Truth is fast losing all currency in our politics. But a ruling in Edinburgh demonstrates it still counts a great deal in the courtsby Tom Clark / September 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
I’ll leave it to lawyers to digest the remarkable ruling by the Court of Session in Edinburgh that “the prime minister’s advice to HM the Queen and the prorogation which followed thereon was unlawful and is thus null.” They will be able to anticipate and explain, as I can’t, what this means for public law, the Union, the position of the Queen—and whether or not it will soon be overturned and forgotten in the Supreme Court.
But I would like to offer a few brief thoughts on what the prorogation episode, and now this ruling, tell us about the evolution of political lying. “It was,” the judges say at one point, “incumbent on the government to show a valid reason for prorogation, having regard to the constitutional importance of parliamentary scrutiny of executive action. The circumstances, particularly the length, showed that the purpose was to prevent such scrutiny.”
In his “dear colleague” letter to MPs explaining why he was shutting down parliament for five weeks, Boris Johnson lied about his real motivations. Politicians have always concealed, spoken half-truths and—when they could get away with it—told outright untruths. But the interesting thing about this particular lie is that it was a proper Trumpian in-full-public-view-but-we-don’t-care sort of a lie.
I haven’t heard or read anyone of any political persuasion—other than those who are actually serving in the Johnson government—seriously maintain that the main consideration was a burning desire to, as the prime minister claimed, “bring forward a new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda.”
Yes, the standard Queen’s Speech follows a brief prorogation, and yes a Queen’s Speech was overdue. But Johnson is obviously entirely preoccupied with—and consumed by— Brexit; he has until very recently shown little serious interest in social policy. More fundamentally, there has been no real effort to pretend that shutting down parliament was about anything other than Brexit. The official account was—nakedly—a case of going through the motions.
Just like we could all see from the photos how thin those “record-smashing” crowds at Trump’s inauguration really were, we could all read the newspapers which relayed what insiders were saying to journalists about the real thinking about shutting parliament. That thinking rested on entirely different reasons from those the PM openly spelled out. One cabinet minister, Ben Wallace, was even caught on camera candidly admitting the real issue: that the government had “suddenly found [itself] with no majority.” He wasn’t sacked; his remarks were breezily dismissed as “mis-speaking.”
Neither Johnson in public nor No 10 in private ever offered any cogent rationale for the extended shut-down they were imposing beyond (roughly) “oh well, it’s only a few extra days than parliament would have been (sort of) closed for the conferences anyway.”
They never even tried to explain why they needed any extra days, and—interestingly—very few journalists pressed them on this. Why not? Well, weirdly perhaps, because the veracity of the official account hardly seemed to matter. In the Trump age, it doesn’t seem so shocking to be lied to, and maybe not even that serious. If we all know they’re lying, it’s not so important.
Great Twitter witch-hunts are pursued to catch people and “reveal” them as hypocritical, inauthentic, clueless, racist or prejudiced in myriad other ways. These things rank as the real sins of the political age, and sometimes rightly so. Lying, however, is no longer up there—it’s not pursued with the same fervour.
More than a decade ago, David Runciman looked at the New Labour governments and argued that we’d entered an age where Tony Blair’s casual relationship with the truth was less politically damaging than the anguished contortions Gordon Brown invoked to avoid telling an untruth. Hypocrisy had already become a graver political sin than lying.
But now, with Trump lying and surviving in office day in and day out, it is a sin that has lost any power to shock. And when the fact of mendacity is (implicitly or explicitly) understood by all sides, it scarcely seems worth debating.
Truth, then, is losing its currency in our political culture. What this morning’s Edinburgh ruling brings, however, is a reminder that it still has power in other contexts, including the courts.