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The Wavering Principles of Politicians

Jonny Rogers reflects on the importance of virtue in a political climate characterised by deception and hypocrisy.

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Photo by Jordhan Madec


A new day, a new scandal. Whether claims of personal misconduct or deceiving their supporters, it seems that every week provides more evidence that politicians are becoming increasingly unprincipled and untrustworthy. What might be shocking in other circumstances has, in a sense, become tiresome.


The intention of this article, however, is not to convince you that members of any one political party are in reality more principled than any other, nor to speculate the cause of individual misconduct; rather, it is an invitation to consider the value of honesty and integrity in an age characterised by disinformation and distrust.



Lying & Deception


Last year, former cabinet minister Rory Stewart described Prime Minister Boris Johnson as “the most accomplished liar in public life” and “perhaps the best liar ever to serve as prime minister”, disclosing a number of occasions in which he had failed to deliver action on projects he had professed to support. “He has mastered the use of error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation and flat denial. He has perfected casuistry, circumlocution, false equivalence and false analogy.”


Many of Stewart’s claims rest on private correspondence with Johnson, thus I have no additional knowledge that might affirm or question their accuracy; however, the claims he has made are not wholly surprising, not least because similar headlines are published every hour. Stewart argued that Johnson’s misbehaviour is facilitated by a culture that accepts and expects deception. As such, holistic reformation must occur in both the private and public domain, and indeed across all areas of society:


“Unless we begin to repair our political institutions and nurture a society that places more emphasis on personal and political virtue, we will have more to fear than Boris Johnson.”

It is deeply unsettling that parliamentary regulations currently prevent politicians from calling each other out. At the end of July, Labour MP Dawn Butler was thrown out of the House of Commons for accusing Johnson of repeatedly lying to the country and “misleading this House” during the pandemic. Under the rules of parliament, MPs are not allowed to make such accusations in the House of Commons, as certain words are considered ‘unparliamentary’. Butler cited an extensive montage of Johnson’s incorrect statements compiled by lawyer Peter Stefanovic, which was later projected onto the side of the Houses of Parliament.


If lying is a matter of intentionally uttering incorrect statements with the purpose of misleading other people, then evading questions is a matter of not revealing unpreferable truths with the purpose of misdirection. The result is that many of us have come to expect politicians to talk without actually saying anything; to call someone ‘political’ is, in one sense of the word, to say that they are unforthcoming with information that might bring them disfavour, opposition or controversy.


Public figures who are able to ‘say it as it is’ – or at least appear to speak with unbridled directness and honesty – often gain traction among the disenchanted. As the past decade has shown, many are compelled to vote for the anti-politician – someone who represents a rejection of the misdirection that we have come to associate with our world leaders – even if their brashness is really a cover for deception similar to their less-radical counterparts.



Hypocrisy & Misconduct


Hypocrisy is not just a matter of someone changing their mind on something they had said before, as when an MP advocates for a position they had previously campaigned against, after all, there might well be a legitimate reason their beliefs had changed. Hypocrisy is a matter of keeping one’s words and actions separate – of behaving in direct contradiction with what one believes or professes. Hypocrisy is, as Pope Francis recently put it, “like putting makeup on the soul, like putting makeup on your behaviour”.


When the media ignited over the revelation of Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock’s affair with political adviser Gina Coladangelo, the emerging public outrage was not merely a matter of disgust at the violation of a marital covenant (this kind of activity, regrettably, occurs all around us), rather, it was indignation that a man who had publicly called for people to make personal sacrifices was failing to live by the same regulations he advocated, not least for such a dishonest and reprehensible purpose.


As prominent political scientist Hannah Arendt argued, hypocrisy brings into question the very integrity of the individual:


“What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one [...] only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.” – Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1963)

If a leader is not wise and noble in their private lives, can we trust that their actions will truly serve the interests of the public? David Runciman, a Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge, argues that hypocrisy is an inevitable part of democracy that we should learn to accept; we are voting for someone who represents rather than lives out an ideal.


Since at least the early twentieth century, the term ‘champagne socialist’ has been used to describe left-wing politicians who advocate for the demolition of socio-economic inequality while enjoying the pleasures of wealth and luxury. Friedrich Engels, one of the leading figures behind the popularisation of Marxism, inherited his wealth from his father’s textile factories; Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, is said to have lived a lavish lifestyle in the company of Britain’s high society, resulting in him disbanding the party to form a National Government in 1931.


It may well be the case that hypocrisy has always been a part of political history, and an aspect of it that is all but impossible to completely uproot. Nevertheless, it seems that Runciman has missed something important; as if accepting the inevitability of hypocrisy is cultivating greater distrust, and thereby enabling even more insidious forms of corruption. Certain kinds of hypocrisy, furthermore, actively work against the fulfilment of the ideals these politicians represent, giving fodder to the opposition and power to those who represent a radical alternative.


Lobbying


Lobbying is the process of attempting to persuade someone of significant political influence to support a particular policy or campaign, as when citizens raise an issue with their local MP to bring before Parliament. However, politicians are not always successfully prevented from lobbying on behalf of organisations or causes for which they also receive an independent financial benefit.


In November 2021, for example, Owen Paterson resigned from his position as MP for North Shropshire after an investigation concluded that he used his political influence to benefit two organisations, Randox Laboratories and Lynn's Country Foods, for whom he serves as a paid consultant. He was found to have approached ministers and public officials 14 times to promote products and technology associated with these organisations, even if never successfully establishing a government contract.


As a result, the Commons Select Committee on Standards suggested that Paterson should be suspended from the Commons for 30 days, though the government attempted to block this from happening. The resultant black-lash from some politicians, however, forced the government to recall its decision, though Paterson later resigned due to the way the investigation was carried out. He criticised his inability to appeal against the investigation, and argued that the commissioner's pursuit of the inquiry contributed to the declining wellbeing of his late wife, Rose.


While MPs are ordinarily prevented from taking bribes to raise particular issues, support a policy or campaign, or use their position to benefit their personal interests, an exemption permits lobbying to alert the government of "a serious wrong or substantial injustice", regardless of whether this might also yield independent benefits. Paterson claimed that he was simply whistleblowing to express concerns over milk and pork standards, though the investigation concluded that this did not account for the volume of his documented approaches to political officials.


Former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major criticised how Paterson's case has been dealt with by Johnson's government, even claiming: "It seems to me, as a lifelong Conservative, that much of what they are doing is un-Conservative in its behaviour." While paid lobbying and advocacy are outwardly condemned by Parliament, however, it is unclear how MPs' private interests are in fact shaping public policy, and whether the current investigative process might successfully expose such egregious acts of political abuse. In the United States, lobbying from organisations funded by large corporations might well be the fatal blow to the legislation of world-changing environmental policy.



Concluding Thoughts

My intention, to reinforce my introduction, is not to persuade you to adopt any particular position on the political spectrum. It is, after all, important to recognise that the revelation of deception and hypocrisy does not invalidate the ideals which the individual has failed to uphold.


Rather, I hope that this article offers a chance to reflect, reinforce and reorientate ourselves in relation to these ideals. How might we, as individuals, enable those around us to be more honest, compassionate and loyal? Are we willing to be part of the problem, or become part of the solution?


After all, it is in our collective interest that we nurture a culture that neither encourages nor condones misconduct at any level. How much more could be achieved if we did not need to spend so much time calling out our leaders?


 

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