Max Hastings

An age of broken promises

Since when did we assume our leaders were lying to us?

An age of broken promises
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An intelligent middle-aged, middle-class woman told me the other day that she plans to vote Leave on 23 June because she no longer believes a word that David Cameron says. She cited his pre-election pledges on repatriation of powers from Brussels, repeal of human right legislation and — of course — immigration.

I said that, should she get her Brexit, the Prime Minister is likely to be supplanted by Boris Johnson, who conducts one-night stands with truth only on alternate wet Wednesdays. She was unmoved. She has convinced herself that Johnson the outsider, the roly-poly bundle of fun, Mr Feelgood, should be judged by different rules. He is not one of ‘them’, the political class, whom she perceives as having betrayed us all.

Her bitterness towards the governing establishment is widely shared in nations on both sides of the Atlantic. Its implications go far beyond Britain’s referendum, or even the US presidential election. If it persists, some of the world’s greatest democracies could sooner or later fall into the hands of populist adventurers.

How have we got here? Today’s politicians utter no more outright falsehoods, or break more platform promises, than did their predecessors. Among British examples, many of Peel’s generation of Tories never forgave his apostasies on Reform, Catholic emancipation, the Corn Laws. Lloyd George and Winston Churchill ate many words. Harold Wilson ran a fantasy premiership in which there was scarcely even a flirtation between his declared objectives and their fulfilment.

Contrary to popular perception, I share with Matthew Parris and Matt Ridley, to name but two, a conviction that the world is becoming a more comfortable place for most of its inhabitants. People sometimes ask me after second world war lectures, ‘Where is the Churchill for our times?’ I answer that we should be thankful we are not in such a mess as to need a Churchill, a man for the last ditch.

Today’s political class is collectively more intelligent and better educated than those who went before. In the last century, behind the giants on the front benches sat rows of Liberal placemen, illiterate Tory squires and bibulous trade unionists, some of whom found their way into cabinets.

Yet those people somehow commanded more respect than do their 21st-century successors. Partly this was because voters were more instinctively deferential, as well as loyal to the party of their choice, often for life. Far more is expected of modern governments than from those of a century ago: a blame game starts and stops in Whitehall for every kind of human misfortune. Moreover, technology causes the inadequacy of politicians’ public utterances to be exposed to merciless replay.

David Cameron’s speeches often get him out of this week’s hole in the road, or even win momentary acclaim, only to sound downright foolish a month later. Consider his assertion to the Commons last December, that 70,000 Syrian moderates only needed the assistance of four RAF Tornados to get stuck into the struggle against Isis alongside the West.

The Spectator Podcast

Christopher Meyer, James Forsyth and Isabel Hardman discuss the first 100 days of Brexit

Much more damaging have been repeated pledges to curb migration. Who can blame the host of people who feel betrayed on this issue, and will cast maybe 90 per cent of prospective Brexit votes because of it?

Both sides’ referendum pitches have been risibly simplistic, rivalling each other in the extravagance of their claims. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned to a senior Remain minister that I had been lecturing on the Somme battlefield. He demanded, ‘Why aren’t you writing an article saying that we must stay in Europe to prevent 1916 happening again?’

Because that would be nonsense, I muttered. Yet two days later David Cameron made a major speech suggesting that Brexit could put Europe on a road to war. The Leavers’ rhetoric has rampaged even further on to the wild side, dismissing the near-certainty that a ‘free’ Britain would be obliged to accept EU rules to continue trading with its members. They suggest that the mere fact of going will solve the migration problem. Michael Gove, who earned such admiration as Education Secretary, forfeits a tithe of it when he claims that Brexit will free extra billions for the NHS.

The electorate is entitled to call a plague on both houses, which make cases so unconvincingly, in language bereft of statesmanship. No politician can tell all the truth all the time, or they would never secure election. Yet public disgust is unsurprising when so few of the governing class trouble to pretend to give a straight answer to a straight question, whether on Question Time or in private conversation. A Tory grandee says, ‘If they wanted to do anything so reckless, their special advisers would stop them. Every modern politician’s spin machine exists to promote prevarication and opacity.’

I suggested that our rulers could gain inspiration for better things from Ken Clarke. Whatever anybody thinks of Ken’s views, he is among the most respected politicians of his generation, trying to tell things as he sees them. The public recognises this. Decades ago, as a health minister, Ken contemptuously rebuffed tabloid newspaper demands that he should break off a holiday in Spain to deal with a summer NHS crisis. He shrugged that his presence in Whitehall would make no difference and stayed by the pool.

My friend responded that no minister could get away with behaving like that in the age of the Twitterocracy. Among the reasons Ken Clarke never became prime minister is that he has a sense of proportion. He knows that the play of human affairs is a comedy. That would be fatal to any new-age politico.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media have raised new obstacles in the path of rationality and understanding. They empower single-issue lobbies to broadcast unedited misformation and to sustain 24/7 pressure on ministers to comment on every aspect of the world’s joys and woes. David Cameron tweets on such issues as Jeremy Clarkson’s BBC sacking and Nigella Lawson’s divorce. Some of us would say this diminishes him, yet his advisers insist that it shows him to be in touch with popular culture.

Members of all administrations fall into two categories. The first, smaller group aspire to get things done. The second, much larger, spend their entire time in office consumed by funk. They have no serious purpose beyond staying afloat. This means avoiding risk, above all in public remarks.

David Cameron is no coward, but today faces the prospect of retirement in 2019 or thereabouts, having accomplished little more than tenanting 10 Downing Street for longer than most prime ministers. If he secures a Remain vote on 23 June, it will represent a triumph for tactics rather than reasoned argument or statesmanship.

It is not too late for Cameron to set his sights higher. Over the next two or three years, he could begin to rebuild public trust not only in himself but in the governing class. He could tell more of the truth, more of the time, about the most important and difficult issues of the age — the unaffordability of the NHS, Heathrow’s third runway, the abject failure of IDS’s attempt at welfare reform, the limitations of renewable energy, the fantastic practical difficulties of stemming immigration, the gross inadequacy of defence and security policy… even if he continues to flinch from doing anything about them.

The Spectator Podcast

Christopher Meyer, James Forsyth and Isabel Hardman discuss the first 100 days of Brexit

Max Hastings is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard. His books include Nemesis, The Secret War and All Hell Let Loose.