The L word, the F word, and contemporary UK politics

9th December 2019

In a few days there will be a general election in the United Kingdom.

This post is not about the possible election result – that is still uncertain and it may even come down to voting intentions which are as yet not settled.

This post is instead about two words that should have had more impact on the campaign, and current politics generally, but have not.

One word begins with L, the other with F.

*

The L word

The first word is “lie”.

Some commentators in the United Kingdom aver that more should be done to confront politicians with their lies.

Peter Oborne, a journalist of immense integrity, has even sought to document and expose each lie of the current prime minister (the estimable website is here).

This is essential work: nothing in this post should be taken to mean that recording each lie is not important.

But it is not enough.

This is because many politicians now do not care about being called a liar, or even be shown to be one.

Such a reaction is a cost of political business for them – and some even relish that they “trigger” such a response as some perverse form of validation.

The ultimate problem is not that many politicians lie.

The ultimate problem is far more worrying and far more difficult to resolve.

The ultimate problem is that many voters want to be lied to.

These voters may pretend otherwise, claiming that they want “honest politicians”.

In reality, such voters just want politicians to say what the voters want to hear.

There is therefore an incentive for politicians to lie.

Until and unless many voters can be made to care about being lied to, every fine and worthy effort in exposing the lies is (at least in the short-term) futile – a public good but not enough to effect immediate change.

There are many political lies: small lies, forgettable lies, lies that take longer to expose than any mortal attention span.

But the biggest lie in the current general election – a lie that may determine the outcome – is “Get Brexit Done”.

Brexit cannot be “done” without years of intense effort and attention.

Entire international relationships have to be rebuilt from scratch; entire areas of law and policy have to be reconstructed; entire social and economic patterns of behaviour have to be re-worked.

And all this in addition to the making of actual decisions about what we want those relationships, laws, policies, and social and economic patterns of behaviour to be.

And all that in turn against the intractable problem of fitting in a Brexit policy within the framework of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Brexit cannot be “got done” by mere exhortation.

It is a lie but a lie many want to believe and cannot be dissuaded from believing by mere arguments, logic or evidence.

And by the time many voters will come to care that they were lied to, Brexit will be too long gone for any voter choice to make much difference.

*

The F word

The second word – the F word – I will not type.

It is a word which has lost its traction when it needed to still have traction.

The word describes the 1920s and 1930s manifestation of populist nationalist authoritarianism, a political phenomenon that despite the heady optimism of democratic campaigners has never been too far away.

Complacently, some believed that the thing had gone away with the end of the second world war, or with the transitions to democracy of Spain and Portugal.

The thing, however, is always there.

What happened in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany and Italy and elsewhere was always just one set of manifestations of the thing.

Populist nationalist authoritarianism has more purchase on voters than many conservatives, liberals and socialists realise.

It is the politics of easy answers.

In the United Kingdom there are those in favour of Brexit who routinely trash the (independent) courts, the (independent) civil service and diplomatic service, the universities, the broadcasters, even the supremacy of parliament.

This populist disdain for independent institutions is unhealthy.

The threat of the “will of the people” is used as intimidation.

Coupled with nationalistic rhetoric (on immigration and Brexit generally) and authoritarian hostility to legal checks on government (contempt for human rights), you have all the ingredients of the thing described by the F word.

But if you call this thing by its name, it now has little or no effect.

People will yawn and shrug and pay no real attention.

And because what we have before us is not visually the same as the 1920s and 1930s manifestation of the thing – no uniforms, no goosesteps, and so on – many of those hearing the F word will regard what is now happening as not being an example of the F word at all.

Of course, using the F word is not as important as stopping the thing it describes from taking hold.

 

*

Calling politicians – and pundits – liars, and describing the vile populist nationalist authoritarianism that they promote as the F word, is not going to stop them lying or the thing the F word describes.

The words are not enough, and it may be that new words are needed to make old warnings.

And unless voters can be made to care about being lied to by politicians, or about the implications of the populist nationalist authoritarianism (again) being promoted, then there will be little to stop either the politicians or the F word thing.

Making voters care about any of this is the challenge for liberal and progressive politicians (and pundits) in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

And the biggest challenge is to make enough voters care in time.

**

If you value this free constitutional, legal and policy commentary here (and on Twitter) please feel free to become a Patreon subscriber.

