Like it or not, Prime Ministers are role models. Hence Johnson’s moral bankruptcy has set a new standard of contempt for the truth. He may be only a part of a bigger process of erosion but he has massively accelerated it. By filling his cabinet with sycophants even weaker than himself and by lying relentlessly, Johnson has consolidated and expanded lying as a modus operandi. He has normalised a widespread, unchallenged lying culture both within government and beyond. Political lying isn’t new. But Johnson’s comprehensive ‘thumbs up’ makes him a walking celebration of post truth governance. We are now all floundering in a deep sea of institutional dishonesty.
Not everything that leaves Johnson’s lips is a lie as such. Some commentators overreach in their accusations but it’s important to distinguish genuine lies such as “Corbyn plans to wreck the economy with a £1.2 trillion spending plan” (Oldham speech, 2019) from U-turns (on school exams), broken promises (to protect care homes) and sheer ignorance.
For example, since Johnson doesn’t do homework, his claim made on 6 December 2019 that “there will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI” may well have arisen from a mix of sunny upland optimism and failure to grasp the details of NI trading arrangements. Ditto his promise to “take back control of our fishing waters’.
But once you factor out these defects in Johnson’s leadership style this still leaves an epic array of bald faced porkies covering everything from Brexit to his personal relationships, policing, army recruitment, poverty statistics, Covid and the NHS. Johnson’s lies have been rigorously documented. See for example:
Rather than add to this corpus I want to explore some features of the rationale behind Johnson’s lie culture and also ask why we tolerate it.
The motives for Johnson’s dishonesty are messily intertwined and involve opportunism, strategy, conceit, habit, power, even enthusiasm. Aside from its obvious uses in concealing incompetence and increasing voter support, for Johnson, lying is also habitual. Brain research suggests that the more untruths a person tells the easier and more frequent lying becomes. A study in Nature in 2016 confirms this, as does Healthline in 2018.
Lying, for Johnson, also displays power. As the Byline Times said in August 2020:
“[It’s about] breaking precedent, cheating the system, scoring the con to end all cons. The thrill of failure is just that: a thrill. It is like blagging yourself someone else’s Lamborghini and then crashing it so you can blag that away too … This is corruption at its most decadent: botching a crisis or destroying a national infrastructure not for political gain, nor even for financial reward, but ultimately for pure personal sport.
In this respect, Johnson and his government lie ‘because they can’. They use lies like children who have escaped from their parents across a river and know they can’t be reached. They cavort on the opposite bank, waving signs saying ‘80 seat majority, ha ha’, brandishing jingoistic fistfuls of Union Jacks and brazenly ‘making stuff up’. This provocative power display isn’t the only motive behind the current Tory “lie fest” but I’d say it’s an important driver.
The “fishing line” tactic
As Rory Stewart notes in Tom Bower’s book, Lord of Misrule, Johnson is a master liar. His most pernicious tactic (inspired by Trump) I call the “fishing line”. Here the lie is thrown into the public domain to cause mayhem and either left floating there or retracted later but only after damage is done. The hair-raising Wellingborough constituency bulletin, featured in The Independent in December 2020, captures this well. Tory activists are urged to “weaponize fake news” because –
“A lie can go round the world before the truth can get its boots on”.
With ‘piscary’ expertise, during the referendum Johnson threw out the claim that “80 million Turks would enter the UK unless we left the EU”. He later denied he’d said this. But the lie did powerful service in the meantime in cranking up public anxiety about immigration. The Turkish lie is actually a compound one since the initial claim and the later ‘denial’ are both false!
Recently, at Prime Ministers’ Questions, Johnson claimed falsely that “Labour supports the rioters against the police”. Despite the Speaker’s complaints, this lie was not retracted and so stayed in circulation. The Bristol police also deployed the fishing line tactic when they asserted that various police officers “had sustained broken bones during the protests”. They retracted this claim as untrue a few days later but not before it had been thoroughly aired by mainstream media, hungry to point score on why we need a tougher policing bill.
Recently I posted on Facebook:
“What the opposition parties need to emphasise in their May election campaigns (if they are brave enough) is that the UK is now being run by liars. Johnson’s government is mounted on systemic dishonesty, churning out lies daily and with impunity. The mainstream media and the police are lying with them. Institutionalised lying of this magnitude must be the UKs red line!”
But even more disturbing than this political ‘lie fest’ is the public’s response, captured by Tom Peck in The Independent this month:
“No one cares about [Johnson’s lying], do they? Not anymore. We’re all completely inured. Just let the guy say what he likes.”
One defence of this apathy is simply that ‘politicians have always lied’. Is this excuse acceptable?
Its weakness is that, whilst dishonest politicians abound, how institutions respond makes a key difference. Ministers have a duty of honesty to the Crown. Consequently, in the past, as UK Parliament states, if they knowingly misled parliament, they were expected to resign. This regulative standard applied to John Profumo and Damien Green.
