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 deniers—and a whole host of personal miseries to boot. We shape the “truth” of our lives in order to guarantee a coherent sense of self remains intact.
Ask most people why they lie, Rowe suggests, and they generally give the same answer: to avoid hurting other peoples’ feelings. Think of those little white lies we tell everyday: “Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine”; “I’m on my way”; “I’ve got a headache.” They prevent inflicting an unpleasant truth on someone else. Or so we like to believe. In reality, this is another lie we like to tell—but to ourselves, to protect us from the insecurity of being disliked and rejected were we to be more honest.
And it’s this type of lie—the self-deluding kind—that Rowe deems the most damaging. To illustrate the extreme destructive power of “self-lying” in one passage of her book, Rowe homes in on former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, suggesting that he subconsciously chose not to understand (or even ask) how credit default swaps were affecting the world economy—due to his core belief that a free, unregulated market was essential for the US economy. If Greenspan had admitted to himself that the basic idea unpinning his worldview was flawed, then arguably he could have averted the global economic crisis. As he later admitted: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organisations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were capable of protecting their own shareholders.” It is this propensity for self-delusion that Cameron and Clegg should be most wary of.
We voters, it seems, can tolerate a politician who lies to us, possibly because it reinforces our own narrative of reality—that all politicians are indeed lying to us. Take the current leader of the opposition in Australia, Tony Abbott, who earlier this month admitted he has a somewhat shaky relationship with the truth. When questioned on the current affairs programme the 7.30 Report, he said: “I know politicians are gonna be judged on everything they say but, sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth are those carefully prepared scripted remarks.” Yet Abbott’s confession has had only a minor impact on his popularity rating. Many members of the public came out in support, acknowledging their own propensity to lie when under pressure. Was this an act of profound political stupidity, or one of “fair-dinkum” astuteness?
Perhaps the latter. What was fascinating at the Chilcot inquiry at the end of last year was that to chase a confession from Tony Blair—that he had lied to the public over Iraq—became almost beside the point. What the public and press seemed to want much more was for Blair to admit he had lied not just to the public, but to himself, about his relationship with Bush, about WMD, and about Saddam’s capabilities. We wanted him to out himself as self-deluded.
Lying to ourselves, Rowe warns, can only be self-perpetuating. We lie to justify a former lie and end up unable to distinguish between our lying and our truth telling. And so for Clegg and Cameron, the greatest risk in this coalition may be over-elasticity in their attempts make a workable government—the same tendency we often experience in the early stages of romantic love, when we refuse to focus on the dividing lines.
Cameron’s retreat over the 1922 Committee row—a move which would effectively stifle backbench opposition within the Tory party—and Clegg’s commitment to the entire coalition process, are both encouraging: indicative of political adaptability and a willingness to embrace new ideas. But if the partnership is to retain credibility and survive the inevitable political storms, then learning from history can be no bad thing. All great leaders have distorted the truth greatly, but knowingly—one thinks of Kennedy over the Bay of Pigs invasion, Clinton about “that woman,” Eden over Suez and so on. But it is the self-deluded ones who have the most troubled legacies: Chamberlain was unable to acknowledge the “reality” of Hitler’s intent; Harold Wilson became caught in the perpetual ideological “lie” that was the irreversibly fractured Labour party, out of which his reputation for deviousness arose. Poor old Gordon Brown will almost certainly be consigned to the history books as a tragic figure of monumental self-delusion. And now, regrettably, David Laws will no doubt join this inscrutable cohort. So if Clegg and Cameron must lie to each other, and to their parties, then let’s hope they’re aware that they’re doing it. Walking too far away from who they really are is no recipe for a happy marriage.