Political hypocrisy finds its modern expression in the creation of "narratives." Blair mastered it, but it could be Brown's downfallby David Willetts / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond by David Runciman (Princeton, £17.95)
Shakespeare’s Polonius issues one of the English language’s most beautiful warnings against hypocrisy: “This above all: to thine own self be true / And it doth follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Because Polonius is a courtier-politician, the sentiment doesn’t seem quite right coming from him. Today, our perspective is more likely to echo Groucho Marx’s: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Why do we disapprove of hypocrisy so much and yet find it so hard to avoid? It’s a question that’s especially pertinent if, like me, you are a professional politician with teenage children pouncing on your every lapse.
We are fascinated by programmes like Big Brother because they make it almost impossible for their participants to conceal their true beliefs. Similarly, everyone expects modern politicians to practice what they preach. Yet you can genuinely believe that marriage is good for people and society while not being able to keep your own together. You can believe that the nation’s savings rate is too low even while your personal finances are distinctly rickety. Now, a serious political thinker has tackled the issue.
Unusually for a political theorist, David Runciman has some sympathy with political practice. Political Hypocrisy is not just another denunciation of politicians as liars. Instead, it offers us a tour, from Hobbes and Mandeville to Bentham and Orwell. Runciman is best on the American revolutionaries and our eminent Victorians, perhaps because both the US war of independence and the British empire required self-aware democratic politicians to gloss over the gaps between their proclaimed beliefs and their actual behaviour. He is also interesting on Trollope’s Palliser novels, and his book is densely argued and intelligent. But it lacks a strong conclusion, other than that there is an interesting distinction between two types of hypocrisy. In first-order hypocrisy you are being hypocritical, but you know it. In second-order hypocrisy, you do not even admit your hypocrisy to yourself. Naturally Runciman finds the latter most egregious.
Runciman certainly has some provocatively broad definitions of political hypocrisy to offer—including the use of an argument that does not match the speaker’s true beliefs. Take the debate on abortion, which is before the Commons as I write. Some people believe all abortion is the murder of an unborn person. To many of them, its sinfulness does not depend on whether it happens at 24 weeks or 20 weeks. However, that argument of principle gets put to one side as the debate focuses on viability of foetuses at different numbers of weeks. The true beliefs of pro-abortionists are also hidden in some of the arguments: in practice, the legal conditions for abortion are rarely enforced, so we have something close to abortion on demand. Thus a legitimate moral debate is obscured in favour of a proxy debate in which people on both sides want something different from what they argue for.
Why do we end up in this position? One explanation is that both parties are applying John Rawls’s test of public reason—using arguments that appeal across a wide span of society. People of faith cannot convince atheists of arguments which rely on scripture. Similarly, some of the intuitions that liberals, conservatives or socialists have about equality, liberty and sovereignty are not useful for argument since their importance is not universally accepted. Justification, says Rawls, must be “addressed to others who disagree with us, and therefore it must always proceed from some consensus… from premises that we and others publicly recognise as true.” Political debate in a liberal society is an odd combination of 1960s-style authenticity and evasiveness that comes from applying the Rawls test.
If we can never use arguments based on underlying values, politics ends up sounding thin and managerial. But unless they wish to leave the realm of public reason, politicians must find a way to package their thoughts. They have responded by creating “narratives.” The political skill of Tony Blair was that he could take a heap of disjointed interventions and make them sound like part of a grand plan to transform Britain. Voters may not have believed it, but everyone conspired to treat it seriously. A very modern form of hypocrisy.
This is proving to be Gordon Brown’s downfall. He has ended up pursuing narratives far more actively than Blair. Yet his look like deliberate political calculations. His policy agenda has become dominated by the establishment of dividing lines with the Tories. This is what links 42-day detention, ID cards, “British jobs for British workers,” abolition of the 10p tax rate and so on. The best sort of narratives, however, emerge from studying what has gone wrong with the country. Like happiness, a real narrative is something you cannot aim for: rather, it is the by-product of tackling real issues. This is an inversion of Runciman’s thesis of first and second-order hypocrites. In narrative-building, it is the knowing hypocrites who are the worst sort, distorting what they do to build stories. Meanwhile, those people who come across the stories through their policies are the best sort.