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.
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