Friday, 19 October 2012

Classic Political Lies and Deceptions

You may have detected a certain cynicism regarding the politicians who thrive in the modern age creeping in to this blog. Cynicism about politics is as old as politics itself as, I would argue, are the lies, deceptions and empty sloganeering that generate it. In this post, I’m going to introduce you to three types of political deception, and give examples, both historical and modern, of the timeless nature of political bullshit.

The Meaningless Statement

The idea here is to sound like you mean something which people want, while in reality not committing yourself to anything which might require action. This type of deception is very easy to spot if you remember one simple rule; to discover if a political statement has meaning, see if anybody is arguing for its opposite. If not, the person who made the original statement is saying nothing. A classic modern example is the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to “hardwire fairness” in to British society. Reverse the statement and we find that nobody is promising to increase unfairness, thus the original Lib Dem statement is meaningless.

A meaningless statement can still be useful. Nelson’s “England expects that every man will do his duty” was apparently inspiring at Trafalgar. Yet no sailor was considering taking the afternoon off. The meaningless statement was still a useful rhetorical device.

A quick postscript to this. Today (22/10/2012) we learn that David Cameron is announcing his 'Tough but Intelligent' crime policy. This is presumably in opposition to all those who argue that criminal justice policy should be 'Soft but Stupid'.

The Double Meaning

Sometimes a politician has to satisfy two groups of people, who want different things, simultaneously. Here, the trick is to find a form of words which can be taken to mean whatever anybody chooses to read in to them, and deliver them with such conviction that both audiences assume that you are talking to them. Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ theme to his conference was a classic of the kind. The left, including his trade union backers, assumed he meant that he was going to take on the elites that are governing the country and make the voice of ordinary people heard. The right, including many Blairites in his own party, assumed he meant that he would not try to fight some kind of class war, and avoid pitting different groups against each other.

Historically, no example of this comes close to that of Richard the 2nd. Faced with an army of peasants demanding a serious change in the social order, he rode out and told them “you shall have no captain but me”. The peasants thought the king meant that he was joining their cause. To put it mildly, they were wrong. 

The most interesting thing about this deception is that the person using it knows that it will be uncovered as soon as they actually do anything, because the act of doing something will disappoint one side. It will be interesting to see who Mr Miliband eventually decides to disappoint.

The Appeal to an Unarguable Force

During medieval times, huge armies of Christian crusaders wrought devastation and bloodshed in the holy land, slaughtering thousands of innocent men, women and children. They did so because the Pope had told them that God wanted them to do this. How could God be wrong?

An interesting modern take on this argument was provided by David Cameron, when he justified his use of the EU veto he exercised last year by saying he was acting in the “national interest”. In this case, just as the Pope gets to say what is the word of God, so the Prime Minister got to tell us what the “national interest” consisted of. The argument is strong because in both cases you cannot argue with the unarguable force; God and the national interest must always be respected and so, by convenient extension, must their messenger. It’s amazing how useful this 'logic' has proved to those in authority over the ages.    

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