The outcome of the British election produces mixed feelings in many an American conservative’s breast. On the one hand, Tony Blair and his Labour Party are, despite their move to the right in the last ten years, off the charts in American political terms. Their enthusiasm for government spending and for governmental solutions to social problems is what we would think of as socialistic, though they have disavowed socialism in the technical sense of government ownership of the means of production and distribution. Their more Scandinavian model of the nanny state also has a class-war element and has most recently outlawed that favorite occupation of the British upper classes, fox-hunting with dogs, while scarcely bothering to hide the class-hatred that lay behind the measure. On the other hand, Mr. Blair has been a staunch ally of our own President Bush in his pursuit of “regime change” in Iraq, even though he has paid a heavy political price for it. That he is hated by many even in his own party for his closeness to Bush cannot but stir our sense that the enemy of our enemy must be our friend.
But I would like to suggest another reason why small-c conservatives and others should take heart from a Labour victory. It is that we can regard it as a punishment of the conservatives for their foolish and dangerously uncivil attacks on Mr. Blair as a liar. “Bliar” read the signs of the British equivalents of MoveOn.org and the Michael Moore left. However much his Conservative opponents dislike Blair, and they dislike him a lot, they should not have allowed themselves to be seduced into joining the left in using such language. Yet at the height of the campaign, and at a point where they were gaining in the polls, the Tories had run an attack ad against Mr. Blair which began: “If he’s prepared to lie to take us to war, he’s prepared to lie to win an election.” Subsequently, the leader of the party, Michael Howard, had under questioning straightforwardly called the Prime Minister of his country a liar. Nor was he the first Tory leader to do so. His predecessor, Iain Duncan-Smith had thundered against Mr. Blair’s “lies” shortly before the party replaced him with Mr. Howard. I liked to think at the time that the two events were related. But apparently not. The party had to learn the hard way, as almost instantly the Tory advances were wiped out. The campaign against Blair the liar was scrapped, but the damage had been done.
Even John Kerry, though he was backed enthusiastically in the recent American election by people who routinely called their President a liar, was not so stupid as to accept Jim Lehrer’s invitation in the first debate to do so himself. Smart politicians have always known that charging each other with mendacity was a form of fouling their own nest. That’s why the word “lie” and all its derivatives are still considered “unparliamentary language” and not permitted in the House of Commons. The assumption of good faith on both sides is the very foundation of democratic debate which, without it, degenerates into mere name-calling. That was also the wisdom of our ancestors who recognized that the charge of bad faith was one of only two (the other was cowardice) which no man of honor could allow to be made against him without his seeking physically and at the risk of his own life to avenge it. A dim memory of those dueling days must have lain behind the journalistic urge to provoke by asking the question: “Are you saying that Bush/Blair (delete as appropriate) is a liar?” Once a man would have put his life at risk by answering yes. Talk about your nuclear options!
It may not be quite so satisfying that all Mr. Howard risked was the loss of a few more votes in an election he was almost certain to lose anyway, but it’s better than nothing. Anything which encourages, however minimally, a return to the language of honor in politics also and to the same degree helps to ameliorate public cynicism about politicians ought to be welcomed. Minette Marrin wrote in the Sunday Times of London that she could not “remember such weary, angry indifference to a general election in my life.” Her perception was backed up by the Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan who wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “tramping around my Home Counties constituency, I have come across a degree of anti- politician hostility that I have not encountered in 17 years of door-knocking. All politicians, I keep being told, are conmen. We trick our way into office, and then use it to enrich ourselves. Whatever we promise, we never change anything.” The usually whip-smart Ms. Marrin wrote that “a major part” of the reason for this cynicism was “that new Labour has imposed upon political life a culture of lying.”
Well, maybe politicians are more given to lying than they used to be, but isn’t it possible that that public indifference and cynicism owes at least as much to our loss of inhibitions about making the charge that they are lying? There does seem just the hint of a circular argument in Ms. Marrin’s saying, on the one hand, that there is a “culture of lying” in politics and, on the other, that, in effect, people think all politicians are liars. What do you expect them to think when you keep telling them that they are liars? Assuming that they do lie, is the fact cause or consequence of the journalistic assumption that they will lie? The television interviewer most feared by British politicians, Jeremy Paxman, once said that when he sits down to interview a politician he is always asking himself “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” What does he expect to be the reaction of those who know he expects them to lie in any case? And if he started from the assumption that they were telling the truth, what would be the point of an aggressive interviewer like Jeremy Paxman?
These questions point up the extent to which journalistic assumptions — born of the media’s triumphalism about Watergate — about the essential role of journalists in uncovering what politicians “really” think and do help to create the “culture of lying” which journalists then merrily proceed to decry. But why should they not be subject to the same rules from which their bad example has helped to liberate such misguided politicians as Michael Howard? As Charles Moore wrote in a typically perceptive column in the Telegraph:
All politicians, as it were, are Cretans, and therefore it profits them nothing to attack one another on this point. This is why there is a convention in the Commons that all its Members are “honourable” — not because it is true, but because it has to be the working assumption. Ever since John Major, under Labour pressure, invented the Nolan rules by which MPs receive exterior invigilation for their conduct, they have in effect declared that they are not to be trusted. And on that point, if on no other, voters seem to believe them.
Ethics rules, that is, also have their origin in similar journalistic assumptions about how all politicians are, if not necessarily “lying bastards,” at least trying to hide something. And voters may have the same sanction against journalists that they had against Michael Howard. They can vote against them by not reading, or not watching. There is some evidence that they are already doing so.