**

My Twitter feed is here and I also now have a Facebook page where I will be linking to my posts and podcasts, so you can share them with those who may be interested in the public understanding of law.

Please also subscribe to this blog, there is subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

**

Comments are welcome but pre-moderated, and they will not be published if irksome. 

39 thoughts on “The L word, the F word, and contemporary UK politics”

  1. An important post, whose message should be more widely circulated, even if it may already be too late.

    A quote I have found myself returning to more and more lately, from Hannah Arendt ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ seems to me to address the second point.
    “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

    The purpose of Johnson (Cummings) in the UK, following the path blazed by Trump (Bannon), is not simply to get elected by any means possible but to burn the ladder by which they climbed – and hence their possible successors might one day climb past them. This is done by deliberately destroying any kind of trust in the words of politicians (including themselves!) so that power can never be removed from them by others using words.

    Johnson, I am sure, does not know, and certainly does not care, whether he can “Get Brexit Done” anymore that he cared that his argument against the ‘no deal’ amendment was completely falsified by his own claimed outcome. Whatever does happen it will be the fault of ‘the other’ or to the credit of himself.

    A final thought: before the 2016 US election someone remarked that the problem with Trump was that while his opponents took him literally, his supporters took him seriously. In other words, his opponents listened to the words while his supporters discounted the words but believed the man. Again, Johnson is following the tested playbook.

    1. I think Hannah Arendt’s point is important: she suggests that the goal of authoritarians (of all kinds), in substituting wilful lies for truthful fact, is not so much conviction – believing the lie – as creating cynicism. Where nobody expects to be told the truth, and is not disappointed, everything is possible.

      In this curious inversion, Johnson, with his nods and winks, and that secret smile that says: “I don’t believe a word I’m saying, and neither do you, and we both know it” is seen as the most honest, because he lies openly. Those who try to appear sincere, talk of ‘hope’ or ‘real change’ must be the most dishonest, since ‘all politicians lie and nothing ever changes’. These politicians appear to be weak and feeble.

      For many people, this is enough: it rhymes with ‘we all do that, don’ t we, play the system, spin a line, just to get by day-to-day’. If you don’t have any hope that things will change for you, this seems more real, someone you can relate to.

      Johnson is the strong man, who gets what he wants, who can create his own truth by bending the world to his will. Individual disillusion is subsumed into popular victory, embodied in his (testosterone-fueled) vitality. Which, by short extension, implies that his false promises will become the new truth.

      So, in this topsy-turvy world, all the emphasis on Johnson’s lies only amplify his personal charismatic appeal.

      (For balance, while Johnson is by far the worst culprit, he is not alone!)

    2. Thank you, this blog and this reply should be read by the entire electorate. As for myself, I find that both Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have already pointed out the main problem: most people’s opinions are second-hand . The British press and social media provide the opinions, all most people do is to repeat them.

  2. There’s a fundamental flaw in your logic that reveals where you’ve been drinking the Kool-aid.

    You attack ‘Get Brexit Done’ as a motto, and say that it won’t, it will require years of work.

    But you’re wrong, Brexit will be complete at the moment we leave the EU, it will be ‘done’… the act of building a future trade agreement with the EU, either from the basis of a deal (or no deal) is an entirely different thing, and it only begins when Brexit is done.

  3. Excellent commentary, thank you.
    I have one small and rather pedantic niggle, where you say -“…- and some even relish that they “trigger” such a response as some perverse form of valediction.” I think you may mean “validation” not ‘valediction’.

  4. The main problem with this post is that if you think the main danger at this election is the supposed Johnson/Cummings regime of fascism and lies, and the antidote to that is a government of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, then you are in serious need of a long break over the festive season.

    If you think honesty is the primary requirement of a politician, then what are we to make of all those politicians who told us before the referendum that this was a once-in-a-lifetime voter and the result would be implemented, and practically every waking hour afterwards have been telling us we need another referendum to overturn the result of the first one? If you want to clean up politics, you need to start there, not with the one guy who, despite his many and manifest flaws, appears to be trying to live up to that 2016 referendum promise.

    1. My post was not party political, and that was deliberate.

      I was interested to see how someone would seek to make it party political, as it would say more about them than about my post.

      1. politics is largely party politics. Otherwise its just people arguing in a bar.

