There were two major examples of cheating revealed yesterday: by the Brexit side in the EU Referendum (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/mar/26/pressure-grows-on-pm-over-brexit-cambridge-analytica-scandal-theresa-may); and by the Australian cricket team during the last test match against South Africa (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/mar/26/australian-outrage-over-ball-tampering-born-out-of-teams-moralising-hypocrisy). Before you dismiss the latter as merely trivial, remember how important a part sport plays in Australian national culture. As a Remainer, but also an Australophile and a cricket lover, I’m not sure which of these two scandals upsets me more.
Neither surprises me. I’ve already written here about the seamy side of Australian cricket (https://bernardjporter.com/2017/11/21/how-you-play-the-game/), and – at least a dozen times – about the sheer self-serving dishonesty of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. (Other Brexit leaders I’m prepared to excuse, as wrong-headed at best, or stupid.) The good thing about the Australian scandal is the reaction it has provoked among the Australian public, who seem as shocked by it as I am. That says a great deal for them, and for the survival of the good old British ‘fair play’ tradition in their corner of the ex-Empire; and bodes well, I hope, for the future of the game there.
The Brexit side’s cunning side-stepping of British electoral law in the other case is more problematical. It ought to render the result of the referendum invalid, and so trigger another vote. That’s what happens (albeit rarely) in British General Elections; but then only on a constituency basis, with one proven example of election fraud only invalidating, therefore, 1/600th of the total seats in the Commons. In the case of a national referendum, by contrast, we’d have to re-run the whole thing, nation-wide. Just think what the Brexiteers would make of that! They’d obviously paint it as a procedural trick by ‘Remoaners’ who ‘won’t accept the democratic will’. That line of argument might even boost their majority in a re-run, as a way of striking back, again, against the ‘élite’. So it looks as though there’s no way back.
Of course there has always been political trickery and cheating, at least since Machiavelli’s time. (Though my reading of Machiavelli, incidentally, has him explaining all these Princely chicaneries to the people in order to forewarn and fore-arm them.) The difference today is that it has become far more sophisticated than it used to be. The development of the advertising industry since the late 19th century has played a part in that. (See HG Wells’s Tono-Bungay.) With the very recent development of digital targeting (is that the right term?) by companies like Cambridge Analytica, which claims to have swung both the American Presidential election and the EU Referendum, political gerrymandering has reached a peak of influence and power, and one whose techniques are presently only understood by a small minority of nerdish technocrats. It’s this that makes this factor a special danger today: a danger, that is, to true democracy, based – so far as it can be – on transparency and truth.
A decline in public morality might have something to do with it, too. People seem less concerned with ‘truth’ these days, than with what will be believed. That undercover interview with the Board of Cambridge Analytica, which I’ve referenced already (see https://bernardjporter.com/2018/03/21/6525/), illustrated that. I’ve known people who, when quizzed about something or other, are obviously less concerned with veracity than with what they can get away with. When pulled up for this, their argument is that ‘everyone cheats. Haven’t you ever told a lie?’ Well, speaking for myself: No, not knowingly, and not on serious matters. But there are clearly a lot of people for whom this is the only reasonable approach. They distrust everything, and are consequently less likely to be trustworthy themselves. People like me are unrealistic, even naive. I claim I’m neither. I’m aware that many people – especially governments and political parties – lie: I’ve spent half my academic career working on the British Secret Services, for pity’s sake; but I’m unwilling to assume that this is the default position all round. Genuine ‘realism’ acknowledges that some people tell the truth. To assume otherwise can make one a cynic. A sceptic, OK; but a cynic, no. I don’t ever want to become one of those.
Of course it’s impossible to say how ‘new’, or more developed, this kind of approach is today. If it is more widespread, I wouldn’t like to speculate on the reasons. The prevalence of propaganda and its close relative, advertising, is one. The decline of the kinds of religion that emphasise ‘honesty’ might be another. (The Christianity I was brought up in did that.) The schools may be to blame, especially the previously highly honourable – if deficient in so many other ways – ‘Public’ schools. The development of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism is, to my mind, clearly another factor: ‘whatever sells’. The ethic coming over to Europe from the USA, which crudely divides people into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, has had an influence, I think; the sneering cry of ‘Loser!’ from such as Donald Trump and the Daily Mail, exemplifies it. If we have to divide people in terms of their achievements, I’d prefer two subtly different categories: ‘successes’ and ‘failures’. Many ‘losers’ could be classed as ‘successes’ – I’d like to think that I was one – and ‘winners’ can be ‘failures’ in every other sense. Look at the Australian cricket team, even before this last scandal. And Brexit, as I guess we’ll discover eventually. We don’t have to accept cheating in order to win, honourably and genuinely; or to come out better, in a moral sense, than the ‘winners’.