive - even if I have not always agreed with them on every issue.

For these thinkers what is important is to cherish valuable traditions and to honour those aspects of civilisation that may have taken time to develop, and which bear late fruit, but which haste or shallow theory can too easily ignore. Truth, and the institutions that honour and protect it, are things we can easily lose sight of, when other powerful forces are let loose and when the inner discipline of the system is relaxed.

Put more simply, not so long ago we were a society where a minister would have to resign for lying to the House of Commons; but today a minister can lie without consequence, but MPs will disciplined for telling the truth and calling them liars. Humpty Dumpty is in pieces and nobody knows how to put him back together again.

However, while I respect Oborne as a man and as a writer, and while I also think the tradition he comes from has great value, I find myself perplexed by Oborne’s perspective.

Oborne notes that Tony Blair played a large role in legitimising lying, and not just in the case of Iraq. He thinks the era of news management and spin radically changed the political culture. However Cameron and May seem, according to Oborne, to have been relatively honest politicians, working within the proper rules of the system.

All of this may be true, as far as it goes, but then this raises some very big questions. For instance, what about Austerity and the attack on disabled people, people on low incomes, migrants and asylum seekers led by Cameron and May? These cruel policies were justified by enormous lies, amplified by the media and supported by the civil service that Oborne seeks to honour.

I have written about this all many times before and I am not going to rehearse the facts here. But I do want to share one story which was important for me. In the summer of 2010, after the Coalition government was formed, but before many policies were announced, I was invited to speak to a team at the Cabinet Office who were in the process of formulating Government policy. I expected an intelligent conversation, based on the issues about which I was relatively expert. However, instead I found myself talking to people who were clearly only interested in finding ways of cutting benefits to disabled people and whose sense of reality was determined, not by research, experience or facts, but by the prejudices and disinformation regularly displayed by the Daily Mail. For me this was a rude awakening and since then I have refused to advise the UK Government. With no foundation in truth or justice what is the purpose of discussion.

To add to my own sense of dismay I found that lying doesn’t just corrupt the liar, it also corrupts their opponents. Talking to Labour leaders in the 2010-15 period I discovered that they too had to bend their critiques to what the establishment considered ‘reasonable’. Austerity was to be accepted, but perhaps tempered: we can’t stop them stealing from the poor, we can only demand that such thievery is constrained.

Of course, my own sense of awakening will still seem far too late to wiser heads than mine. There have been many forces at work that have been eating away at truth and justice for many decades:

  • Growing inequality, supported by the effective lobbying of business and private interests.
  • Privatisation of almost all public goods, opening up growing spaces for corruption and poor public policy.
  • Ruinous climate and environmental policies, supported by powerful energy and chemical companies.
  • The Harrying of the North, also knows as “managed decline” which has seen people, power and resources drained from the North to feed the economic growth of London.
  • The weakening of civil society institutions by patronage, bullying and the honours system. (The role that reformed House of Lords now plays in reinforcing unaccountable power in the UK is astonishing to anyone from outside the UK.).
  • The vilification and destruction of trade unions and the cooperative and social systems that used to provide an important power base for ordinary people.
  • The concentration of media power in the hands of billionaires with clear political purposes and the destruction of the independence of the BBC.

All these forces have been progressing at pace. We are not a society where truth is honoured, but where, perhaps by accident, some cheeky charlatan has suddenly taken charge. We are a society where our commitment to truth has always been shaky, and where the interests of a particular group have dominated decision-making. This passage from Oborne is particularly revealing:

“In the previous chapter, I looked back at the healthy politics of the post-war era. Along with mass party membership, the most striking fact was the continuity of style and content in all types of political language, whether official documents, popular journalism, political speeches and party manifestos. It is a paradox that at a time of rigid class divides, when only a small fraction of men (and a tiny number of women) attended university, we enjoyed a common language which made us part of the same national discourse. That has all gone.”

Oborne P (2021) The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism. London: Simon & Schuster. p153-154

Well exactly.

What Oborne is describing is the oligarchy that has governed the UK for hundreds of years. We call ourselves a democracy, but we have forgotten what democracy demands: participation and decision-making by all citizens.

In fact the period where the institutions of the Establishment that Oborne particularly praises (like a neutral civil service) really took root was the Victorian era. In other words the UK’s rulers established new codes of governance and self-discipline at exactly the same time as the UK Government was invading countries, exploiting those countries through colonisation and refusing to act when famines ravaged the countries it controlled. The same system of government was also using the Poor Law, the police and other laws to stop ordinary people from resisting injustice and widespread industrial poverty.

Somehow the UK establishment figured out how to honour truth and yet also protect all the forms of expropriation upon which Victorian wealth and propriety was built.

In fact reading Oborne reminds me of visiting the Victorian edifice that is the Houses of Parliament (or more properly, the Palace of Westminster): a stuffy and ugly Victorian building that pretends to be grander and much older than it really is, and which today is in need of very serious repair.

Truth is tricky. Lying is wrong, but as Oborne observes, lies can be told by telling the truth, but leaving out key pieces of the puzzle. In the case of the UK establishment its commitment to truth was only ever skin deep. Oligarchies disguise their own exploitation of the people; they can afford to agree to disagree, because what they all really agree upon is their need to stay in power.

If we think of it like this we can see that Johnson is not Churchill or Robespierre, he is Cleon, the Athenian demagogue. Like Cleon, and like all demagogues, he is reaching out beyond the bounds of the establishment to exploit our hopes and fears. Like Cleon, I suspect he will be remembered for a long time, as amongst the worst kind of political leader. One comfort, I suspect, is that he will never get the statue he craves.

There is so much more that can be said, and Peter Oborne is exactly the type of person with whom you could have an intelligent discussion about all these matters. But my sense is that Oborne underestimates the depth and breadth of lying in modern Britain; and he also underestimates the resilience and intelligence of ordinary people.

Modern politics is pantomime and the characters who parade in front of us, offering to rule over us, are pantomime characters. It’s also a deadly serious pantomime which, as Oborne shows, has led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands during this COVID pandemic and which has targeted their deadliest policies on disabled people - this time disabled people in care homes. But how can it not be pantomime?

The most hopeful prospect is not to dream that the UK establishment can put itself together again and return to an era of higher standards (nice though that would be). Instead we, the people, need to start organising power at the most basic levels: our neighbourhoods, our towns and cities and workplaces. Truth needs justice and it also needs a human face. Human beings can be fooled and tricked by demagogues; but we cannot expect the oligarchic establishment to simply return to its habit of filtering out its worst excesses and offering us a choice between two pale alternatives.

Johnson, and his soulmate Trump, are symptoms of the breakdown of the oligarchy. I do not believe that inevitably something better will emerge. History teaches us that things can just get worse. However we cannot get back in the same river twice, we are changed and the world has changed. It’s time to figure out what living in a democracy really demands.