Max Hastings

An age of broken promises

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

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.

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