When John Profumo was forced to resign from Macmillan’s government in 1963 it wasn’t because he’d had an affair with a call girl, but because he’d lied about it. Lying was considered to be far more reprehensible than illicit sex. That was probably just as well, in view of the sexual shenanigans we know many eminent politicians got up to in the 1960s, which were generally hidden from the public view however by a more respectful (or deferential) press. Today, illicit sex by public figures is probably even more widely tolerated than it was then – and of course a lot of what was ‘illicit’ then isn’t illicit any more, like homosexuality, thankfully – unless it involves really nasty stuff, like paedophilia, or ‘harrassment’. That’s all to the good.
Lying, however, seems to me to have lost much of the opprobrium that used to attach to it. No-one in the present government has actually been sacked, or even reprimanded, for the lies they told during the European referendum campaign, like the ‘£350 million a week going to the EU’ that was plastered on the side of the Brexiteers’ battle bus, and remained there even after it was revealed as a falsehood; and the many others trotted out on both sides of that debate. Indeed, Boris Johnson was even promoted. Jeremy Corbyn was about the only participant in that debate who didn’t resort to blatant exaggerations to bolster his case for ‘Remain (on the whole)’; for which he has been almost universally castigated since then for not arguing his party’s case strongly enough. But this is the point: to argue more strongly would have meant his telling lies. This was the aspect of his advocacy I most admired, according as it did with my own reasons for voting his way (I’m not a Euro-fanatic either), and more likely, I’d have thought, to persuade thoughtful people to vote Remain than apocalyptic visions of death and destruction that would, we were told by its more forceful advocates, be bound to follow Brexit. It’s one of my reasons for supporting Corbyn more generally. He may make mistakes, but he doesn’t tell deliberate untruths. Unfortunately, that’s one of the things that make him seem old-fashioned; a throwback to the days of honour – ‘trust me’, ‘I cannot tell a lie’, ‘a gentleman’s word is his bond’ – now long past. Admittedly, men and women told porkies then, often huge ones; but they were usually reviled for it when they were found out. Today that attitude seems innocent, even naive. Of course people – especially politicians, and estate agents – lie. It’s expected. Which is why parliament and parliamentarians are not trusted any more.
That last effect explains why earlier – in the 19th century, say – so much emphasis was placed on probity in public affairs. It covered not only politics, but also industry and finance, personal relations, and even policing. It’s why, as I showed in Plots and Paranoia, policemen were not allowed to go ‘undercover’ – that is, implicitly lie about their identity – for most of that century. Of course, again, some did, but then, if revealed as ‘spies’, they became universal hate-figures. (The notorious early 19th-century ‘Oliver the Spy’ was one of them.) If Britain’s rulers and their agents acquired the reputation of being systematically deceitful, they would lose the respect of their subjects, on which much of their authority depended. The result of that was almost bound to be popular disobedience – ‘why should we obey them?’ – and an encouragement to deceit more generally. That’s the situation we’ve reached just now. No-one trusts governments, which removes the moral sanction from obedience to authority; and an awful lot of people seem to think that what’s good for the gander is good for the little ducks too: that lying isn’t really serious. Instead the rule of life seems to be that you are entitled to say or do what you can get away with – no more. And getting away with lying is far easier now than it used to be.
The prime example of this in today’s world, of course, is Donald Trump, whose almost daily lies are notorious, and are generally uncovered straightaway, but with no damage being done to him as a result; indeed, if anything, the reverse. That’s because his falsehoods have a certain panache, which appears to be a quality admired more by his followers than honesty; and because they very often chime in with the latters’ prejudices, which are not always based on ‘facts’. This plugs into a widespread popular American discourse of anti-intellectualism, described brilliantly in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas (2005), and, long before that, in Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1966); which systematically devalues expertise (that is, knowing what you’re talking about), as elitist, unnecessarily complicating, East Coast (in America), and the opposite of ‘down to earth’ (whatever that is). That the British Right may be drifting into this position was suggested by Michael Gove’s notorious dismissal of ‘experts’, wholesale, during the ‘Brexit’ debate. He might just as well have dismissed ‘truth’.
I must think some more about the underlying historical reasons for this. The rise of aggressive advertising from the late 19th century onwards must be one of them: see HG Wells’s novel Tono-Bungay (1909). Amoral capitalist speculation will be another: see Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875). Yes, the novelists spotted it! Since then we have had the new profession of ‘Public Relations’ (David Cameron’s first job) to encourage at the very least the embellishment of the truth for gain; TV ‘reality’ shows, which glorify bad behaviour; and an era of increasingly more desperate competition in both private and corporate life, which encourages – even forces – people to cut corners with the truth. I’ve noticed this even in my sheltered academic career: applicants for jobs sexing up their CVs, and university departments manipulating and embellishing their teaching and research records in order to come out high in government ‘quality assessment’ tables, to attract funding. (Gosh, I could tell some tales!) That, of course, is a direct violation of the whole purpose and spirit of universities. The danger will come when this sullies the purity of the ‘expertise’ of which they are, by and large, the main repository.
Mostly, it has to do with money. So – to look at it more generally – it may be a particular function of late capitalism. Capitalism is intrinsically amoral – which is not to say that it always has to be immoral, even in its own interests – and so will usually take the more profitable path. If this involves downright lying, and that is accepted by its customers, because it has come to be seen as ‘normal’, then what’s to stop it?
What stopped – or at least controlled – it in the past were three things. They were Christianity’s moral message; the public schools’ notion of ‘noblesse’ or ‘honour’; and working-class solidarity in trade unions. All of these trumped the capitalist ethos. Of course not all Christian sects, or public schools, especially now, or trade unions lived up to these ideals; but they were there. All three are in decline today. Which means that we’ll have to find other institutions to revive the values, or at least the ideals, of truth and honesty in public life. Corbyn can’t do it on his own.