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.…