Iain Gray: Beware the black art of post-truth politics

Repeating a statement often enough does not make it fact, no matter how much our politicians want it to, writes Iain Gray

Anyone trying to understand Rupert Murdoch’s recent interventions in Scottish politics should look to the United States. There, heavyweight commentators Paul Krugman and Ari-Rabin Havt have developed a political paradigm called “post-truth politics”, propagated by Republicans and Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. They identify statements that are systematically repeated to shape or “frame” political debate. As the title suggests, they are not true, but repetition establishes them in the public mind, the media’s lexicon and sometimes even the vocabulary of the very politicians they are designed to hurt.

There are two kinds of post- truth. In the first, politicians say one thing while doing the opposite. Republicans talk about free markets and competition, but they support subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and tariffs to defend US production from imports. They shout about the need to reduce the US deficit, but vote for tax cuts which increase it. This is not new; “conservative” Ronald Reagan blew the deficit into the stratosphere and “liberal” Bill Clinton got it under control. But the gap between Republican rhetoric and reality has become an artform that can convince Americans to break the first law of politics and vote against their self-interest: blue collar workers supporting tax cuts for billionaires.

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The second variant simply defies the evidence. Krugman uses the example from Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney: “I will reverse President Obama’s massive defence cuts.” Presumably this garners stump speech applause, but the fact is that defence spending has risen under Obama.

Post-truth politics is already here. Think about the efforts of the UK coalition to convince us that Labour left the worst national debt in Britain’s history. It was repeated so often it must be true. Except that the national debt was higher in 200 of the past 250 years than it was in 2010.

I admit that Labour politicians do a bit of this. I have talked about “Thatcher’s cuts” with the best of them. But the public sector actually grew during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Doubtless Alistair Darling was remembering that when, as chancellor, he made his “deeper than Margaret Thatcher” comment. Alistair is no post-truth politician.

For post-truth, though, the SNP is hard to beat. After all, did it not study US campaigning to win an “overwhelming majority in 2011”? Maybe, except that it won four seats more than the 65 required. A majority yes, overwhelming, no. The SNP vote was 45 per cent. Stunning, yes, but a majority, no, especially when you consider that it is 45 per cent of the 50 per cent who voted.

Perhaps I am just sore because, “the Labour vote collapsed”? Well, Labour’s regional vote in 2011 was 2.8 per cent down. In constituencies the fall was 0.5 per cent. Disappointing, very, but collapse? Hardly. I have acknowledged how badly Labour lost to the SNP. But when Alex Salmond says “the SNP won an overwhelming majority and the Labour vote collapsed”, welcome to post-truth Scotland.

How about, “the SNP abolished tuition fees”. In fact, Labour and the Liberal Democrats abolished them in 2000. Or “the SNP protected the NHS budget”. It has been cut by £300 million. How many times do you hear that “the SNP abolished the hated private finance initiative”? No matter how often, it is still not true. The SNP renamed it and carried on with a £2.5 billion PFI programme. When finance secretary John Swinney talks about supporting capital investment with revenue, he means PFI.

For post-truth politics, you cannot touch Swinney on the economy. For months he has been saying “our jobs market continues to outperform the UK” and “the measures the Scottish Government is taking to strengthen recovery and boost economic activity are working”. Yet Scotland has lower growth, higher unemployment and slightly lower employment rates than the UK.

Meanwhile, listen out for every SNP politician saying “support for independence is growing”. Expert opinion, like that of John Curtice of Strathclyde University, is clear that opinion polls show no such thing. Support for independence peaked in 2007, and has remained steady or even fallen through the years of SNP government.

These carefully crafted and oft repeated lines are designed to create a sense of positive achievement and forward momentum. They are not meant to reflect the facts, but to frame the narrative. That is post-truth politics.

In the US, Murdoch’s Fox News is the post-truth medium. Republican contenders are made and unmade by Fox. Anyone puzzled by the sudden rise and rapid disappearance of Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrinch should not be. Each one was briefly the darling of Fox News in its search for a “conservative” alternative to Romney.

We have no Fox News. But Murdoch’s newspapers were cheerleaders for the SNP in last year’s election, even organising an election event for Salmond. In December Murdoch’s Times crowned the First Minister “Briton of the Year”. Last week Murdoch tweeted his support for Salmond and for separatism. This week the Times provides the First Minister with a platform for a keynote speech.

The reasons for this are clear. Last year, a Sun editorial said that the SNP had won its support by cutting the public sector faster than anywhere else in the UK. And Murdoch’s Twitter reference to Scotland “competing” is coded support for SNP promises to slash taxes for big business. These are policies close to his heart, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The First Minister might claim to have invented Obama’s “yes we can” slogan and sneaked a camera into a meeting with Hillary Clinton, snatching a star-struck photo with the Democrat icon. But make no mistake; SNP strategy comes straight out of the Republican playbook.

Iain Gray is Labour MSP for East Lothian and his party’s former Holyrood leader