On Thursday we go to the polls, and on Friday we wake up to the find out the fate of the United Kingdom. Everybody agrees that it is an election of immense significance, possibly the most important election in the lifetime of anybody voting. If many people agree on that, then there are also many who agree that the choice with which most voters are confronted is not a particularly attractive one. Metaphors abound to express the feeling that the two main options are not particularly attractive. Between a rock and a hard place, between the devil and the deep blue sea – these expressions are being bandied about by those who find themselves worried by the extremism that has infected the two largest parties in this election.
Thursday, I suspect, will feel strange. There will be a certain sense of foreboding in the air, just as there was on that day in 2014 when Scotland had its referendum. Whatever position one took on that question – whether one was yes or no – the atmosphere was one of anxious anticipation. I remember going into the centre of Edinburgh on that day and finding that everything seemed unnaturally quiet. It was as if people were holding their breath. I suspect that this coming Thursday will be rather like that. People will be thinking of the importance of what is being decided. Privately we shall all be thinking of what it will be like if the wrong side – depending, of course on one’s allegiance – should win. In the past, when politics were more centrist and when the divisions in the body politic were less stark, people could, broadly speaking, live with whatever result came about. It’s not like that now. For many, the wrong outcome will signal the end of everything.
One might be forgiven for thinking of this election as a tragedy being played out before our eyes. Our country – whether one is thinking of the United Kingdom or of Scotland – used to be a place of civility. Politics have always involved an element of rough and tumble, but there was consensus as to certain values, including those of democracy and the courteous exchange of views. One of the values that seemed to me to be given great weight in our political culture and in public life generally was truth. People in public office did not tell lies and there was general agreement that in important matters there was such a thing as objectively verifiable truth. That truth could be interpreted in different ways, of course, but by and large it was accepted that you did not try to refute facts by simply asserting their opposite. If a politician lied, then this would be greeted with disapproval. Facts, after all, were facts and were respected.
Lying used to be risky
And then, rather suddenly, the assault on truth occurred. Shameless lying became normal, and seemed to attract little opprobrium. Moreover, it became apparent that if you asserted a falsehood long enough, and vigorously enough, it somehow became a new truth. This meant that a patently false claim may be believed by a public that has lost its ear for the lie. Lying, once a risky strategy for one involved in public life, became an unremarkable activity, even if the lies were breath-taking in their obviousness.
We all know that this is happening, and we all have seen some egregious examples over the last few months. These lies encompass electoral promises that the politicians making them know are impossible. The essential mistruth is then compounded by untruths and obfuscation when it comes to the funding of the promises. That may involve blatant manipulation of figures. There are few hard sums in the current debate because these hard sums can simply be denied or concealed in optimistic accounting. Bad news can be re-described as good news, as was done recently in Scotland, when abysmal figures relating to our international competitiveness were simply described as promising by the relevant governmental authorities. And there are many other examples of a similar lack of truthfulness by other parties. The Conservatives have been making unlikely claims about hospital construction, and Labour has failed to explain funding of its extravagant projects. The naked bribery involved in these issues has been described as rampant populism by politicians now out of the fray, but used to a more principled tradition of political responsibility.
Remember fate of Matilda
Where does all this lying come from? It cannot simply be that politicians as a breed have suddenly been infected with mendacity – dishonesty in public life must come from trends in society as a whole. This suggests that if we are encountering a marked lack of truth in public life, then this is because people in general have stopped seeing lying as wrong or, even if they acknowledge it wrongfulness, are not particularly bothered about it. A moral society will see lies as an outrage: a slack, or indifferent society will simply say “whatever”.
A possible explanation is that we have stopped teaching children that lying is wrong. There is, of course, moral education in schools, and values are imparted in various ways in the classroom. But I wonder whether the teaching of veracity is vigorous and unambiguous enough. In the distant past – that is, when anybody now over 60 was at school – children had commandments and rules drilled into them. These were sometimes learned by rote so that they became deeply rooted in the psyche, or, to put it another way, they became moral habits of the heart. Don’t tell fibs because it’s against the rules. And if you do, then your nose will grow longer or your pants will go on fire.
Our current crop of public figures taking a cavalier view of the truth may well be doing so because they don’t have that deep, inbuilt aversion to untruth that prevents the proliferation of lies. They may never have been subjected to the moral lessons of the Struwwelpeter or even Belloc’s Cautionary Tales. Remember Matilda who told such dreadful lies? She was burnt to a cinder in a fire because nobody believed her. “And for every time she shouted ‘Fire’/ They only answered ‘Little liar.’” A failure to inculcate habits of virtue – including telling the truth – may take a long time to play through the system, but eventually it comes home to roost, and we end up with public figures who simply do not tell the truth. Is that the point we have now reached? Belloc might have the last word: “And therefore, when her aunt returned/ Matilda and the house were burned.”