Lies have become the undisputed and acceptable norm.
The British government has been coy with certain truths for decades. As Ian Cobain highlights in The History Thieves, their actions are kept well away from the eyes of the electorate — Yes Minister is the closest the layman can get to seeing what truly happens in the corridors of power.
D-Notices allow the suppression of headlines that the government deem potentially embarrassing or dangerous. Operation Legacy hid the atrocities of the Empire so they could doctor a favourable public perception of it. Access to official files is limited as whole archives ‘migrate’ or, as is the case with MI6, are completely off-limits. Many government agencies are opaque and operate with almost complete impunity. Courts increasingly meet in camera when the government is involved. Yet, with all of this one could still make the argument, with the exception of Operation Legacy, that these were lies told for the people. This is no longer the case. Worryingly, the trend in recent years is for the government not to be lying for the people, but to the people.
The deceit has become increasingly apparent as of late and displays a real disdain for the public. The interests of politicians are now being achieved by mass manipulation of the very people they claim to serve. Politicians spinning and twisting events has, and probably always will be, part and parcel of public office. The watershed moment that paved the way for a more severe and consistent form of deception was the Vote Leave campaign’s claim that the UK government sends £350million to the EU every week — a claim that has now been widely debunked. This was a central tenet of the Brexit argument and due to the significant position the NHS has in the national consciousness one cannot underestimate the impact it had on the outcome. Yet, the claim was abandoned by most Brexiteers in the wake of their referendum victory as they knew they could not deliver on their falsehood. The fact there was no retribution for sticking a demonstrable lie on the side of a campaign bus in the ‘vote of a generation’ opened the floodgates for future deception.
The Disinformation’s Societal Impact: Britain, Covid, And Beyond report from researchers at KCL, shows that the Conservative election campaign of 2019 used disinformation and lies at an unprecedented level in Britain. Again, there was no retribution despite brazen dishonesty such as posing the Conservative twitter account as an independent fact checker. This newfound willingness to manipulate has been starkest in Covid-19 due to the omnipresence of government ministers as they publicly react to the pandemic. The most ludicrous example has to be Matt Hancock’s attempt in the House of Commons to suggest that lockdown began on the 16th March, another demonstrably false statement. Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to Durham was a flagrant breaking of the rules he himself helped to devise, which was made all the worse by members of the cabinet coming out in support of his actions. The list of dishonesty could go on and on.
One could point to the daily press conferences held during the first months of lockdown as an example of transparency and honest governance. This would be true, and it is all the more impressive considering the unprecedented nature of this pandemic. However, this one action does not wipe the slate clean. When compared to other countries, Westminster is still rather opaque in its decision-making regarding Covid-19 and the restrictions that go with it. The devolved Scottish government has a road map on their website outlining the steps needed to end lockdown and Angela Merkel was lauded for explaining the science when she announced a lockdown easing. Clarity on this level has been absent from the British government’s approach.
What is crystal clear is the fact that the British public have become accustomed to being lied to and are desensitised to the lower class of politician. Westminster is awash with apparent incompetence and is being led by a bumbling demagogue whose inadequacy as prime minister is made all the clearer with each passing day. The consequences of this are all too tangible. Britain has one of the highest levels of excess deaths in the world since the pandemic began, highlighting the lacklustre response. Recent Brexit developments, which truly beggar belief, only further display the incompetence. The breaking of international law with the Internal Markets Bill has been globally condemned, with Nancy Pelosi already assuring that there will be no UK-USA free trade agreement if the bill passes. The EU have said the same. Looking beyond the economic suicide that this entails, upholding the rule of law has long been a pillar of Britain’s international reputation. Yet the government insist on throwing this away by pushing ahead with the bill and setting the truly alarming precedent that they are above the law. The Kent access permit debacle that has unfurled in recent days has been equally shocking. May’s Brexit deal could not get through the Commons for the fear it would create a customs border in the Irish Sea and in the end, it sunk her whole government. Therefore, one would be forgiven for being incredulous at the creation of a quasi-border between Kent and the rest of the UK.
Where’s the due accountability?
This incompetence stems from the fact that the electorate has allowed itself to be lied to and not held those responsible to account. Accountability within British politics is virtually nonexistent when it matters most, and that’s something that is truly dangerous — especially when the government’s actions suggest it thinks itself above the law. A sense of powerlessness and ostracization can be seen across the nation as ordinary people feel like a plaything of the seemingly omnipotent politicians. Being out of touch with politics is nothing new and has long been present within Britain, but this is different. Never before has the electorate been held in such contempt by the government as they are now, with the ongoing lies, manipulations, and erratic policy changes when it comes to dealing with the pandemic.
A complete overhaul of political accountability is needed, on both sides of the political spectrum. Politicians should not be free to promise the world and then renege once their side has won. It is illegal for someone to lie in court because their words can affect an individual’s outcome. Why then do we allow politicians to lie when their actions affect millions?