Boris Johnson's lies over Brexit, Partygate and the rest are on collision course with hard reality – Joyce McMillan
April Fool’s Day; and the date seems appropriate, for an age in which many of our leaders seem dedicated to taking us all for fools, and getting away with it.
For many in the UK, the outstanding current example is of course the Prime Minister, still refusing to admit that the law was broken on his watch, at No 10, on multiple occasions during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021; despite the fact that the police – finally doing to Boris Johnson’s inner circle what they would have done to the rest of us on the spot, months or years ago – have issued at least 20 notices of fines to people who attended parties there.
At the time, and particularly in the first lockdown of 2020, the same Prime Minister was warning the rest of us that we had to stay at home, work from home, educate our children at home, and only go out once a day for some brief exercise.
We could meet one other person from a different household, provided we only exercised outdoors together, and did not stop to socialise; and of course, people everywhere were forbidden to visit elderly relatives in care or those in hospital, who were suffering alone, dying alone, and often being mourned by people who were alone. For most of us at that time, parties of any sort were simply unthinkable.
Yet this is an experience – a very real one, etched on millions of memories – that Boris Johnson and those who continue to support him are now trying to efface, with their blithe talk of “just a few parties”, and their inaccurate claims that “everyone broke the rules” – no, we did not – and that when it came to Covid, Boris Johnson “got all the big decisions right”; when in fact – from locking down too late in 2020, to squandering billions on unusable equipment, to presiding over the highest death toll in western Europe – the Johnson government got many of those “big decisions” tragically wrong.
Lying in politics is nothing new, of course; fooling most of the people most of the time has always been the name of the game, for some politicians.
No-one denies, though, that the lying and “gaslighting” – the imposition of narratives that directly contradict people’s lived experience – has taken on a new intensity in the age of mass electronic communications and the internet.
For years, in the decade between 2010 and 2020, western thinkers and pundits were preoccupied with the narrative-shifting techniques allegedly developed by Vladimir Putin and his close advisor Vladislav Surkov, and the impact they might be having on western politics – for example during Britain’s EU referendum, and during the Trump presidency; a concern which, in western minds, slightly overshadowed the almost unchallenged power of the present Russian regime to impose fabricated narratives on its own people, a clear 70 per cent of whom, according to polls, now fully accept the official account of Russia trying to “save” Ukraine from a government of “Nazi drug addicts”, cynically bombing its own people.
And the question that remains for all of us, in this age of lying liars in power, is what weapons we have against their false narratives. To begin with, it seems to me that we as voters and citizens have to become expert at not tarring all politicians with the same brush.
The politician does not exist, after all, who has never told a lie; indeed to present yourself in a positive light to the electorate, as a democratic politician must, is almost inevitably to gloss over sins and errors, and to exaggerate achievements.
There is a difference, though, between politicians who tell half-truths to burnish their political record, and politicians who commit themselves wholesale to a grand narrative which they know to be false; a difference between the everyday evasions of political debate, and the chill of having your known reality completely contradicted and denied, whether over Covid in the UK, or war in Ukraine, or the threat of climate change.
And in making these distinctions, citizens will also need the help of a new generation of journalists, less wedded to the now dysfunctional idea of “impartiality” between competing political actors, and instead dedicated to establishing facts and exposing the truth, wherever they may find it.
It’s also vital, I think, that we learn to call out the idea, very popular in some elite circles, that reality now barely exists, and can always be batted away by a new narrative line.
Concepts to do with human rights and freedoms, with the rule of law and good governance, may have first been codified in the context of a deeply flawed and imperialistic western civilisation.
The ideas themselves, though, have a fundamental strength and validity that transcends that history; and wherever people are subjected to unbearable suffering because of the actions of others – Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, or among the most vulnerable in supposedly wealthy countries – those values resurface in the ancient cry for justice, for compassion, for human dignity and freedom, and for the accountability of those in power.
So try telling a woman whose toddler is starving to death in the ruins of Mariupol, or who is struggling to protect her Pacific island home from ever-rising seawater, or who is sitting in a cold house somewhere in Britain looking at a power bill she can never pay, that reality no longer exists, and can no longer bite.
As Robert Burns wrote, long ago, “facts are chiels that winna ding”. And sooner or later – unless we commit ourselves once more to a politics broadly based on truth, and face up, together, to the facts as we know them, and the response they demand – reality will come for us all; in a way that no narrative can disguise, and from which no virtual alternative can protect us, any more.
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