“The Rise of Political Lying” by Peter Oborne


 Review by Marshall Lord.

“I know from experience that there are still honest politicians around in both the Conservative and Labour parties. But this book is depressingly successful at showing how many others have set out to deceive the voters and why respect for politics is at an all-time low.Oborne appears to have gone to considerable length to make only charges which he can substantiate – doubtless he would have been sued otherwise.

His book starts with an instance of a politician who told the truth and was accused of lying because of it. In 1994 William Waldegrave was asked whether it might ever be acceptable for a minister to say something untrue to the House of Commons, and he replied that in “exceptional circumstances” it might be. This was immediately portrayed as an example of tory sleaze, and various future Labour ministers who would have had to resign if they themselves were held to the standards they demanded, used Waldegrave’s statement to condemn him and the government.

Peter Oborne admits to some feelings of guilt for having sprinted out of the room to file the story, which resulted in a media firestorm, because as he puts it “There was a great irony at work here. William Waldegrave was doing something very rare for a modern politician and trying to give an honest answer to an honest question. If anyone was lying, it was his Labour opponents, who set an impossibly high standard of truth telling, and one they had no intention of meeting themselves. It was Waldegrave’s misfortune that his remarks played straight into the Labour Party strategy. Labour was determined to portray Conservative politicans as cheats and liars.”

Any reader who deduced from this start that the book is not completely balanced and will mostly be an attack on New Labour politicians is absolutely correct. Oborne does devote the next ten pages to attacking lies and deceptions by the Thatcher and Major governments, and rogue individual tories such as Archer, Aitken, and Hamilton. Almost all the remainder of the book denounces New Labour.

But although the book is partisan in the sense that it concentrates on New Labour deceit rather than that by other parties, the details given of the spin, smears, character assassination of anyone who gets in their way, deceptions, double counting spending announcements, and outright lies, are extremely convincing in making the point that the leadership of the present government will say whatever they think they can get away with.

Oborne argues that the New Labour leadership has a “narrative truth” which is what they want to believe and want everyone else to believe, and that their statements about every subject relate to the greatest degree possible to that “narrative” rather than what is happening in the real world which the rest of us inhabit.

He compares and links the attitudes to truth and reality of the Blair government and the George W Bush White House, comparing the roles of Alistair Campbell and Karl Rove. Oborne quotes a senior adviser at the White House who told a journalist that he (the journalist) was part of what the spin doctors called the “reality based community” and added “That’s not the way the world works any more. We’re an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that new reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”

Oborne alleges that the people around both Blair and Bush do not believe in objective reality as most of us understand it, and instead see reality as something which can be shaped, not just by changing what is really happening in the world, but by changing what people think is happening.

The book concludes with six suggestions to try to improve the level of public honesty in Britain – things like establishing a “fact-check” in this country similar to the one which exists in America, making the national statistics office independent. Some of these ideas are quite good: others such as “make political lying a crime” would be very hard to define in such a way that they could effectively be enforced.

Where Oborne is undoubtedly correct is that there is far too much political dishonesty and that what we really need is a change of heart and a refusal to accept this.

Other books which might be of interest to anyone who wants to read more on this subject include “Lying in state” by Tim Slessor, “Dirty Politics, Dirty Times” by Michael Ashcroft, and “The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze.”

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