by Eric Joyce
Upon reading the dozens of bitter and bileful comments below Peter Watt’s thoughtful Uncut piece on the Phil Woolas episode, I was struck by how many people there are around of unimpeachable personal integrity, their lives un-marred by a single personal error of any significance.
As a pure person who has never done anything I later regretted, I felt among kindred spirits. Indeed, if you check out the letters page of any newspaper, you’ll see that such virtue is commonplace these days. While, at the same time, recent research (at yougovstone.com) shows that most people are pretty sure that most politicians are lying most of the time.
So why is it that all politicians, apart from me, are such lying liars? Why are they all, with the same caveat, such cowardly cowards? What’s so wrong with democracy that it only elevates to public office scoundrels and never the pure (me aside)? It’s a puzzle.
It occurs to me that, just for laughs you understand, it might be worth taking a look at these questions through the other end of the telescope. What if it were the case that our democratic system does not systematically and dysfunctionally send just the scum of the earth to Westminster? What, instead, if it were true that many people were living lies and using politicians as a means of exorcising their own demons of guilt and frustration; politicians the vessel for their own imperfections?
Politics is basically about raising and allocating resources according to a broad set of values. Most people want the best for their families and do all they can to achieve that end, and it’s inevitable that articulate and intelligent people do better in their struggle for their own share. Labour exists to combat unfairness, of course. Yet, regardless of their politics, most folk are decent moral agents and as well-educated, better-off people see their own kids doing better than those from less well-off backgrounds, they construct their own narratives upon which they lay the sanitised stories of their familes’ relative success.
Some people see virtue in a naked “only the strong survive” philosophy; most don’t. Thus many people, aware that they’re in the hunt for the best deal they can get for those they love, even if that’s just themselves, avert their eyes from the reality that if they win some others will lose in what in tough times is often a zero-sum game. They put together ropey arguments whose main function is to mitigate their guilt.
For example, many people have a much lower tax-pain threshold than they let on. That is to say, they lie about how much tax they’re prepared to pay. They want good public services, but also to pay as little for them as they can. At the ballot box, they know that there will be competition involving losers.
Take the example of medical students. A relatively few years after qualifying, they will routinely, and justifiably, earn a six-figure sum – putting them within the highest percentile of earners in most constituencies. A small number will earn a lot more. Yet, at present, the BMA is taking to the airways to argue that higher university tuition fees will dissuade some of the highest performing school students from becoming doctors. Their argument runs that a child with 6 A* A-Levels will be less likely to make a rational choice than a child from a better-off background. Of course, that argument is fatuous, patronising and without any foundation in research or the experience of teachers. Yet it is put by some of the most highly educated people in our society. It is, if you like, a lie in pursuit of naked self-interest.
Or think about many people’s attitudes to drugs and alcohol. Of course, alcohol does immeasurably more societal and personal damage than ecstasy; but it’s available on tap, literally, while ecstasy’s an A-class drug. And many people support “the war on drugs” knowing that hard-drug prices make it clear that it’s completely ineffectual, while doing their own impressive bit for the treasury down at the pub. So they feel OK for their pain-free opposition to “bad” substance abuse by the generation behind them while indulging themselves on the stuff their own generation deems OK.
And what about, say, child abuse? How much does “stranger danger” dominate public discourse, when the overwhelming majority of it takes place in the household?
And racism? Well, luckily there’s no racism around at all now. I’ve asked a lot of people if they’re a racist and they’ve all said they’re not. So perhaps when desperate politicians in some tightly-fought marginals are tempted into grey areas of language and insinuation, they’re barking up the wrong tree. But on the other hand, perhaps they’re not.
Here’s the truth. It’s hard to lie as a politician because everything we say is subject to enormous scrutiny – we’ll get found out even if we wanted to lie in the first place. But politicians know the lies a lot of people live and they pitch to you accordingly. There’s a lot of lying going on, for sure. The letters-page paragons are right in that respect. But they might want to reflect on who is really doing the lying.
Eric Joyce is Labour MP for Falkirk and a shadow Northern Ireland minister.