Margaret Thatcher’s survival of the Westland affair hung on whether Parliament had been deceived. Principles of honesty, accountability and consequence were, in general, respected by politicians, the media and the public, even if some bucked the rules.
So, if politicians have supported a system in which lying is punished, then we can’t use the excuse ‘politicians always lie’ because, firstly this isn’t true, and secondly, when there is accountability for lying, the value of honesty still holds. Even if we don’t have accountability right now, we have it in principle – we know what it looks like. We just need to make it matter again.
Also, those who tolerate government lies often don’t directly endorse them so much as doubt, white-wash, downplay or re-interpret them. Call me naïve, but I doubt many say “Yes, Johnson’s claim that we have a world beating Track and Trace system is a blatant, indisputable lie and I’m totally fine with it”.
If people really can manage this level of cognitive dissonance then they are applying double standards, since they don’t tolerate such dishonesty elsewhere. In professions such as law, healthcare and medical science, we require honesty. If, for example, surgeons mislead their patients there is an outcry. We don’t always get honesty but it’s a standard to which we hold these experts. So, for those who single out politicians for exemption, maybe it’s time to stop doing this!
Drowning in pea soup?
But, the argument goes, we live in a post truth world – we can’t evaluate the Tory lie fest because nowadays we are presented with a dizzying array of alternative interpretations. In our “pick ‘n mix” culture of “choose your own truth”, lies become impervious to real scrutiny – you will find ‘compelling’ evidence either for or against the view that, for example, Brexit has a key role in the latest unrest in Northern Ireland, depending on which corner of the internet you inhabit. Basically we are all just drowning in a pea soup of claim and counterclaim.
But actually we aren’t (drowning) – the problem with this excuse is that, even in our ostensibly ‘post fact’ world we do nevertheless deploy the notion of ‘a lie’ and the concept of a lie presupposes a concept of the truth. It would make no sense to call anything a lie if nothing was verifiable as true because there would be no standard to measure the lie against.
So when, for example, the Sun accuses ‘Remain MPs of lying to their voters about respecting the referendum whilst plotting to reverse it’, they are, in a sense, shooting themselves in the foot because they are alluding to an independent standard against which they themselves can, in principle, be judged.
Similarly, the facts against which Johnson’s lies are scrutinized might be submerged under the weight of internet obfuscation but they are still there. There are facts of the matter about whether ‘Brexit has a key role in the Northern Ireland riots’ or whether ‘over 100,000 died of Covid’, etc. Verifiable facts are like anchors – they give sense to notions like ‘lies and honesty’ and are why we can say that Johnson should probably be in court.
But, the cynic argues, shining a light on our embedded standards of honesty and truth is irrelevant because tolerance of Tory lies isn’t rational. It’s actually emotionally driven by selfishness and insecurity – politician’s lies are tolerated when seen as a means to an approved goal (see Science Daily August 2017). Since people are emotionally invested in Johnson and his policies, then, as per the Wizard of Oz, it hurts to see him as the charlatan he is. Far better to deal with this conflict by denial. See Paul Ekman on Telling Lies, 2009. So should we give up fact checking now, then?
No! Precisely because people who are so emotionally invested in Tory ideology that they become ‘lie tolerant’ are deluded. Their tolerance is being held in place by patterns of delusional thinking. A core part of emotional recovery in psychotherapy is reality testing – examining the veracity of the patient’s patterns of beliefs about the world – and crucially, changes in beliefs go hand in hand with changes in emotional response. Applying this to the Tory lie tolerator, our diligent fact checkers are exploring those parts of the victim’s belief network that keep them pinned to the invested object –
“You trust Johnson because you believe Brexit will improve your job security/ Johnson represents the values of your parents who fought in the war. So, let’s check this against your actual experience – is he coming up with the goods? Are you getting the security and prosperity promised?’
This would be easier one to one in the therapists’ room. But it’s the right approach in principle.
Once people can genuinely recognize other political systems as legitimate, safe and fair, according to the American Sociological Review January 2018, they become capable of:
“Rejecting politicians who tell untruths …. So the key … involves pursuing politics that reduce the appeal of populist demagogues”.
Fact checkers are also the handmaidens of external events in changing patterns of thinking – for example, Brexit is straining at the seams and, whichever evidence set the Leave brigade cling to, they can’t ignore the grave implications for Brexit of the riots in Northern Ireland.
Johnson has normalized and institutionalised political lying within and beyond Westminster. The Tory lie culture is driven by complex motives and uses fishing line tactics of deception to maintain power over the electorate. However, lies pre-suppose a concept of ‘truths’, some of which exist outside of our internet bubbles of concocted reality.
There are standards of truth in parliament and in our expectations of experts and politicians that we must ‘dust off’ and retain. Even if Tory lie tolerance is emotionally driven, standards of truth, honesty and scrutiny are all key to weaning the Tory electorate off patterns of delusional thinking and showing them a safe, alternative political viewpoint.
Caring about and challenging political lies can’t become ‘a thing of the past’. Truth telling has to be a standard for now and for our future democracy. We owe it to future generations to make truth matter again.