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Alastair Campbell: what is the role of truth in modern politics?

By Alastair Campbell, Writer, communicator, strategist

October 16, 2019 | 8 min read

Alastair Campbell knows how politics works. Or at least he used to, you know, when politicians who were caught lying got sacked rather than promoted...


Illustration by Barry Falls

So, the crisis in modern politics is one of trust, is it? But look it up in the dictionary... ‘Trust: a firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of someone or something.’ Add that to the well-worn complaint ‘why can’t our politicians just tell us the truth?’ Then look at who is in power, in the US and the UK for example, and ask yourself: ‘Do we really mean it?’

To take one of the most famous lies of modern times, the £350m a week for the NHS promised on the side of Boris Johnson’s red Brexit bus: in older days, politicians caught out lying resigned, or hid away in shame. Johnson’s fate was a victory in the referendum, promotion to foreign secretary and now prime minister using a different set of lies for a new context – he pursued a no-deal Brexit he used to say was not an option, but which 17.4 million people apparently knew they were voting for.

As for Donald Trump, he did or said so many things on the campaign trail that would have frankly destroyed candidates in a previous era, and has carried on in much the same vein since, with Washington Post fact-checkers calculating he has made an average of 12 misleading public statements or outright lies for each day of his presidency.

There is a book about Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, by Peter Pomerantsev. The title encapsulates the strategy that allowed Putin to cement power. From his background in the KGB, which regimented thought and opinion, he inherited chaos and then understood the changes to the media landscape and exploited them better. Easier in a phony democracy where you control parliament and media. But Trump and Johnson play much the same game. ‘Proroguing parliament? Not me, guv!’ Days later, Parliament prorogued. Oh, and it had ‘nothing to do with Brexit’.

Post-truth, in Trumpland, reporters who criticize aren’t reporters – they are liars. Government officials who speak truth to power are traitors. Believe nothing but the Trump tweets, even if they say the opposite of what he said before or are defied by what you see with your own eyes. Nothing is true... everything is possible.

It is an environment wide open for this as an electoral model. ‘You are angry, people. I will make you more angry by telling you that your anger and resentments are justified and nobody but me is listening... the things that make you angry are easily solved, but only I can solve them because the others do not care. They are the elites, the “experts”. You and I are the real people.’ And it is Trump, the billionaire inherited wealth businessman, and Boris Johnson the Old Etonian saying and doing it.

Key to all this anger is the global crash – the feeling that the people who caused the crash got away with it and the people who didn’t paid the price in their jobs, stagnating wages, falling living standards, cuts in public services, rising costs of university, inability to buy a home. Mix into the anger the fear that the trends keep going in the same direction – the rich get richer, change gets faster, the robots take over. So shut the borders. Build walls. Find enemies. Blame them, scapegoat them. Mexicans. Immigrants. ‘Brussels’.

Change can go both ways, good and bad. It may be – let me get a bit apocalyptic, having not long ago read a remarkable book by Laurence Rees on the Holocaust – that we are entering a genuinely dark period in history and, step-by-step, lurching into an era of cataclysm and decline. There are too many parallels with the 30s for complacency. The aftermath of a crash. The rejection of expert opinion in favor of feeling and prejudice. The increase in nationalism and nativism. The rise of antisemitism. The casting around for blame. People in the advanced democracies beginning to question democracy itself, as slow and faltering, tired, indecisive. The rise of the strong man leader.

But why do we say we want the truth and then we elect and reward proven liars? Barack Obama had part of the answer. He pointed out that if you are looking at your smartphone and scrolling through social media, a statement signed by every Nobel prize-winning scientist warning of the dangers of climate change looks the same as a tweet from a third party funded by a climate change denial campaign. Also, who is it that people believe if we don’t believe politicians, journalists, business people, academics and experts like we used to? We believe – and this is the genius of Facebook as a communications model – we believe our friends, who tend to be like-minded anyway.

Angela Merkel provided another part of the answer, warning that algorithms and big data are driving us all into our own ever-decreasing circles of opinion forming. The IMF, the OECD and the Bank of England all warned against Brexit. What they also have in common is that fairly sizable sections of the population choose not to believe them. Yet those same disbelievers lapped up scare stories pumped directly to them that millions of Turks were heading our way when they’re not, that our Army is disappearing when it’s not, or that we will one day be having Arabic subtitles on our TV. Why do they believe such things? Because they happen to fit with what they have already decided. Believe what you believe, and shout. Disbelieve anything that challenges it, and shout louder. This is the new campaign landscape in the era of the social media echo chamber. In this era of disbelief, a rich elitist such as Trump can seemingly become the voice of the downtrodden and the anti-elitist in America by having as the topline on his CV for president... ‘I’ve never been a politician.’ It’s no good politics wanting the media to adapt to the needs of politics. It’s not going to happen. But the political conversation with people has to change. Or else these trends continue. Dictatorship operating at an advantage to democracy. Trump jealous of Putin because of what more you can seemingly do when you have control of parliament and media. We have to reclaim politics as a good thing to want to do, or else the decline continues, accelerates. The fight is now less left v right and more democracy v dictatorship, open v closed, internationalist v nationalist, fact and truth v emotion and lies. But it also has to be hope against fear, always. Fear and anger are easy. Hope is harder, especially right now, but you have to work with it, always.

In Australia recently, I was struck by the comment of a reader below a press interview I had done there. ‘Voting for a populist party is like diving head-first into an empty swimming pool, because you’re angry that there’s no water in it.’It is a sign of how low we have fallen in our public debate that it feels at times like we are in a life or death struggle to persuade seemingly reasonable people that diving into that empty pool really isn’t a good idea; and a sign of how strange the times are that I find myself mulling the words of a one-time hate figure of the left, Ronald Reagan, and his warning that we are never more than one generation away from the loss of freedom. The fight for it is far from won.

Amid all these parallels with the pre-fascist era of the 30s, I keep seeing and hearing that famous thought: ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.’ I never saw it attributed, so I checked it out and discovered it was written by a Spanish-born American philosopher, George Santayana. I was even more struck by the sentence that followed. ‘To covet truth is a very distinguished passion,’ he said.

With Trump and Johnson in power and the virus of populism seemingly spreading, never has the need for that passion been greater, or more urgent.

Alastair Campbell was former British prime minister Tony Blair’s director of communications. He has written 14 books and hosts a podcast with his daughter Grace.

This piece was first published in the October issue of The Drum, guest-edited by Rankin. The issue explors truth-telling in the advertising industry and includes interviews with Carole Cadwalladr, Sir Martin Sorrell, Oobah Butler, Munroe Bergdorf and Oliviero Toscani; along with comment from Jonathan Freedland and Matthew Todd. Get your copy here. The issue can be purchased online through the website.

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