        The parties are making promises to us in their manifestos and individual candidates are signing up those manifestos implicitly, unless they specifically state they are not intending to honour specific parts of the manifesto.

        You complain about nationalism. Is it your contention that the Irish government should not act in the interests of the people of Ireland? That the French government should not act in the interests of the people off France? Electors in the UK are entitled to want a government that acts in their interests. That doesn’t make them fascists. Whereas, in my understanding of European History, allying with people across nations in support of a political creed that grants its adherents the right to rule over others without their consent pretty much doesn’t make people fascists.

  5. More and more, I have come to believe that the nature of the political class and the wider society is more important than specific policies or constitutional arrangements. Your point about people not minding about being lied to is one example of this phenomena. Judging by history, only widespread disaster following from an F-type political culture will shift attitudes in the political class and more generally.

  6. Universal suffrage is a powerful tool. It gives every voter absolute discretion. They can vote on a careful evaluation of the candidates, or on a whim, or not at all. They are not obliged to vote in the national interest, or even in their own interest. And because of the secret ballot no voter can be held accountable for how they vote.

    1. True, it is not a perfect system, but we haven’t found a better one. Someone I know suggested a quick test paper in the polling booth. If you failed the test your vote didn’t count.

      1. Except you know that in practice (as was the case in several states in the US) the test will be constructed to remove minorities and other undesirables from the voting pool.

        Democracy doesn’t work. But we’ve not yet managed to think up something better.

  7. Excellent blog thanks. One issue that adds to the danger of a Johnson win is the measures in the manifesto to bring in voter ID which is straight out the Republican playbook to limit the electorate. The Conservatives also want to reduce the number of MPs – thus reducing the ability of the legislature to oversee the executive – and have a boundary review in their favour.

    The Conservatives have never forgiven Labour for keeping them out of power for 13 years and they mean to ensure it never happens again. Of course Labour is being extremely helpful by making itself unelectable.

    I realise this is bringing politics into it which your blog avoided and fine. But it is political and it does too mirror the F word from the 1930s when the social democrats and the liberal left could not agree on a path to defeat those headed down the F path.

    The 2020s and 2030s could well be a repeat of the 1920s and 1930s. There is absolutely no guarantee whatever that the F word could not get a grip on the UK. None. The awful, truly terrifying, thing is that there seems to be nothing we can do to stop it. It’s almost as if it has to be lived to be believed and only on the other side can we then say, “Never again!” But how can you say, “Never again!” when we didn’t have it in the first place? Yet…

    1. Hear hear!
      This once moderate nation is now so extreme, especially in its polar opposition to the main parties.
      Voters may no longer follow family loyalties to the respective parties, but what that has been replaced with, quite frankly, scares me to death.
      I truly fear the results of the election, but possibly more importantly, how we will, or will not, resist the way the rest of Europe is lurching to the right, along with the USA.

  8. Outstanding. “The politics of easy answers.”. If only the Lib Dems had challenged the l and f words head on in their measley campaign. This may all teach a constitutional confrontation and crisis before the country changes tack.

  9. Your post is excellent and I wish that “the people” will awaken. However, I believe this to be a forlorn hope.
    F and L have not just won but triumphed.
    Hope has been extinguished, and darkness stalks the earth.

  10. A wonderful, powerful piece. Thank you. I do think it is worth looking more closely at what has happened in our near neighbour Scotland since 2007. While the SNP administration is hardly perfect and the independence question a shadow on other political discourse, I do think that – in the main – politics has been conducted in a more adult way north of the border. Fewer lies and much less infantilising of the electorate. That has helped the SNP but it isn’t especially party specific. Things just feel more grown up (dare I say Scandinavian?) up there.

    1. I am no nationalist, of any kind, and was uneasy for long about the N in SNP

      But that N is really more of an I – for Independence – and SNP-governed Scotland is one of the most refreshingly internationalist places I know

      1. Thank you . We in Scotland who support independence hope that the example set will help the electorate in England change direction and become more outward looking. Maybe immigration in England is a problem, I can’t comment, but this fear and hatred of the other must be making the haters very unhappy.

