Posted on February 7, 2020
‘In England,’ wrote George Orwell, ‘such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions.’ You have to wonder what the old boy would have made of the current state of affairs, not just in his homeland, but across the globe.
I don’t pretend to possess any profound psychological insights into the human condition, but a lifetime of working with young people does furnish you with a pretty sharp sense of what makes people tick. Although most people, young and old, with whom I’ve worked have been honest, reliable and good-natured, among their number has been a handful of committed, pathological liars. Quite often the outcomes of the convoluted webs they weave for themselves have been downright comical. And that’s OK if it’s nothing more than a sticky-fingered Year 10 painting her/himself into a corner; when it comes to those we put in charge, it’s a touch more serious.
Bill Clinton, the last leader of the free world before the odious Trump to have his honesty so publicly scrutinized, showed himself to be a complete stranger to the truth, convincing himself that his actions with Monica Lewinsky did not amount to sexual relations. If you like, Bill – even though it’d never convince any bar-room jury – but it was, y’know, a lie. All the same, in the light of the actions of some of his successors, his conduct seems almost noble. At least he showed some contrition, howsoever it needed to be squeezed out of him – if you’ll pardon the metaphor. And, no, by throwing him this concession, I’m not making light of how he abused his power and the grossness of his misdemeanours.
The new breed of global demagogues, from Trump to Johnson to Putin to Bolsonaro and dozens of similar villains around the world, now feel free to say whatever they choose, true or not, as the normalisation of lying has taken hold. And if those lies happen to be exposed? No problem there: bluff it out, it’s all part of the great game – a game that is played with the lives of ordinary people.
I recently enjoyed the BBC’s dramatization of the events surrounding the trail of Christine Keeler in 1963. It was a story that spoke very ill of the vain and vainglorious men who manipulated and exploited her. Even allowing for some dramatic licence, one scene stood out for me. Keeler had found herself in the public eye for having slept with both the Minister for War, John Profumo, and Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov. As the scandal unfolded, we are treated, as viewers, to the uncomfortably crumbling relationship between Profumo and his wife, Valerie Hobson.
Now is not the time to undertake deep analysis of just how and why these traduced politicians’ wives stand on the steps of their Edwardian mansions, hand-in-hand with their adulterous boy-husbands pledging their loyalty, but that is what Hobson did for a while until, entirely understandably, she lost patience and told him to come clean and resign. Which he did and, in an almost biblical twist, dedicated most of his life to the service of those worse off than himself.
Don’t get me wrong. He had abused his position as a powerful man to sleep with a pretty girl and in doing so could easily have compromised national security – although, candidly, the notion that Keeler, or anyone in their right mind, would have grabbed those post-coital moments to glean more info on the comparative size of missiles – see what I did there? – seems most unlikely. His actions were thoughtless, selfish and foolhardy. Yet, if he had one saving grace, he did, even if was in the tightest of corners, hold his hands up and acknowledge his misdeeds.
Compare and contrast. The idea that the blowhard Trump might just, for one moment, reflect that his actions may have been deemed by others to be unwise and that he would temper his outpourings in the future is utterly laughable. In fact, and it’s probably happening as I write, we can be certain that it will prompt yet more triumphant, vacuous bile.
And closer to home, there is a willingness to forget that the man who claimed that it was government policy to allow Turkey into the EU, then blatantly denied what was visible for all to see and hear. Who was sacked as a journalist for making up quotes and who laughed it off as ‘sandpapering’ the facts. Who denied an affair with a woman who was carrying his child. Who ‘forgot’ to declare the loose-change of £52,000 worth of annual income. Who overlooked the fact that he once hired someone to give a journalist a good hiding.
And even as I list this selection from what is a much wider catalogue, I can almost feel a shrug of indifference. It’s nit-picking, isn’t it? ‘Great men’ have always had their foibles: it’s what makes them great – cut from a different cloth from the rest of us. The odd misdemeanour is the inevitable price of talent and ability. Isn’t it?
We can only hope not. If our outrage at being lied to is anaesthetised, then we’ll only have ourselves to blame when the last of our civil liberties disappears into the dusk. To go back to Orwell: ‘the further a society drifts away from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.’
So let’s not be dull and allow ourselves to get used to the fibbers, however grand and invulnerable they fancy themselves to be.