Paul Johnson

Wittgenstein and the fatal propensity of politicians to lie

Wittgenstein and the fatal propensity of politicians to lie

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Lying is a terrible thing in any circumstances. When politicians and governments lie, it is a sin against society as a whole, against justice and civilisation. In Ray Monk’s admirable life of Wittgenstein, I learn that at the age of eight he asked himself the question: ‘Why should one tell the truth, if it’s to one’s advantage to tell a lie?’ This was the first time he posed a philosophical query. His answer was a kind of Kantian categorical imperative: ‘One must be truthful, and that is the end of the matter. The “Why?” is inappropriate and cannot be answered.’ He concluded, quite young, that one had an inviolable duty to be true to oneself, and part of this duty was to be truthful to others.

As for politicians, Wittgenstein’s youthful hero was the satirical truth-teller Karl Kraus, editor of Die Fackel (the torch), which he founded in 1899, when Witters was ten. And Kraus laid down: ‘Politics is what a man does in order to conceal what he is and what he himself does not know.’ So much for the Habermasians and other leaders of European Union thought, who believe politics must be pursued to amend the evils of societies shaped by the market. Actually Witters himself thought politics irrelevant. He said in later life: ‘Just improve yourself — that is all you can do to improve the world.’ He thought lying was inherent among politicians in that the venture in which they were engaged was itself a fantasy — that the condition of humankind could be radically improved by public means.

Yet it is a historical fact that lying among politicians has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. There was once a strict English tradition that politicians, especially those in government who had sworn the Privy Counsellor’s oath, told nothing but the truth, especially in the House of Commons, or the High Court of Parliament. Those who stuck to this tradition most firmly were rightly held in the highest regard. Lord Castlereagh was a poor speaker whose Ulster Calvinism was not to everyone’s taste, but he was one of the most popular Leaders of the House of all time, not just because of his invariable courtesy to friends and opponents alike but, more importantly, because he made a point of always telling MPs the unvarnished truth. Among those he trained was Sir Robert Peel, and when Peel died, the Duke of Wellington said: ‘I have sat in many cabinets with him, and I have never known him, in public or in private, say anything which he did not believe to be the strict truth.’ Of how many politicians could that be said today? Of any? So long as Peel lived, his follower Gladstone stuck to the truth in his Commons interventions. Only after the watchful Peel died did Gladstone begin that course of verbal mystification which led his critics to believe he was not quite honest (while Disraeli, who had begun political life as a brazen liar, gradually became increasingly truthful).

During my lifetime there has been a collapse in political truth-telling unprecedented in our history. I date its commencement from the late 1950s and the dreadful 1960s, that repellent decade of deception and self-deception. I do not blame the Right or the Left chiefly, but the progressive liberals of the centre-Left and centre-Right (the Roy Jenkins type), who needed to deceive the public in order to get their legislation through Parliament. To what extent their persistent mendacity was deliberate lying is a matter of opinion. Those who knew they were telling falsehoods believed that their objects were so essential to the progress of civilisation that simple veracity had to be overridden, rather as the trade union leaders of those days, who lied glibly all the time, believed that their advocacy of ‘workers’ rights’ justified any atrocity towards the truth. The liberals not only lied; they lied for progress.

Thus, when the Bill to abolish capital punishment was going through Parliament, its supporters in both Houses, without exception I think (the point can be checked with Hansard), told doubters that by substituting life imprisonment for hanging, everyone could assume that ‘life will mean life’. Virtually all the speakers advocating the ‘reform’ used this precise phrase. Of course they were lying. Life did not mean life. It meant an average of 13 years, in some cases as little as seven. Cases where convicted murderers, having served a ‘life sentence’, then commit another murder are by no means unusual. The precise number is one of the Home Office’s most closely guarded secrets. Two decades ago Norman Tebbit, thanks to unremitting efforts, managed to discover that there had been 70 such cases since hanging was abolished — 70 innocents had been done to death whose lives might have reached their natural term had the reformers let well alone. The number must now be approaching 100.

Again, when homosexuality ‘between consenting adults’ was made lawful, the debates while the Bill was proceeding through Parliament were punctuated by solemn assurances that society would ‘continue to reprobate such atrocious and disgusting acts’. This was lying on a grand scale. What none of us then realised was that decriminalising homosexuality would immediately lead to the formation of a lobby, which is now probably the most powerful in the country; and that such a lobby would press for profound social changes for the benefit of active and proselytising homosexuals, and for further ‘reforms’, including lowering the age of consent. The term ‘homophobia’ was invented, and the lobby is now pressing for it to be made a criminal offence. Further, the lobby intends to make ‘gays’ (a term carefully avoided during the original parliamentary debate) the beneficiaries of ‘positive discrimination’.

For half a century Home Office ministers have lied about immigration, shamelessly, blatantly, in detail, and have permitted or even trained their officials to do likewise. When Enoch Powell made his famous ‘rivers of blood’ prediction — now in the process of being abundantly justified by events — he was vilified and penalised, by none more viciously than the late Edward Heath, one of the most practised political liars of his generation, notorious for his systematic lies about the European Union. As immigration expanded, and was in due course supplemented by the new and essentially mendacious concept of the ‘political refugee’ and the ‘asylum-seeker’, it was descanted by an endless succession of falsehoods by all parties.

The lies continue to this day. They are now supplemented by a new brand of lying, the ‘Islamic lie’. The politicians in power bring out a string of manifest falsehoods whenever a Muslim suicide-bomber strikes — that such ‘mindless fanatics’ are ‘totally unrepresentative’ of the ‘overwhelmingly peaceful Muslim community’, that Islam is ‘totally opposed’ to such acts and that ‘there is no such thing’ as ‘Islamic terrorism’ and no such person as an ‘Islamic terrorist’. The Bill currently before Parliament, sold to New Labour by Muslim pressure groups in return for delivering the Muslim vote, will indeed make such expressions unlawful. So the lying goes on. Can we wonder that the entire political class is now not only despised but, increasingly, hated; and that if ever they were abruptly removed ‘at a stroke’ (to use one of their most celebrated mendacious phrases), not one finger would be raised in their defence?