Honesty in politics: an over-rated virtue?

September 10, 2021, 3:18 PM UTC

It was almost brazen. One sketch-writer said the Prime Minister was ‘itchy for action’ and couldn’t wait to get up in the House of Commons and announce that he was going to break not just one election promise but two. Sure, he’d made a solemn promise to the voters back in 2019 that he wouldn’t put up the big taxes and that the ‘triple lock’ on pensions was safe with him. But that was then – and now was now. The triple lock was for the birds, at least for this year. And as for tax, it turned out he was going to put his hand into voters’ pockets more deeply than at any time since 1950. Sorry, folks. Many of his colleagues were appalled: wouldn’t voters wreak a terrible revenge? But Mr Johnson was blithe, as if breaking promises is no big deal, just an inevitable part of the game of politics, indeed of life in general. People forget, the world moves on, other things come to matter more. Could he be right? Could it be that honesty in politics isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, or what the more fastidious among us would like it to be?

The Prime Minister had, of course, a good alibi for going back on his word. To pre-empt those primed to read out the 2019 Tory manifesto as evidence for the prosecution, he simply said: ‘A global pandemic wasn’t in our manifesto either’. Covid had created the world anew. Except that, even before the pandemic, his critics had been pointing out that this profligate giver of promises was offering goodies that were incompatible with each other. He’d promised on the steps of No 10, the very day he became prime minister, that he’d got a plan for finally sorting the crisis in social care, and then, four months later in the election campaign, he solemnly pledged that he wouldn’t put up the main taxes. But anyone could see he couldn’t do both and that he hadn’t the foggiest how he was going to square the circle. It perhaps explains why, unlike all previous recent prime ministers, he refused during the campaign to submit himself to the sort of rigorous interview in which pesky interviewers pose such awkward questions.

Mr Johnson’s approach to such tedious problems of detail seems to be Mr Micawber’s: something will turn up. And sure enough it did. Covid may have had its downsides – indeed it nearly killed him – but it has had its upsides too. It turned the incompatibility of his promises into a mere curiosity of the past. It meant every reasonable person would accept that new calculations would now have to be made and if the consequence was that social care could be tackled only by bunging up tax, then Covid would obviously be to blame. You can’t argue with a virus.

To some this is all par for the course with Boris Johnson. To such people there is only one thing you need to know about this scoundrel and it’s that he’s incorrigibly, opportunistically dishonest. Whether it’s his journalism, his relationships with women, or the way he conducts his political life, there is one constant: he’s a ceaseless liar. If it suits him to win some short-term personal advantage, whether it be a ‘good’ column, a seduction, or climbing further up the greasy pole, he will lie. Of course the lies get found out. Of course such behaviour creates chaos and people get hurt. And of course a reputation for utter unreliability starts to build up. But, hey, that’s how life is and you just keep going, crossing your fingers, turning your back on the collateral victims of your conduct, banking on the chance that people forget, and keeping your pecker up by knowing that Micawber was almost certainly right. Hasn’t he proved that you can get a long way with these methods?

To people who see Mr Johnson in these terms he is quite simply beyond the pale. To them it is nothing less than an outrage that a country should be governed by a man who not only breaks election promises but signs international treaties he then at once disowns and keeps a cabinet of duds just so that he can throw them, one at a time, to the wolves when it suits him to keep the wolves fed. If you’re Hilary Mantel, it’s enough to make you want to flee the country. Almost as bad is that people should actually vote for such a figure and that he goes on being popular despite all the accumulating evidence of his perfidy. It must be that the electorate beyond north London is simply stupid and can’t see what is staring them in the face – yet another reason to get the hell out of this wretched country.

But is there, perhaps, another explanation for the Prime Minister’s electoral and political success, one that denies nothing on this charge sheet against him as a duplicitous scoundrel but which says that none of this matters and that it might even have some advantages – one that concludes ‘Let’s give a chance to a chancer’?

Textbooks on democratic political theory will tell you that a country is run best when a government is elected as the result of a competition between politicians who have convictions and are honest. We, the voters, choose the ones whose convictions we share and then trust them to have the honesty to do their best in applying those convictions to this imperfect world. The best example of such a politician in recent years is probably Margaret Thatcher. It would be hard to deny that she had convictions: it was she who said ‘consensus’ was a dirty word and was quite ready, with anyone who didn’t share her convictions, to rub them up the wrong way. Ask the miners.

Honesty, by and large, goes along with conviction because conviction politicians have to persuade. It’s not that Mrs Thatcher was always honest: politics rarely allows that and she told her share of porkies (see Westland). It’s rather that conviction politicians have to convince sceptical voters that they mean what they say and wouldn’t just say anything that suits the moment. To do that they have to come across as honest. It was as much a tribute to her honesty as to her sense of conviction that Tony Benn, who disagreed with virtually everything she stood for, said that she was primarily a teacher. But honest, conviction politicians succeed only until they don’t, until that point when voters feel they’ve had a bellyful of the relentless conviction and would prefer a quieter life. Mrs Thatcher was succeeded by John Major who promised to make Britain ‘a country at ease with itself’, the last thing the Iron Lady had in mind. And he got himself re-elected on that platform.

