September 24, 2006

Blair's lies

John Lloyd wrote an interesting article in Prospect Magazine this week- an article which needs some analysis. He argued that Blair was no more guilty of lieing than any of his predecessors- than the notoriously shifty Harold Wilson, the foolish Anthony Eden or even the magnificent Winston Churchill. (There is a wonderful scene from the American film Nixon which we can imagine now reversing the characters for the new situation, in it Ehrlichman asks Nixon whether bugging political opponents has ever happened before and Nixon replies sure Johnson, Eisenhower, FDR- can you imagine in the Blair Downing Street Tony leaning back and saying to Alaistair sure lieings been done before, Wilson, Eden, Churchill- it indicates a change in political culture that you can't.). Lloyd's point though is that conventionally thought of Blair has never really lied.

Lloyd is no fool- he counts up the recollections of spending commitments being made three or four times to seem more than they were, policies announced again and again to make us understand the government to have more dynamism than it had, even moments where the Blair administration did actually lie outright- but the point is that over the key points of Blair's premiership, contrary to reputation, Blair has been outrageously honest. I think that there is no doubt Blair beleived there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he said so and prepared a dossier to make his case. Blair fulfilled his commitments upon taxation at all the elections he ran in and at most is guilty of exploiting the spirit of his words, as in his promise not to introduce top up fees in the 2001 Parliament (he introduced them coming into effect with the new Parliament). Quite often Blair has got into trouble more for the dodgy people around him- Peter Foster, Carol Caplin and Geoffrey Robinson spring to mind- than for his own actions, but all Prime Ministers have had their share of dodgy associations- think Churchill and Brendan Bracken. Indeed what would the Sun have made of Macmillan's wife sleeping with Bracken throughout Macmillan's premiership!

So why has Blair got the reputation of lieing. Lyold mentions a couple of reasons particularly he argues that a loss of deference- compare Kennedy and Clinton's sexual behaviour and its reporting or Roosevelt and Nixon's criminal behaviour and its reporting (Watergate may have started this trend)- preceded a culture of questioning which made every statement by a politician suspect. As Jeremy Paxman once put it he asked every question to a politician thinking 'why is this lieing basterd lieing to me', given that its no surprise that Paxman and a wider public sharing his attitudes (see the blog of Guido Fawkes for example) find what they seek.

There is another aspect though and that is the way that politics is reported and discussed. 24 hour news has taken the form of endless revolving headlines. The problem is that a complex issue such as the Iraq war is easily reducable to a question of the Premier lieing to the public- whereas the question of the Premier's judgement about Iraq is a much more debatable one. To analyse Iraq one would require a twenty minute program- to analyse a premier lieing one needs a two minute item. Consequently faced with a choice, over the so called sex upped dodgy dossier, its easier for a reporter do to his two minute item on the lie rather than a twenty minute item on the mistake. The form of the news makes our politicians in this case seem infallible but mendacious- in reality as John Lloyd has argued they are fallible and basically honest.