You could hardly blame the television audience bursting into laughter at the U.K. leaders’ debate this week. The moderator, Julie Etchingham, had asked a simple question of Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “Does the truth matter in this election?”
“I think it does,” said Mr. Johnson, who has been fired from two jobs for lying, and who has told a number of what the British might charitably called “porkies” on the campaign trail.
What followed was a wave of disbelieving mirth. (The Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was also the subject of laughter, which we’ll get to in a minute.) The fact that the audience could move themselves to laughter is proof of some kind of resilience. With three general elections and one highly divisive referendum in four years, it wouldn’t be surprising if they’d all stretched out in the middle of the road waiting for the mercy of the next bus.
But the laughter was a sign of something much more corrosive, not just in British politics but everywhere. With the web of trust stretched gossamer-thin between the governed and those elected to govern, here was an indication that the very idea of a good-faith bargain was ridiculous. Of course they lie – and it’s in that resignation, that casual acceptance, that poison lies. The rest of the world should have its eyes on Britain, which is increasingly starting to look like one of the republics we used to call banana.
Even a fraudulent strongman might feel a morsel of shame at the antics of the ruling Conservative Party, now purged of its moderates and driven by hard-right Brexiters. The night of the leaders’ debate, the Tory press office changed its Twitter name to “factcheckUK” – a stunt so underhanded that even Twitter, not normally known as the ethics police, was moved to reprimand them. Although, as Sky News pointed out, the strategy worked, and the Tories’ Twitter feed proved much more popular than the opposition’s.
The Twitter fiasco was tiny compared with the Tories’ other scandals, which would be called corruption in any other era but appear to be making minimal dents in their popularity. For one thing, the party is sitting on a British intelligence report into Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and refusing to release it until after the Dec. 12 general election. For another, the London police have temporarily shelved an investigation into Mr. Johnson’s conduct as London mayor, over claims his office may have funnelled public money to a company belonging to his “friend,” an American woman named Jennifer Arcuri. Neither Mr. Johnson nor Ms. Arcuri will say whether or not they had an affair. As your mother might say: It’s not the cheating, it’s the corruption.
Trust is in short supply in Britain these days, as it is in most Western countries. Yet, Britain has chosen to place trust in a man who made a career as an EU reporter, misleading his readers about condom-size regulations and the curvature of bananas, and feeding Euroskepticism in the process. The veteran political journalist (and Tory voter) Peter Oborne recently wrote that he had “never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson. Or who gets away with his deceit with such ease.” Incredibly, Mr. Oborne says that he’s spoken with senior BBC executives who claim that they can’t call out the lies told by a British prime minister because “it undermines trust in British politics.” Lads, that ship has sailed.
At this point, the Conservatives might as well change their campaign slogan to “Right then: What else can we get away with?” And yet, they are leading in the polls and headed to victory, mainly owing to the weakness of the opposition. Many Labour stalwarts who want an alternative to a decade of punitive Tory policies, and are drawn to the progressive alternative of taxes on the wealthy and workers’ rights, are unable to stomach Labour’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism in its ranks. Now the party is under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and one of its own former ministers is urging people to vote for Mr. Johnson, saying that Labour “has become poisoned with anti-Jewish racism.”
If Canada felt like it endured a dismal federal election, Britain just said, “Hold my beer.” What’s the average voter to do, when faced with these choices? Some people have talked about not voting at all, as a form of rebellion. The archbishops of York and Canterbury, perhaps knowing this election has been abandoned by the almighty, have pleaded for people “to set aside apathy and cynicism and be people of hope.”
Unfortunately, if you treat people cynically you’re going to get cynicism in return. That’s a danger not only for Britain, but for any country that fails to restore the trust of the electorate – and the trends are swirling downward. Every year, Britain’s Hansard Society conducts an Audit of Political Engagement, and this year’s was dire. “Opinions of the system of governing” are at their lowest point in the 15 years the society has conducted the survey, and “feelings of powerlessness and disengagement” are intensifying. Two-thirds of respondents say the system is rigged to favour the rich, and half say they have no voice in national decision-making, which the society points out is the highest percentage who have ever felt so excluded.
There was one figure in the survey that struck me as particularly alarming: 54 per cent of respondents believe that “Britain needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules.” That’s a recipe for authoritarianism. It is also, barring any unforeseen last-minute revelations or bouts of truth-telling, exactly what they’re going to get.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.