In her final major speech as prime minister, Theresa May made an appeal this week for decency in politics. Specifically, she pleaded the cause of compromise, a call mocked by her critics who claim she was notably unwilling to practise compromise herself. But her argument ranged more widely than that. She spoke of a ‘coarsening of debate’ in contemporary politics and one headline writer summed up her message to successors as ‘Stay Out of the Gutter’. So are we at risk of moving into an era of gutter politics? Indeed… are we already there?
In her speech at Chatham House Mrs May warned that an ‘absolutist’ approach to politics was behind the coarsening of debate. She said: ‘Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others’. She said that technology and, by implication, social media were allowing people ‘to express their anger and anxiety without filter or accountability’. And she said that ‘ill words that go unchallenged are the first step on the way to ill deeds’. These are very much the fundamental beliefs of the daughter of a vicar and not even the fiercest of her political opponents has ever claimed that she conducted herself towards them other than with courtesy and a willingness to let them have their say. All prime ministers have their distinctive tone and manner so it was always the case that whoever succeeded her would bring a style different from that learned in a rectory.
Of course her remarks have been interpreted as a rebuke and a warning to her likely successor, Boris Johnson. But they can just as well be seen as a parting shot, after two years of extraordinary self-discipline and restraint, at Donald Trump. With her, as with virtually everyone else, he has been more than ready to dispense with the courtesies and speak publicly in terms that are not just undiplomatic but downright rude. If one is looking for evidence of a shift from a politics of decency in the way it is conducted to one ‘coarsened’ by routine abuse, then one need look no further than Trump – a man believe is simply unfit to be President. More generally, the question is whether or not democratic politics is moving from decency to the gutter.
Politicians have always been slippery with language. It’s perhaps an inevitable consequence of the fact that in democracies politicians can win and exercise power only by building coalitions, and that requires saying different things to different audiences. And then, of course, there are outright demagogues, though Britain has (so far) been spared too many of them. Mrs May’s point was that words matter for two reasons.
The first is because of their relationship to the truth. In what might be described as a culture of ‘decent’ politics, the basic value is that politicians should speak the truth or pay a penalty if they are exposed as lying. One of the purposes of political interviewing is to try to get politicians to be precise in their use of language and then to test what they say against what is held to be the truth. In such a culture, politicians have to care about their reputation for telling the truth. But one of the indicators that this culture may be dying is that some politicians seem to feel not just that they don’t need to tell the truth but that if they are exposed as not doing so, it won’t matter.
Only this week Boris Johnson roused an audience of the Tory party faithful by berating the European Union for imposing health and safety rules that required kippers to be packaged in plastic wrapping with ice ‘pillows’. It turned out that this regulation had nothing to do with the EU but was a UK government requirement. Of course Mr Johnson may simply have been badly briefed. But given his past as a journalist who made his reputation by making up wholly fictitious stories about the absurdities of Brussels, many suspect that either he knew what he was saying was untrue or that he didn’t care whether it was or it wasn’t. One veteran EU figure remarked that Mr Johnson was one of the originators of ‘fake news’.
Similarly, Donald Trump not only frequently says the opposite one day of what he said the day before but he happily claims not to have said something even when a clip of him saying it can be broadcast again for all to see. His calculation would seem to be that it no longer matters if a politician is caught out saying something that is untrue. What matters is that what he says strikes a chord with those whose support he is courting. If politicians no longer care about being found out lying, then we certainly have moved from away from a political culture in which the testing of a politician’s words against the truth mattered. Political interviewing becomes almost redundant.
But Mrs May cautioned against such a cavalier attitude to the use of language in another sense too. Her point was that ‘ill words’ can lead to ‘ill deeds’. This is where democratic politicians stray into the world of the demagogues.
No better example of this has emerged recently than President Trump’s demand that four radical, non-white Democrat congresswomen should ‘go back’ to the countries from which they came and sort out those countries’ problems rather than criticise what’s going on in America. It’s not just that his remark contained obvious lies (three of the women were born in America); it’s that the effect of his rant was to incite hatred against them.
This is indeed what happened. At a rally in North Carolina at which he spoke, the crowd chanted ‘send her back, send her back!’ about one of the congresswomen, Ilhan Omar. Mr Trump later claimed he felt ‘a little bit badly’ about the chant but many will think the President knew exactly what he was doing and was in fact perfectly happy to have stirred up such feeling among his supporters.
These are the ‘ill deeds’ Mrs May thinks can follow from ‘ill words’ and she publicly condemned the President’s remarks. Her critics again accused her of hypocrisy. They pointed to her support when she was Home Secretary for a public advertisement campaign urging illegal immigrants to ‘go home’.
What all this implies is that many politicians seem only too ready to dispense with a model of politics based on a belief that words are to be used to mount argument and arguments are used to negotiate agreement. The alternative model was defined (and condemned) by Mrs May as ‘one which believes that if you simply assert your view loud enough and long enough you will get your way in the end. Or that mobilising your own faction is more important than bringing others with you.’
Earlier this year the former American president, George Bush Senior, died. In a tribute to him, Sir John Major, who had been British prime minister during much of his presidency, said he had been one of the most decent men he had ever encountered in politics. Few of his contemporaries, whether supporters or opponents, would have disagreed. Of course you don’t become American president without engaging in some dodgy footwork and no doubt Mr Bush did his share. But Sir John’s point was that it wouldn’t have occurred to him to challenge the basic culture of ‘decent’ politics and he was known, despite being a fellow Republican, to have withheld his vote from Donald Trump. Many would claim that Sir John also represents that culture and he has recently become outspoken in condemning what he sees as threats to it in the behaviour of some contemporary British politicians.
Some people may say that both Mr Bush and Sir John were grey, dull politicians who both got thrown out of office by the electorate. In the world we are now in, ‘decency’ doesn’t win elections and Donald Trump has shown that a very different way of doing things can, well, turn up trumps. But if that’s the case, is it the politicians who are to blame for abandoning the sort of politics Mrs May was advocating this week? Or does the fault lie with us, the public, who encourage the shift by voting for those who use language, unconcerned about its relationship to the truth and unbothered by the fear that ‘ill words’ can lead to ‘ill deeds’?
What’s your view? Let us know.