  11. Regarding the F word – and its stronger brother, the N word (the one without a gg) – I was last week looking at the start of Tim Bouverie’s “Appeasing Hitler”, describing Hitler’s coming to power in 1933, and his early actions, and in particular the quote heading chapter I, and thinking this reminds me of the Johnson government…

  12. As you will no doubt know, identifying the problem is the easy part. Articulating solutions (that go beyond the aspiration of getting enough voters to care) is the tricky bit. Tackling the problem requires a mulitfaceted approach. This has to start with education, with children being better taught to think critically and to be more aware of the inherent dangers of persistant lying in our political and social discourse and culture. Lying needs to become more socially unacceptable.

    Mainstream and social media also have a role to play, especially social media. It is much easier and far far quicker for a damaging lie to reach every corner of the globe than it used to be. Twitter and Facebook need to do alot more to challenge and counter lies, disinformation and misinformation that breeds and feeds on their platforms. Perhaps they could develop thier own fact checking services to combat and tackle lies that have gone viral via their networks.

    Mainstream media should face tougher sanctions when proven lies, emanate from their pages. A free press is one of the cornerstones of a liberal democracy but it can still thrive and is not incompatable with, better, tougher regulation.

    As you say in your thought provoking post, individuals also have an important role in using their voices (and social media accounts) to publically challenge lies and liers. Culprits need naming and shaming.

    Finally, we need to take care not to conflate lying with untruths. We all get things wrong from time to time, and we shouldn’t too easilly jump to the conclusion that someone is lying. That only cheapens the discourse and makes genuine lies harder to spot and challenge.

    The task you describe is a formidable one. But if we fail to collectively rise to it, I fear the situation will only get worse. And as the old saying goes, “a stich in time saves nine”.

  13. On the lie of “Get Brexit Done” there is a paradox: Leave supporters think it is easy to quit. However, if it had been easy to quit, membership of EU would have entailed no loss of sovereignty or loss of control. How can a voter both think it easy to get Brexit done and think that we have lost control of our laws to the EU? Recognising that the EU has penetrated many aspects of our shared lives implies recognising that it will take a long time to unravel the strands of connection. Why cannot politicians be honest about it? They have little to lose, except the very principle of Brexit.

  14. On lying; For years the ordinary, not-very-interested-in-politics person would say that of course politicians lie, or even make jokes about lying politicians. But in reality they didn’t lie. They avoided answering the question that journalists were trying to get answered. And the reason was that if they gave a straightforward answer, 10 years later a journalist could fish it out of the records and use it to cause embarrassment . Another reason was that if a clear answer turned out to be wrong it could be described as an actual lie.
    But Trump and Now Johnson have changed all that. Real lies are so common that they have become acceptable. I am happy to believe some former MPs but they have become a minority.

  15. Powerful and moving journalism, please keep it up.

    I hope and believe the author’s fears are over-done. The up-and-coming generations are overwhelmingly both liberal and justifiably sceptical – thus, what we see today is inb m y respectful suggestion not an augur but a final, spasmodic death kick echoing down the years from 1979 and another campaign of radicalism dressed up as ‘common sense’.

    The pendulum will swing back.

  16. I agree that vigilance is required to prevent the rise of the F word, but I don’t think that the infantilisation of the term helps its containment or reduction.

    I am struck by the fact that the expression of even mild disagreement with Liberal dogma (the “D” word perhaps?) is now almost reflexively dismissed by labelling such opinions with the F word. This tends to normalise the whole idea of F’ism, making it a laughably minor irritant, rather than a dangerously tyrannical evil.

    This is hardly a new worry, but the casualisation of the F word should be discouraged.

    It’s not usually malicious, but I think we should all only use the F word for instances of populist nationalistic demagoguery not as shorthand for “someone I disagree with.”

    1. With respect, I think this is the point of the original post, and many of the replies.

      We have all, I assume, found ourselves on the losing side of many arguments in general, and political elections in particular. That happens, and it hurts, very often. But, to coin a phrase, this time is different. This time, we are seeing lies – incontestable, undenied lies – used as a weapon not just to persuade people of something that is not true but to destroy the belief that anything in the political discourse is true.

      This is not without precedent, but very, very dangerous.

  17. Two more words to add to your excellent post yesterday. Social Media. So called reporters piling in on Twitter to stories that bore no relation to facts on the ground. “Sources close to” backed up by bots masquerading as A & E nurses. The lies are only effective with amplification and fascists play the tunes expertly. “Get Brexit done” will probably win, not just the election but awards for slogans, it reaches the parts….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.