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Why do politicians lie? Because they have to

Melanie Phillips says that both Tories and New Labour make impossible promises, and flee from the issues that really trouble voters

18 October 2003

12:00 AM

18 October 2003

12:00 AM

Tony is fighting Gordon while fending off Robin and Clare and trying to shaft Geoff while Jack beats him up about David. Iain is being knifed by Michael and Vanessa, egged on by MPs who are furious that he hasn’t laid a glove on Tony and has made them vulnerable to Charlie, so that instead of Iain they would rather have Michael or Oliver or David or Tim or possibly the Central Office doorman, any of whom would achieve the instant rapport with the British voters that Iain so painfully lacks.

They all might as well not bother. The British voter couldn’t give a monkey’s. It is obvious who is going to win the next general election. The victor will almost certainly be the Abstention party. As things stand, people are going to not vote in droves.

The public is profoundly, dangerously turned off politics. They think that all politicians are serial liars. They think that all politicians are incompetent. They think that the gladiatorial combat in Parliament is monumentally irrelevant because it takes place between factions of lying incompetents. So much is a given. And as far as it goes, much of this perception is true.

But it doesn’t go very far. Why do politicians lie? Why are they so disconnected from what ordinary people want from them? The reasons surely go much deeper. The explanation that the public give for their intention not to vote is ‘They’re all the same.’ They repeat this dirge like a cracked record because it is true. Politicians from opposing parties are far closer to each other than they would care to admit.

This convergence became significant after the collapse of socialist ideology. Tony Blair promptly ‘triangulated’ by welding Thatcherite economics onto Labour egalitarianism. The Tories cried foul and wrung their hands. Then they cried fraud. Now they just cry.

Both sides pretend that there is a chasm between them. Labour say the Tories will privatise everything in sight and restrict choice to the rich while abandoning the poor to rubbish services. The problem is that this is what Labour is doing. The Tories say that they will decentralise everything in sight, put central government in a box and hand power over public services to the people. The trouble is that Labour is talking the same language.

Whether or not it will put it into practice is irrelevant. To the public, these are devils dancing on the head of a pin. As a result, the more ferocious the parliamentary combat, the more ridiculous it seems and the more irritated and disconnected the public gets.


All parties offer impossible goals. Both Labour and the Tories promise lower taxes and higher public spending, while the Liberal Democrats promise heaven on earth: no tuition fees and well-funded universities. None tells the public that hard choices must be made. None dares admit that the EU is increasingly turning them all into political eunuchs.

Instead, having promised what they can’t possibly deliver, they find in office that they have to conceal the fraud. That’s why they lie, through the whole farrago of spin, evasion and manipulated statistics. So the public turn their backs in disgust — and are promptly said to be ‘no longer interested in politics’. Not true. Politics is no longer interested in them.

People will vote only if they think that it will make a difference. Politicians, however, hate difference because they think it loses them votes. They assume they have to treat the public as identikit consumers.

So they pander to rampant materialism and individualism. You want to have a baby as a 55-year-old single woman? No problem, we’ll give you IVF with no questions asked. You want the shops open whenever you feel like spending money? No problem, we’ll abolish the Sabbath and give you Sunday opening. You want to get rid of Grandma because you find her mental and physical frailty distressing? No problem, we’ll give you the means to have her killed by starvation and dehydration through the Mental Incapacity Bill.

Politicians assume that people want only bread and circuses, or money and freedom. But their deepest concerns are over the quality of their lives.

The paradox is that the public are most passionate over those issues which most deeply divide us — moral, social and cultural — and from which politicians run a mile. People care deeply about threats to the wellbeing of their children; about their own ever more fragile emotional security; about the increasing difficulty of feeling that they belong anywhere; about the calamitous drop in public civility; about the debasing images that confront them from every television channel and advertising hoarding.

But all these issues and more are considered forbidden territory for politicians. For the umpteenth time, the Home Secretary made the right growling noises this week about antisocial behaviour. But the government refuses to tackle the issues behind it: family breakdown, the drug culture, truancy. Instead, its appeasement of the forces promoting such aberrations — its tacit encouragement of fractured family life, its ambiguous signals on ‘soft’ drugs, its dumbing-down of education into meaninglessness and vacuity — merely fuels the antisocial fires.

Not that the Tories have been any better. True, Iain Duncan Smith deserves credit for speeches in which he has outlined an approach that explicitly challenges rampant individualism and tries to reassert the communal values that sustain a healthy society. But both he and the tiny band of believers promoting such ideas are widely scorned by the party’s morally challenged snobs for an agenda held to reflect narrow, under-educated minds out of touch with a changing society. If IDS is destroyed, this fledgling — and still far too timid — ‘common good’ agenda will die with him.

If so, far from connecting with a changing society the party will become even more irrelevant to the concerns of those who might ever bother to vote. These people are very angry — that the fabric of their orderly world is being ripped apart, and that no politician has the bottle even to acknowledge it, let alone do anything about it.

So what would engage them? Well, how about their local environment, for a start — a challenge to the supermarkets that run small shops out of business and tear the heart out of communities. And if we’re talking planning, what about an attack on the municipal bigwigs who market their towns on the back of all-night clubs that act as drug factories for the local youth?

What about championing the rights of parents against the concerted attempt to subvert their children’s morality under the guise of sex education? Or promising to put duty and adult responsibility back at the heart of society by repealing the Human Rights Act and the Children Act? Or linking welfare to behaviour? Or reintroducing fault into divorce? Or putting a brake on genetic manipulation?

Yes, such proposals would create massive rows. Yes, they would be divisive. But they would also create passionate constituencies and a point to voting. By playing to the lowest common denominator of a consumer society, politicians have turned increasing numbers off voting altogether. Only by showing conspicuous courage in daring to be different can politicians break this cynical and despairing mould.

Melanie Phillips is a Daily Mail columnist.


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