David Laws' excuses over his expenses claims are only the latest example in a cultural epidemic of self-delusionby Elizabeth Kirkwood / June 1, 2010 / Leave a comment
We all know that politicians are salesmen. Most of us expect—cynically, though justifiably—that they will lie to us, even though we hope, somewhat romantically, that they won’t. But as recent events have demonstrated, the greatest tragedy of political life is when politicians lie to themselves.
David Laws, in admitting that he claimed rent in parliamentary expenses for a room in his partner’s London flat between 2004 and 2009, is just the latest casualty in a cultural epidemic of self-delusion. Laws was clearly a fool to think the rules were open to interpretation, claiming in his defence that he did not regard Jamie Lundie as his “partner” because they had separate bank accounts and kept their relationship secret. Hence the mood of lament, rather than outrage, in Westminster and the press.
The loss to the coalition is undeniably grave. Yet it offers some valuable lessons which could ultimately strengthen the new government. For if Cameron and Clegg want their marriage of convenience—or as the media has spun it, their burgeoning love affair—to last, they must understand the psychology of lying, and in particular the lies we tell ourselves.
Both leaders promised a greater degree of “transparency” when in office, and yet the political gymnastics that have taken place in Westminster over the past month have undoubtedly pushed both parties’ capacity for transparency to the limit. Cameron has stressed that it’s “churlish” to focus on the dividing lines, yet there remain weighty silences on key policy issues, and indications of major conflicts being stored up for a later date—not least in relation to banking reform, the possibility of a British Bill of Rights, university tuition fees, the West Lothian question, as well as key decisions on social care. In the longer term, they may face many irreconcilable political “truths.” Yet what’s important here is not the possibility that Cameron or Clegg are lying to voters about their intentions, but whether—and to what extent—they are lying to themselves about concessions made so far, and those still to come.
It’s rather good timing, then, that psychologist Dorothy Rowe has written a book, Why we Lie, which attempts to explain our impulse to deceive others. According to Rowe, our lives are dominated by structures of deceit—both public and private, personal and political. Our preference for neat and orderly lies over messy truths has, she maintains, helped to produce the banking crisis, global warming—and its ardent…