It’s time we stopped allowing ourselves to be deceived, writes Gavin Esler
Once upon a time, in the Land of Make-Believe, a lonely president called Donald tweeted at all hours of the day, offering fantastic stories about his life. One Christmas Donald tweeted that he was working hard in the Oval Office. But even in the Land of Make-Believe facts and evidence still existed. When an American president works in the Oval Office, a US Marine Corps guard stands outside under the portico and is visible to any passerby from Pennsylvania Avenue. There was no Marine guard. There was therefore no president hard at work, except possibly on a golf course. Most Americans knew Donald Trump was lying. He often did. But what was astounding was that for tens of millions it made no difference – big lies, small lies, lying about “winning” a “stolen” election, or being against the 2003 Iraq War when publicly he supported it, or even the “popularity” of his 2017 inauguration, when every TV viewer could see how poorly attended it was.
Trump’s lying output was extraordinary. By 13 July 2020 The Washington Post reported: “It took President Trump 827 days to top 10,000 false and misleading claims… an average of 12 claims a day. But… just 440 days later, the president crossed the 20,000 mark – an average of 23 claims a day over a fourteen-month period… the tsunami of untruths just keeps looming larger and larger.” By election day 2020 the total was 25,000. Trump averaged 50 lies a day throughout the campaign. Americans were told that what they saw or heard wasn’t really happening, like that old Marx Brothers gag: “Who’re you gonna believe? Me? Or your own eyes?” In the 1944 George Cukor film Gaslight a woman is manipulated by her husband into believing she is going insane as a distraction from his own crimes. The plot depends on two things – the callous confidence of the liar and the complicity of the victim. Some 71 million voters believed Trump over the evidence of their own eyes, complicit in his gaslighting of their nation. In Britain, this all sounds familiar.
Bill Clinton’s lie almost ended his presidency, yet when I covered his impeachment it was clear Clinton was not the only man in the room to lie about sex
I spent a year of my life working on one lie. The lie was: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” I was the BBC’s chief correspondent in North America. Bill Clinton’s lie almost ended his presidency, yet when I covered his impeachment it was clear Clinton was not the only man in the room to lie about sex. Some of those prosecuting him, including the Republican leader Newt Gingrich and Congressman Henry Hyde, were hardly models of sexual probity. Clinton survived. He left office more popular than when his presidency began. For me, it confirmed an observation from a Victorian-era British statesman, Sir Henry Taylor, who pointed out that: “Falsehood ceases to be falsehood when it is understood on all sides that the truth is not expected to be spoken.” We don’t expect the truth about sex. We don’t expect the truth when ticking the box saying we have read and understood the “Terms and Conditions” when buying online. And we don’t expect the truth from Boris Johnson, because post-Brexit British public life is so corrupted that “it is understood on all sides that the truth is not expected to be spoken.”
In July the Labour MP Dawn Butler accused Boris Johnson of lying. For that she was ejected from the House of Commons. Johnson remained. “The Prime Minister has lied to this house time and time again,” Butler told the deputy speaker, Judith Cummins. Cummins asked Butler to “reflect on her words”, and Butler responded: “It’s funny that we get in trouble in this place for calling out the lie, rather than the person lying.” Like Galileo, forced to recant for suggesting the earth moved round the sun, Butler spoke the observable truth. Like Galileo she was punished for it. But, as Galileo himself noted, “Eppur si muove,” (and yet it moves). The truth, and the evidence, is out there. Everywhere.
Max Hastings, Johnson’s former editor at the Daily Telegraph, speaks of Johnson’s “moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth”. Peter Oborne wrote a book about Johnson’s lies. So did Heathcote Williams. Its subtitle is “A Study in Depravity.” SNP MP Ian Blackford tried to get round parliamentary custom by saying: “I can’t possibly call the PM a liar in this house, but… are you a liar, Prime Minister?”
After Brexit “there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade,” Johnson said. False. “There won’t be checks” on goods between Britain and Northern Ireland, he promised. There are. “There’s no question of there being checks,” he repeated – and again, “there will be no checks from GB to NI,” and no “kind of division in the Irish Sea”. Johnson claims there have been 60 new trade deals with countries around the world, but these are continuity deals, not new. The government claims it is building 48 new hospitals, but a “new hospital” is now defined as an extension to an existing hospital. They have even been gaslighting us about gas. In The Sun on 30 May 2016 – a month before the Brexit vote – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove promised that “fuel bills will be lower for everyone”. In September 2021 gas prices rose by 70%. Visiting the United States Johnson announced he was growing “increasingly frustrated” that commitments by rich countries on climate change are “nowhere near enough” – the same month his government cut back on British climate change promises in order to sign a trade deal with Australia. Inevitably, when Johnson’s government ministers told the British people there was no need to panic-buy petrol, long queues immediately formed at petrol stations.
