Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 6 August 2018

A decade of political deceit

It is tempting sometimes to portray the Brexiters (the politicians and the media leading the Brexit campaign, not those who voted Leave) as bumbling fools who just are not very good with reality in all its detail. Boris Johnson encourages that idea, particularly when you know his true reason for supporting Brexit is personal ambition.

I considered writing up a little fantasy shortly after water was discovered on Mars, Johnson had resigned as Foreign Secretary and May had won a vote by breaking pairing. I imagined the PM had convinced Johnson to captain a spaceship put together by the New UK Space Agency so he and David Davis could sign a trade agreement with whatever lived on Mars. It had to be hush hush so the EU did not try and get there first. When Johnson expressed concern that he might miss the vote on the final deal May assured him his vote would be paired, and when he returned in triumph the leadership would be his. After days when the press asked where is Boris, NASA reported receiving distress calls from what seemed like a spaceship heading in the direction of the sun.

But while Boris is in it for himself, the motives of many members of the ERG are rather different. As Time Bale describes, they need Brexit to be able to fulfill their vision for the UK, ably described in Britannia Unchained, written in 2012 by Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss. He calls them hyperglobalists. It is a UK of less welfare provision and even more ‘flexible’ labour markets, so that UK firms can compete ‘unhindered’ with the rest of the world like some kind of imagined Asian dynamo. Sort of Thatcher on steroids.

I’m not too interested on this occasion in the idiocy of such a plan, but the fact that this was never on the side of any red bus. It is another example of political deceit of the highest order. Their plan is not why most people voted Leave: quite the opposite in the case of many. As Tim writes:
“Does this disjunction between what “the people” currently say they want and what they supposedly need actually bother Tory hyperglobalists, except insofar as it prevents them, at least for the moment, from revealing all?
No – the reason being that they are Leninists, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher, their inspiration and icon, was a Leninist. Just like her, in 1979, they believe they know what we want better than we do ourselves right now. And just like her, they have a crusading vision whose details, inasmuch as they’ve been fully worked out, are best kept under wraps until the time is right and we can be made to realise – they hope gratefully rather than grudgingly – that there truly is no alternative.”

We have been seeing rather a lot of this Leninist deceit lately, similar to what Naomi Klein called the shock doctrine, or what John Harris describes as "the odorous whiff of the hypocrisies and deceptions that tend to come with privilege". Austerity as a very costly device to shrink the state, for example. And immigration targets which Cameron and Osborne knew would hurt the economy if they were seriously pursued, but made them nevertheless to help attract social conservatives to vote Conservative. Pretending immigration was a problem for the NHS or welfare payments was also a useful way to deflect criticism over the impact of austerity.

I know some people will respond that all politicians deceive, and of course they do in minor ways to sell policies that help ‘their side’. But politicians who deceive at such a high level because they are Leninists at heart are something less common. It is hard to argue that any of the Prime Ministers before Thatcher were so willing to hide their true intent. Occasionally perhaps for certain foreign ventures: Eden, and then Blair. But not Brown or Miliband. The SNP over the cost of Independence, certainly. But austerity, lying about immigration and Brexit still seem an order greater in terms of the extent of the deception: promising X to really get an undisclosed Y.

There may be a reason for why this total deceit is relatively new, and it has to do with how the political process is perceived as part of neoliberalism. If you see politics like a market place, policies have to be sold like products, and politicians are the salesmen as Chris Dillow describes here. [1] So if you can sell a car by creating an image of what that car embodies, so you can sell a policy by pretending it is something else. The fact that you do not have the equivalent of the Advertising Standards Authority for political advertising just makes doing that more attractive.

Just look at the lack of shame in pretending that austerity was all about clearing up the mess Labour made (a claim easily refuted by looking at the data), or that the economy was strong when it was actually very weak in 2015. But that was dwarfed by what was to come with Brexit. Nothing was sacred in doing whatever it took to win that vote. And when it was shown that this included overspending during the campaign, they had no shame in spinning this as a mere allegation by Remainers. Anything goes, including disrespecting our pluralist democracy, just so they get what they want. 

This is all related to what I called neoliberal overreach, and whether it was something we could have easily avoided or something that was bound to happen. For many neoliberal politicians and advocates their ideal economy and society is not achievable through honest campaigning, because it is not what the great majority of people want. In 2016 48% of people wanted higher spending and taxes, while less than 5% wanted lower spending and taxes. Rather than patient persuasion they prefer complete deception, and crucially the ideology can be seen as endorsing that. For this reason, I am happy to add Brexit to austerity and anti-immigration rhetoric as examples of probably inevitable neoliberal overreach.

[1] Chris Dillow suggests that one of the first great neoliberals, Margaret Thatcher, did not share this view. Perhaps her ideas were sufficiently popular - at least for a time - that she didn’t need to pretend they were something else. It would be interesting to know if Tim Bale agrees.


  1. or in the words of J K Galbraith
    'The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's (sic!) oldest, best financed, most applauded, and, on the whole, least successful exercises in moral philosophy. That is the search for moral justification for selfishness.'
    Unsuccessful morally, but all too successful politically.

  2. " It is a UK of less welfare provision and even more ‘flexible’ labour markets, so that UK firms can compete ‘unhindered’ with the rest of the world like some kind of imagined Asian dynamo."

    A very telling thought. Taken to its logical extreme the asian economies have grown fast because they have a lot of poor people who will work for very little in terrible conditions and that has allowed factory/business owners to get rich quickly. Of course we can't compete with that because we don't have that environment. However with the application of a bit of austerity and brexit you could well achieve that situation......

