Notes From the Margins…

The Lie Machine

  • January 23, 2021
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Political lying is not a new phenomenon, but there are many different kinds of political lies.  There are lies that governments tell their populations in order to achieve specific objectives in war and diplomacy.  There are up-front, out-loud lies based on the invention of facts, and  lies that are achieved through the concealment and obfuscation of contradictory fact.

In the Iraq War the British and American governments ‘stovepiped’ intelligence reports and stripped them of caveats and nuance, in order to make a case for war that they knew to be false.  Lying may also become an instrument of governance, intended to confuse, divide and disorientate the public to the point when it is no longer possible to distinguish between lies and truths – something that the political scientist Hannah Arendt once saw as a characteristic of totalitarian governments, and which has also become a technique of ‘post-truth’ rightwing populism.

In a 1971 essay on  the publication of the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam, Arendt observed how  ‘the famous credibility gap’ of successive US governments during the war ‘has suddenly opened up into an  abyss. The quicksand of lying statements of all sorts, deceptions as well as self-deceptions, is apt to engulf any reader who wishes to probe this material.’

Arendt saw ‘the extravagant lengths to which the commitment to nontruthfulness in politics went on the highest level of government’ as a new development that was qualitatively different from the well-established tradition of ‘arcana imperii, the mysteries of government—and deception, the deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends.’

Today the UK is sinking into its own ‘quicksand’ of lies, led by the most flagrantly dishonest government in its history.   This week CNN – increasingly you need to read non UK sources to get any idea of what is actually happening in this country – reported on the ongoing disintegration of the British economy as a result of Brexit.

Writing of the collapse of the fishing industry and the fraying of logistical supply chains, the article observed that ‘While it should be a source of embarrassment for the PM that his deal has made life very difficult for many of the industries that he has championed post-Brexit, Johnson’s public statements on the matter suggest he is oblivious to the reality that many are facing.’

The piece quoted a government spokesman, who claimed ‘From the outset we were clear that we would be leaving the customs union and single market which meant that there would be new processes after the end of the Transition Period. These were widely communicated through our public information campaign.’

CNN also reported that:

Many of Johnson’s Conservative lawmakers are struggling with how to reply to their constituents. “The party gave us lines to read out when the deal came through presenting it as a huge success, but as time goes on, it’s clear there’s quite a lot of nasty surprises in Pandora’s box,” says one Conservative member of parliament who is not permitted to speak on-the-record about government policy outside of their brief.

Few people will be surprised that Johnson is ‘oblivious to the reality that many are facing’ in regards to Brexit, because he has shown the same obliviousness ever since joining the Leave campaign.  Observers of the unfolding Brexit debacle will also have noticed a very Johnsonian willingness to blame other people in his spokesman’s suggestion that hauliers and fishermen ignored clear government guidance.

Never mind that these ‘new processes’ were not clearly explained or ‘widely communicated’, or that many businesses did not even know what they were, because the government itself didn’t know what they were and gave businesses no time to prepare for them.

Such statements are now standard operating procedure from a government with a congenital unwillingness to acknowledge any facts that make it look bad. This is an arrogant government that lies repeatedly to cover its own arse, a government that never takes responsibility for anything, a government whose members are never accountable , never resign and never admit they have done anything wrong.

It is also a government that engages in organised lying, which orders its MPs to recite ‘lines’  on social media and other fora, regardless of whether they believe them to be true, and which prohibits them from saying anything that contradicts its positions.

This modus operandi isn’t  specific to Brexit.  Throughout the pandemic the government has shown the same dishonesty in relation to its numerous failed promises, its dodgy procurement contracts, its u-turns and delays, and the  100,000 death toll – a catastrophic failure of governance that ought to be a resigning matter for any government with even a scintilla of decency and integrity.

For Johnson and his cronies, these qualities are entirely absent.  Lying has become not just a means to a specific end,  but a strategy for power and political survival, based on the belief that the public will always have too short an attention span to notice the discrepancy between what it says is happening and what is actually happening, and that by doing this it will always be able to control the news cycle and remove itself from scrutiny.

There is never a good time to have a government that behaves like this, but there is no worse time than during a pandemic, when trust between the government and the public becomes not merely a key test of democratic legitimacy but a public health management issue.  Hannah Arendt concluded her essay with a quotation from a Vietnam veteran who expressed his hope that ‘ the country might regain its better side as a result of the war. I know it’s nothing to bet on, but neither is anything else I can think of.’

Some of us might express a similar hope that this country might regain its better side as a result of the pandemic.  As long as this government-of-liars remains in power, there is very little chance of that happening, and we will not begin to crawl out of the quicksand into which it has dragged us until we have decisively rejected it.


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  1. Richard Carter

    23rd Jan 2021 - 3:25 pm

    So right – and yet, how can you (or anyone else) explain the apparent fact that a third of the population thinks the government is handling Covid well ( when it’s transparently obvious that they’ve made a total mess of it?

  2. Barry

    23rd Jan 2021 - 11:31 pm

    By heck Matt, for all of us going down for a pint at the Fox and Ferret in our overalls all this chatter in a tongue out of the Rudiments Latin class leaves one one wondering if the intellectuals of the land have any grasp on the problems faced by society today.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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