Gladstone was probably Britain’s last manifestly honest Prime Minister, though he had to wriggle a bit in order to maintain that reputation. (It was I who discovered that he deliberately absented himself from one of his own cabinet meetings, called to discuss the formation of a secret political police branch, so that he could disclaim knowledge of it afterwards. There’s also that business of him and the dirty books…) Since then there have been very few completely trustworthy senior Ministers. Blair tried to make himself out to be a good, Christian statesman, until he was rumbled over the Iraq War. Robin Cook was unusually honest, but then died. Harold Wilson had a reputation for trickery, but in fact was one of the least inclined to tell porkies, unless he really was the Russian spy that MI5 suspected him to be. (He was also, in my minority view, one of our great Prime Ministers.) Thatcher of course was a dyed-in-the-wool conspirator. Major looked honest, which was often read as naiveté. – Indeed, that’s probably the fate that awaits any ‘good’ politician in the modern more cynical age, in which honesty is either taken for weakness, or else simply not credited. Corbyn will get plenty of that, if – when? – he becomes Prime Minister.
There have always been dishonest politicians, of course, but the present age may be the most disgraceful of all in this regard. Ministers seem quite blasé about telling dreadful untruths, often for just momentary effect. An example was Theresa May’s attempt only yesterday to pin the responsibility for the destruction of Windrush arrivals’ disembarkation cards (necessary to claim residence) on the last Labour government, which got her a great cheer from the benches behind her, but was shown ten minutes later to have been a lie. She and her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, can hardly help themselves. It’s said that Johnson really can’t tell the difference between ‘genuine’ and ‘fake’. That figures, if the only use he has of words and ‘facts’ is as counters in a game. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2018/04/08/the-playing-fields-of-eton/.) It also of course fits in with the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ in the US – they’ve got it as badly as us; and with the generally amoral spirit of the times.
It’s also bewildering: as I suspect it’s partly intended to be. Who can be trusted, if anyone? I’m trying to sort out at present what really happened in Salisbury last month, and in Douma last week, with reports coming in from all sides flatly disputing the official versions of who was responsible for those two poisonings. Of course it’s possible to make some sort of judgment by looking carefully at the credentials of the reporters, the reliability of the media channeling their reports, and – above all – the evidence they present. But most of us don’t have time for all that. Which means that the debate is mostly conducted in what the American spook James Jesus Angleton once called a ‘wilderness of mirrors’. We decide on the basis of instinct, which generally means prejudice.
One of the reasons for my admiration of Jeremy Corbyn – apart from the fact that he’s my generation, with the same sartorial taste, and similar principles – is that he has promised to put politics back on to a more polite and straightforward path. His disavowal of ‘personal’ attacks is part of that; hopefully a revival of political honesty will be another. He has already shown how reliable his judgment is, having been right about most things over the years. The most recent example is his vote – one of only eighteen – against Theresa May’s immigration Act of 2014: the one that has caused all the trouble with the Windrush folks. He has also shown amazing personal endurance, simply by still standing after all the unprecedented and often vile attacks that have been launched at him. Maybe my support for him is naive. From the point of view of his ‘leadership’ image in the Press it might have been better if he had once been a soldier, or a comedy game-show contestant, or at least not made his own jam. But it could mark a real moral revolution in our widely discredited national politics, if he were to win.