  3. I think it's safe to say the "New" Labour Govt agenda was dishonest - not even sure many MPs understood it either. New Labour MPs often get upset at the 'reform' they engendered - like say Hospital Car Park charging. Asset price inflation - maybe people wanted higher house prices generally speaking but did anyone stand on City deregulation? Lisbon was pushed through without referendum (promised by Brown?) and led here possibly? Their support recently highlighted for rendition and torture was never manifested nor did we withdraw from treaties that forbid it. Ditto their introduction of Mass Surveillance and continuing support for DRIP and other nonsense. They tried for 90 day internment. Leveson reveals the scale of corruption between media, police and Labour - Brown denied he was a friend of Murdoch Brooks being a great example of the new Labour delusion.

    Many Labour supporters and MPs pretend schools asset stripped and hospital services monetised and high paid vice Chancellors and Health Authority folk and bullying the poor at Dole offices and immigration rhetoric was nothing to do with them - they ended a near bigot (being nice) Immigration minister (reappointed by Ed Miliband too). They reduced politics to grubby game as evidenced by likes of Woolas, Whelan, Balls, Watson, McBride, Mandy, Campbell et al (OK I can only remember a few of the droogs) Briefing against their own foreign secretary [Cook] and Chancellor [Darling] and Leader [Blair].

    I see 1997-10 and the use of spin, lies and threat, and secrecy those years as a step on the way here. The use of 'common sense' to justify de-regulation and ignorance over expert objection is nothing new IMO.

    Maybe Labour only lied by omission?

  4. What puzzles me is how sly politicians continue to be able to pull off these deception heists. At a micro, individual everyday interaction level, Brits are no less sensitive to bullshit, vainglory and blatantly fraudulent sales pitches than any other nation. We know when the person in front of us is untrustworthy - so why can't we spot these same rogues when all their traits are magnified a hundred-fold by public exposure?
    Two speculative answers to my own question:
    1) Ordinary Brits still have a soft, deferential spot for the well-spoken wealthy or aristocratic
    2) Most Brits are practically apolitical; don't actually care who's in power as long as Love Island is on and the summer holiday's booked

  5. Don’t think Miliband should be in the PM list - otherwise, good article 9/10 ��

  6. You put too much faith in representative democracy. A lot of things make more sense when democracy is viewed as merely a tool to keep a revolution at bay and for the political class to rule as they wish.

  7. I agree with both you and Chris Dillow about this and we have now a very debased politics.

    I wonder if some of it has to do with the "professionalisation" of politics in recent years. People in politics many years ago had experience in industry, the union, even war and seemed much more connected with the bulk of the population. Nowadays that seems rather quaint and people go from some sort of research job straight into the HOC with really no real world experience.

  8. I think Thatcher was an awful person. But she did I think like debate may be from her legal background as an advocate. I do think she liked winning by argument even if her arguments were partial and misleading. I also think she should be included in the "Leninist" camp as the tory 1979 Manifesto was very coy. I do not think you could have infered the trajectory of her administration from the manifesto. She was lucky that her opponents were ineffective at holding her governments to account or presenting an attractive alternative.

  9. “It is hard to argue that any of the Prime Ministers before Thatcher were so willing to hide their true intent. Occasionally perhaps for certain foreign ventures: Eden, and then Blair. But not Brown or Miliband. The SNP over the cost of Independence, certainly. But austerity, lying about immigration and Brexit still seem an order greater in terms of the extent of the deception: promising X to really get an undisclosed Y.”

    You have not addressed Major’s deceit in pushing through the Maastricht Treaty without proper regard to the views of the electorate. Without him we would not be in the mess we are now. We would have either have been fully committed to the EU or we would have left it long ago.

  10. I think the community charge (better known as the "poll tax") could be added to your list of "neoliberal overreach" projects.
    There seem to be similarities between Brexit and the introduction of the poll tax thirty years ago when, as with Brexit, there was two years warning that a lot of people were going to be worse off when local taxes were to be changed. All adults—“from the Duke to the dustman”—were to pay the same amount of money every year to the local council.

    The change greatly benefited the rich: the Duke of Westminster’s bill fell from £12,000 to £1200. (He was so embarrassed by this, he paid his tenants’ bills.)

    As with Brexit, Britain’s overwhelmingly Conservative press were telling their readers what great benefits the poll tax would bring. There would be greater democracy: every voter now had to contribute to local taxes, not just the head of the household as happened under the old rating system.

    As the tax finally got close to home the protests started: there were fights in some council chambers when the value of the poll tax was set for the coming year.

    When bills started dropping through letter-boxes it got even closer to home and the protests rose in volume.

    Despite its massive influence, even the Conservative press could not polish the turd that was the poll tax and persuade enough of their readers to accept it as “fair”. People who had never received a local-tax bill in their lives suddenly found themselves getting one and could not cope: it became a real vote-loser. This, of course, will not happen after Brexit: the impoverishment of the lower-orders will be much more gradual.

    After being introduced in Scotland in 1989, the poll tax was introduced in England in March 1990. Conservative MPs, fearful of losing their seats in the 1992 election, forced Margaret Thatcher's resignation in November 1990.

  11. As far as I remember neither Miliband was Prime Minister. D. Miliband did not face any major crisis as Foreign Secretary.

  12. When Brexit got 52% of the vote and became the will of the people, Conservatives seem not to have realised how much democracy is not in their favour.

    It did not take long before Trump was linked to Brexit, despite Trump losing by nearly 3 million votes. Like George W Bush, he was not the winner of the popular vote.

    And if we turn to Thatcher and Major, they got 44%, 42%, 42% and 42% of those voting between 1979 and 1992.

    And Tim Bale (who likes to go on about the need for quality leadership as being crucial to a party's electoral success) may or may not know that Callaghan was more personally popular than Thatcher in the country as a whole in the 1979 election.


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