The internet won't forget Cameron's lies, and neither will the British people

If you delete all the speeches and programmes where you promised a better, fairer country from your archives and attempt to prevent anyone from accessing them without somebody noticing and asking why, the people serving you dinner are not going to pretend

The throne was golden and the lectern was golden and the speech was very clear: austerity will not be temporary policy in Tory Britain. It will last forever. Addressing a roomful of diplomats and business leaders who had just dined lavishly at the Lord Mayor's banquet, the Prime Minister this week promised a "leaner, more efficient state". "We need to do more with less," said David Cameron, looking comfy in his white tie and tails. "Not just now, but permanently."

But he hadn't counted on Ruth Hardy, a journalism student, who was working as a waitress that night. "The contrast of the two worlds was striking; someone said it was like a scene from Downton Abbey," wrote Hardy in a viral piece for the Guardian. "Maybe Cameron didn't see the irony; perhaps he forgot about the army of waiting staff, cleaners, chefs and porters who were also present at the banquet. Perhaps he thought he was in a room of similarly rich people, who understood the necessity for austerity. Perhaps it didn't occur to him that this message might not be as easily comprehended by those who hadn't just enjoyed a four-course meal. Perhaps he forgot about those of us, disabled or unemployed or on the minimum wage, for whom austerity has had a catastrophic and wounding effect."

The decimation of higher education funding was one of the first cuts the coalition imposed, in direct violation of their election promises, after taking office in 2010. Undergraduates are now facing tens of thousands of pounds of debt, and it is likely that the Prime Minister will find many more disgruntled students serving him dinner before he leaves office. Of the many kinds of revenge angry waiting staff can take, a Guardian article strikes me as amongst the most considerate.

We are no longer living in an era where power is permitted to speak only to itself without pushback. It is significant that the speech in which Cameron chose to announce permanent austerity - a clear contradiction of his earlier position that his party "didn't come into politics to make cuts" - was delivered not to parliament, or to a press conference, but to the guests at the Lord Mayor's banquet. Business leaders, captains of industry and diplomats - unelected power and privilege at its most scoffingly self-congratulatory.

The Lord Mayor's banquet is the date in the calendar of the City of London when the Prime Minister is invited to tell the well-fed business community how wonderful they are. The press and public are allowed to know what goes on, but we're expected to show proper British deference. Cameron really shines at this. There are many points on which the former PR man falls down but when it comes to stuffing a tailcoat and telling big business what it wants to hear, Call Me Dave really comes into his own.

The next day, the world found out that the Cameron government hasn't just lied for years about its true intentions- it has attempted to delete the evidence of those lies from the internet. Ten years of speeches and press releases about how the new Tories were all about modernising conservatism, how they cared about the environment, the NHS, the poor. All gone. Not just from the Conservatives' website and YouTube page, but from the Internet Archive, the world's digital library. As Mark Ballard commented at Computer Weekly:

Conservatives posted a robot blocker on their website, which told search engines and the Internet Archive they were no longer permitted to keep a record of the Conservative Party web archive...The erasure had the effect of hiding Conservative speeches in a secretive corner of the internet like those that shelter the military, secret services, gangsters and paedophiles.

Cory Doctorow reminds us at Boing Boing that now-deleted WebCameron videos were...

...launched by the Tories in 2006 with great fanfare and were billed as a way for the public to see a more natural image of the then-leader of the opposition ... The message of transparency was echoed in one of the speeches now removed from the party's website. George Osborne said in 2007: "We need to harness the internet to help us become more accountable, more transparent and more accessible – and so bridge the gap between government and governed."

Well, that bridge just got burned. The gap between the government and the governed, the gap between rulers and ruled, has not been so stark in a generation. The Prime Minister puts on a tailcoat, dines on fillet of beef and "a celebration of British mushrooms" and announces that he has lied to the public for three years. He has lied to them before, during and after the election at which he promised to be the most "transparent" leader ever, lied in a way that will make this country a harder, meaner, more unequal place to live for generations, and he expects not only to stay in power, but to finish his tasting plate of patriotic fungus first.

This is no longer the Nanny State. Labour may have treated us like children, but the Tories treat us like animals, like dull penned beasts bred out of every brain cell and trained not to stampede. And the Liberal Democrats?

There is unlimited space for discussion online, and I still refuse to waste a paragraph on the Liberal Democrats. Here, instead, is a video of a weasel playing on a duvet.

It is distracting and will make you feel very briefly better, so it serves roughly the same political function.

Accusing Conservative politicians of cowardice is not technically illegal yet. We know this because a recent attempt to prosecute a university lecturer for doing just that was overturned this week. I can therefore state with only very slight fear of arrest that I believe the Conservative party in government and their pusillanimous coalition partners to be cowards of the worst order. They are the sort of craven invertebrates who will wait three years before even beginning to be honest about their intentions and then try to destroy uncomfortable evidence that they ever said anything different. They are the kind of petty tyrants who will wave around the threat of a D-notice when a newspaper insists on publishing details of its gross surveillance programme. They are the type of cowards who insist on their right to scrutinise, track and spy on activists, protesters and ordinary citizens, then kick into a censorship fit when they are scrutinised in turn.

No. The Conservatives do not get to send ten years of lies down the memory hole. They do not get to erase the commitments to green investment, to healthcare spending, to fairness, tolerance and transparency without pushback. They do not get to pretend that they weren't pretending austerity would be temporary, would be bearable. They do not get to claim that this world of hopelessness, poverty and plummeting living standards is what anybody voted for three years ago.

They do not get to stab us in the back and call it a shoulder rub.

This is not the 1980s. History cannot simply be rewritten. If you delete all the speeches and programmes where you promised a better, fairer country from your archives and attempt to prevent anyone from accessing them without somebody noticing and asking why, the people serving you dinner are not going to pretend they can't hear your lies. This is not Downton Abbey. The student pouring out the Burgundy for you to raise a toast to permanent spending cuts has a laptop and an opinion.

We have not always been at war with Eastasia.

Just because the government has retracted its tepid commitment to transparency, just because the Tories have tried to destroy evidence of their own deceit, doesn't mean we can't keep track of what they're doing. The internet does not forget hypocrisy, and neither will a nation that's sick of politicians lying flagrantly and in public over and over again. The Prime Minister had better enjoy those posh mushrooms while they last.


Now listen to the team discussing why and how the Conservatives have tried to erase their pre-2010 pledges on the NS Podcast:

David Cameron at the Lord Mayor's Banquet. Photo: Getty

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser