Everything but the truth. Our politicians are not up to much as liars, but by God they are good at bullshitting. The public complains, but actually wouldn't have it any other way. We rather like being fed crap, writes George Walden
Harry G Frankfurt Princeton University Press, 67pp, £6.50
It is a pity Peter Oborne did not have a chance to read On Bullshit by the American moral philosopher Harry G Frankfurt before writing his book. Oborne takes the conventional line that politicians are lying more than ever, that the honest-minded electorate is tired of it, and that it would be good if they stopped. Having been an MP for 14 years, and having worked abroad for ten years before that, I do not recognise the country he is writing about.
In my previous employment as diplomat, specialist in communism and principal private secretary to the foreign secretary, I dealt with Russian, Chinese, east European, African and Middle Eastern regimes for which lying was so congenital that it was the only way to convey the truth (you just assumed the opposite of what they said). In the House of Commons, I encountered few such people. Partly this is because we retain a relatively civilised political culture. Earth-creeping as we are, maybe we also lack the imagination. And in any case, lying isn't easy to get away with, if only because lawyers and newspapermen, who the previous day had closed their eyes to some monstrous piece of non-political mendacity, would get you for it.
No, our politicians are not up to much on the lying front, but by God, they bullshit with the best of them, and it is Frankfurt's argument that bullshitting is worse. What the honest man and the liar have in common is that they are equally aware of the truth - otherwise what is the liar lying about? - whereas the bullshitter (or humbugger, or crap-talker) can do well in a world where the truth is becoming irrelevant. Frankfurt defines this as a culture of indifference to how things really are, and one sees what he means. Admen, the media and academics in thrall to postmodern theories are obvious examples, and in mass-market societies where the first two pretty much run the show in tandem with the politicians, the bullshit quotient is indeed hitting a high.
As always, supply and demand are the key. To the proposition that MPs lie more than ever, you could object that the public's appetite for truth has never been lower. The defence used by the BBC for Rolf Harris - "We're just reflecting demand" - can be used equally well by politicians. If bullshit is the national currency, how else do you communicate? When Tony Blair excused himself for grossly inflating the No 10 press machine, on the grounds that that was the way things were nowadays, he appeared to be justifying Alastair Campbell's role in instant bullshit re- buttal. What he was actually acknowledging was that the media and the government were in the bullshit business together.
Lies get rumbled, but one of the attractions of bullshit is that it never quite hits the fan. This is because of its inherently evasive quality. Oborne is right to say that truth and lies matter, but these are absolutes, and we live in an era of soft-sell surrogates rather than the genuine thing. The market for jokiness is bigger than for wit (too elitist); being smart is more productive than being intelligent (ditto); and bullshitting gets you a lot further than truth-telling or lying. The public don't want shit, bless them, and they don't want bull, but they do want bullshit. Bull (as in Irish bull, a phenomenon Christopher Ricks analysed brilliantly in Beckett's Dying Words) can be excessively imaginative. Shit, on the other hand, is shit. Bullshit is an amalgam, neither too outrageously fanciful nor too obviously mendacious, the balance being adjusted so as to make it palatable to the public taste.
Which is where politics comes in. One example. Over a midnight whisky with John Smith when he was shadow chancellor and Margaret Thatcher was still in charge, we got round to mortgage tax relief, against which I was conducting a one-man campaign. Smith agreed that the £8bn it was costing the taxpayer was wasted money, and that the policy of subsidising high house prices was economically crazy. But he declined to tell the truth publicly. "I will if she will," he said, with his little grin.
The public wanted to be conned into believing that tax relief was good for them, because it inflated house prices. With help from our bullshitting adversarial politics (one of the many reasons I gave up my safe seat), for years they got their wish. I was about to give education as a more current instance of British bullshit (the Commons education select committee has expressed serious misgivings about some of the government's self-glorifying international statistics on schools), but I have promised myself never again to write on a subject where only caring bullshit guarantees you straight As with the average hypocrite lecteur. Cynical, you say? In a country where nobody breathes a word when the leading left-wing paper hires a columnist who writes in praise of old-fashioned comprehensives and against elitism and selection, while sending his son to Winchester, who is the cynic? Try doing that as a politician.
What no one wants to acknowledge is that it is the public who are in control of public culture as never before. Which doesn't stop them bellyaching about being given what they want. W H Auden had it right when he wrote in 1939:
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish . . .
When the public claim to be tired of politicians, or royalty, or TV advertisements, what they are frequently saying is that they are tired of being fed the bullshit they secretly ached to hear. Royalty are the best example. Some might say that if only Roy Hattersley would make a solemn vow never to stand for president, the masses would take to the streets and a republic would be declared within days. But I don't buy it. People become sentimentally attached to bullshit, and this is not any old bullshit: it is our national myth, our identity depends on it, and we would feel lost without it. "There is something in mock-sublimity of thrones wonderfully congenial to the human mind. Every man feels that he could sit there; every man feels that he could look big there . . . " And so, with due modifications, things remain. The media provide more royal bullshit than in William Hazlitt's day, and the people whinge about it/love it.
Bullshit is not falsity, but fakery, which makes it an indispensable cultural as well as political guide. A bullshit detector, or mental oximeter, is the only way to avoid spending half your life up to the ears in the stuff. TV game shows are not bullshit; they are what they are. Opera is not bullshit, whether you enjoy it or not. Bullshit is sex-laden, celebrity-studded TV adaptations of the classics. Similarly with art. Bad art is not bullshit, it is incompetent. Modern art is not bullshit; it was once hugely intelligent, original, meaning-ful and accomplished. It is Britart that is bullshit. It is astonishing how much time and needless equivocation a well-tuned oximeter can save you.
On the political front, Oborne meritoriously wants to establish one in the form of a British version of the American factcheck.org website, set up to monitor and correct statements made during last year's presidential election. Fine by me, though I doubt whether that would help with the wider question. In a world increasingly prone to the illusion that facts are either uncertain or unknowable, the main thing, psycho-bullshitters enjoin us to believe, is to be "true to ourselves", and "sincere". As if our true nature could be established without reference to the world. Frankfurt sees straight through this. "In so far as this is the case," he concludes his book, "sincerity itself is bullshit."
Watching the hideous masks of candour adopted by Tony Blair and Michael Howard for the purposes of the election campaign, this, you feel, is where Oborne and Frankfurt come together.
George Walden's most recent book is Who's a Dandy?: dandyism and Beau Brummell (Gibson Square)