Of course many people go into politics without any convictions at all. They may do so as status-seekers (the ambition to become ‘world king’), or out of a sense of entitlement and the self-assurance that they will be ‘good at it’, or because they suffer from some form of narcissistic personality disorder, or for any number of reasons. For such politicians honesty, or a reputation for honesty, can be a sort of cover for the lack of conviction: we may not know what such a politician stands for but at least they seem honest. The trouble here is that because it is so hard to remain honest in politics, once the dishonesty is rumbled there’s nothing else to fall back on and the politician becomes tarnished goods.

But there is a completely different way of ‘doing’ politics which high-falutin’ textbooks on democratic theory tend to overlook. It is to have neither convictions nor honesty and to make no pretence to either. What’s more, despite our pious claims that we prefer honest politicians who believe in something, there is no guarantee that we’ll end up favouring such seemingly high-minded politicians over the rascals. And it is at least arguable whether we should.

The classic contest between these two ways of doing politics is that between Gladstone and Disraeli. Gladstone was the high-principled, high-Anglican moralist, a man of strong convictions about everything under the sun. Disraeli was the dodger and weaver, who would change his position on almost anything with lightning speed and to suit his own advantage as much as what he took to be the country’s. The grandees of the Conservative Party held their noses when he became their leader and even after he’d gone. His successor, Lord Salisbury, once asked a young man applying for a job in the party whether he thought the Liberal Gladstone or the Tory Disraeli was the greater figure. The young man, for obvious reasons, thought he’d better say Disraeli but the answer cost him the job. Salisbury, despite sharing few of Gladstone’s convictions, nonetheless revered his rival and was a pall-bearer at his funeral, but for years the conviction-free Disraeli remained below the salt for the high-minded in his party. Yet he won them elections, promoted reform and emerged as one of the giants of the nineteenth century. How could such an unscrupulous rogue become such a figure?

The answer lies in one of the great illusions about politics. We like to imagine that our leaders can control things: all that democratic theory stuff about competition between politicians with different convictions is predicated on the idea that we choose the ones who will then shape the world according to the convictions we prefer. But it’s rarely quite like that.

Canute was the first to point out the limits of political power when he took his court down to the beach and demonstrated that he couldn’t stop the tide coming in even though he was the king. That was from the shoreline. But to understand a politician’s relationship with the reality he is supposed to control it’s better to go out to sea and imagine the politician surfing a wave. The politician’s skill lies not in controlling the wave’s direction (which he can’t) but in riding it, and if the surfboard contains too much of the inflexible material of conviction, the surfer can all too easily land in the soup. There’s a role for dodgers and weavers in politics as well as in surfing.

Whether Boris Johnson can skilfully ride the waves (as Disraeli did) remains to be seen, but it may well be that it’s his dodging and weaving that some voters are attracted to. It’s not, with due respect to the outraged of north London, that voters out in the sticks are too stupid to see the man as they do, as a sort of unscrupulous used-car salesman; it’s rather that, for some of them, he comes across as a genuine unscrupulous used-car salesman, to whom they think it might be worth giving a go.

The point about such car salesmen is that it doesn’t follow automatically that they’ll sell you a dud car. They may do, and probably will; but you might pick up something that will last perfectly well for a year or two. And if you feel that all the ‘above board’ car salesmen haven’t really been delivering for you in recent years, why not give the dodgy one a whirl? That would seem to reflect the attitude of the so-called ‘Red Wall Tories’ who switched sides and gave the Prime Minister his thumping majority at the last election. Such dissatisfied voters had been waiting for something to turn up and Boris Johnson did. Polls show they (and other voters) aren’t too bothered about him breaking his promise on tax, probably because they never believed him in the first place. But, they might say, he’s doing something about social care, isn’t he, when all those earlier politicians, for all their ‘convictions’ and ‘honesty’, didn’t get anywhere? And though the social care stuff may turn out to be a smoke and mirrors act too, well, we can always dump Boris and wait until a better surfer of events turns up. Isn’t that how politics really works?

So do we want Gladstone or Disraeli? Does it matter if politicians are dishonest in the promises they make, especially if we don’t believe them in the first place? Are you concerned or not that the Prime Minister has ratted on two big electoral promises? And do you think he will end up despised (as some already despise him) as just a self-serving chancer who sacrificed the country to his own ends, or that the very fact of his being such a chancer could prove, as it did with Disraeli, to be of benefit to the country?

Let us know what you think.