Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Rise of Political Lying

A book review I wrote for the most recent issue of International Affairs from the RIIA.

The rise of Political Lying - Peter Oborne, Free Press, London, 2005

As any student of politics knows only too well, the art of politics has always involved lying. But for Peter Oborne, New Labour has plunged the art of political lying to an altogether new and more worrying level. In ‘The Rise of Political Lying’ Oborne paints a picture of New Labour and its principal architects of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandleson as men convinced of the righteousness of their cause, be it gaining power, waging war or simply avoiding a scandal that might undermine New Labour’s hold of power. In such a world New Labour’s determination that it is morally imperative that it remain in government no matter what cost or dubious means only hastens the decline of public confidence in politicians, lowers voter turn out and undermines confidence in government. He traces the origins of this mendacity to Labour’s experiences in the 1980-90s when the media led an unrelenting onslaught against Old Labour. This left the founders of New Labour to realise that in such a political game they could only fight fire with fire. For New Labour it seems there is no single objective truth, only what Oborne details as a post-modern view of the world where no single objective truth exists.

In presenting his case against New Labour Oborne goes straight for the jugular by listing a catalogue of lies, half-truths, omissions, evasions, exaggerations, and of course, spin. He examines the record of the central figures such as Mandleson, Campbell and Blair. Many issues such as home loans, dubious statistics, the issue of WMD, legal advice over Iraq, the disclosure of Dr David Kelly’s name have been well rehearsed elsewhere. Instead what this book provides is a collective reminder of the numerous occasions on which the New Labour government’s honesty could be questioned such that with hindsight one cannot help but feel they have made fools of us all. Herein lies the book’s main strength and central weakness. Providing such a devastating list serves a purpose, but in no way does it provide for a fair discussion of New Labours time in government.

More critically, while the book does examine the record of sleaze and misdemeanours of the previous Conservative governments Oborne does so in a way that views it as an almost quaint form of dishonesty. Readers will be equally sceptical of how he seems to paint some form of golden age when political lying was a rare thing. His discussion of the challenge political lying poses to the integrity of the modern political process is welcome, yet the book is committed to examining party political lying and not modern politics with its plethora of campaign groups, NGOs and think tanks each carrying an array of mixed, sometimes questionable messages. The single biggest omission readers will note is discussion of the media’s honesty, something Oborne actually defends albeit it briefly. Indeed, the book works best as a counterweight to John Lloyd’s ‘What the media are doing to Our Politics’ (Constable and Robinson, 2004), which blamed the media, not politicians or New Labour, for corrupting the political culture of the kingdom.

That said, this is a vivid and enjoyable book from an author who writes extremely well. While the one sided nature of the book is its weakness it does paint a picture of bare faced lying, naked ambition, greed and rampant hypocrisy at the heart of New Labour and British politics. One cannot help but wonder whether Machiavelli or even Michael Dobb’s fictitious brute of a Conservative politician turned Prime Minister, Francis Urquhart (House of Cards, Collins, 1989) would baulk at their methods.

Tim Oliver, London School of Economics and Political Science.