Boris Johnson’s wage claims recall the old phrase — there are lies, damn lies, and statisticshttps://t.co/x8IR71jEk5
— Peter Stefanovic (@PeterStefanovi2) October 7, 2021
The lawyer and journalist Peter Stefanovic relentlessly pursues Johnson’s public lies on social media. He points out, in a video watched at least 35 million times, that Johnson lies about CO2 emissions, about restoring the nurses’ bursary, about free hospital car parking, the decline of poverty, the UK’s “unique” test and trace system, “record” investment in the NHS and just about anything else which takes his flight of fancy. Then there are the dodgy answers about £800 for a roll of wallpaper, the “benefactors” who helped pay for Downing Street refurbishment, the Covid contracts and all those Brexit-related problems from the shortage of agricultural workers and HGV drivers to lack of food on supermarket shelves – none of which, in Britain’s Land of Make-Believe, has anything to do with Brexit. Curiously, you may think, the government’s solution to the shortage of HGV drivers (“nothing to do with Brexit”) is to ease post-Brexit immigration rules for HGV drivers. In the 1960s the CIA coined a phrase to allow political leaders to lie confidently: plausible deniability. In Britain we have something even more brazen, implausible deniability. And when a cross-party group of MPs went to see the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, to complain that the UK is led by a liar for whom parliamentary rules rooted in Victorian times do not work, the Green MP Caroline Lucas demanded “new rules for this Trumpian era of British politics”. The result was… nothing.
But you already know all this, don’t you?
Boris Johnson lies, but not because he is Nietzsche’s strongman, the Übermensch, determinedly solving problems. He lies because he is weak, a narcissist who offers only slogans instead of solutions
Every November (coronavirus permitting) a pub in Wasdale – a small village in Cumbria – holds the “World’s Biggest Liar” competition. Competitors have five minutes to tell the biggest and most convincing lies. The rules bar politicians from taking part because they are said to be too skilled at lying. This is unfair to most politicians, but such low expectations are easily met by the Prime Minister. There are those, including Nietzsche, who defend lying, claiming that weak people demand the clarity of truth whereas the strong revel in ambiguity and lies. Aristotle condemned all lying, while Plato concluded that lying is justified in certain circumstances. As Winston Churchill put it, in warfare, “truth is so precious she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” I’m with Plato and Churchill. There are strategic lies, permissible to protect a nation at war, and there are selfish lies, designed only to protect a shifty politician and get him through the day. Boris Johnson’s self-serving lies gaslight our nation. He has no ideology. He has only a style. Johnson’s style is that anything good for Boris Johnson is worth any amount of deception, and his sniggering is directed at the stupidity of the rest of us for tolerating it. Nietzsche was wrong. Weak people do not demand the clarity of truth. Weakness is demanding clarity at the expense of truth. The truth is that complex problems – global heating, economic underachievement, social inequality – demand complex solutions. Instead, we are treated to the clarity and simplicity of lies, because, as another movie from the Land of Make-Believe, A Few Good Men, has it: “You can’t handle the truth.” Like so many of those in TrumpLand, we tolerate gaslighting from a government which claims Brexit is miraculously “done” even as they seek to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol; food shortages and transport disruption have “nothing to do with Brexit” despite the loss of agricultural workers and EU truck drivers; Britain is “levelling up,” and “Global Britain” is admired, rather than pitied around the world. Alexander Stubb, former Prime Minister of Finland and a good friend of Britain tweeted the truth that dare not speak its name: “Really sad to see what #Brexit is doing to a country that used to be great. Brexit is the biggest mistake a modern nation state has inflicted on itself in recent history.”
Reading news about petrol shortages and other supply problems in the UK. Really sad to see what #Brexit is doing to a country that used to be great. Brexit is the biggest mistake a modern nation state has inflicted on itself in recent history. Hope to see an end to this mess.
— Alexander Stubb (@alexstubb) September 25, 2021
Boris Johnson lies, but not because he is Nietzsche’s strongman, the Übermensch, determinedly solving problems. He lies because he is weak, a narcissist who offers only slogans instead of solutions. He is enabled by the deluge of information in our disinformation age. Most of us do not have time to find the truth, to factcheck every confident assertion. We tolerate lies because we do not expect the truth. In Cukor’s 1944 film, the heroine eventually realises she is not insane and that the person gaslighting her is wicked. Johnson government gaslighting does not mean Britain is insane. Insanity is that we continue to tolerate it.
Gavin Esler is a writer, broadcaster and author, most recently, of “How Britain Ends”