In defence of hypocrisy

In this week's look at the philosophy behind the politics Martin O'Neill examines the importance of

Contrary to what most people seem to believe, it’s a very good thing that politicians don’t always say what they really mean. (This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t always do what they say, which is a different question entirely, but the answer to that may not be so straightforward either).

For example, the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility means that it behoves individual ministers to remain silent with their doubts about particular policies, not just for the good of their careers, but for the loftier reason of preserving the integrity of our mode of government.

Similarly, a commitment to the authority of party policy may necessitate the insincere defence of any particular policy, viewed as a legitimate means to a worthwhile overall end.

The structure of politics constantly puts politicians into situations where the right thing for them to do is to be less than transparently honest, or at least to be prepared to disguise what they really believe to be true.

Just as we would not want a politics in which politicians were always scrupulously sincere in what they say, so we should also not be too judgemental when politicians are prepared to – ahem – ‘borrow’ the policies of other parties.

It can, of course, be a political masterstroke to appropriate the policies of the opposition. But sometimes it is not only the most advantageous thing to do, but is also surely the morally right thing to do. Benjamin Disraeli may have thought that the 1867 Reform Act was the best way to “dish the Whigs”, but that hardly meant that extending the franchise wasn’t the best course of action, either for the country as a whole, or for the self-interest of the Conservative Party.

The theft of good ideas in politics isn’t particularly objectionable, as long as the ideas are good. After all, it would be strange if any particular party had a complete monopoly on imaginative policy ideas, or on legislative proposals that meshed deeply with the hopes and aspirations of the electorate.

Refusing to co-opt the best ideas of the opposition would involve a sort of puritanical intellectual preciousness, that prized ideological non-contamination above the virtues of enacting the best possible political programme.

My suggestion is that theft and insincerity are not always the sign of political vice, but can, on the contrary, be signs of considerable virtue. Given this, it is rather odd quite how powerful the charge of political hypocrisy can seem.

Everyone knows that politicians won’t always tell the truth, or at least won’t tell the full truth, and that there are things that they may do which they will not themselves be in full agreement.

And everyone knows that everyone knows this. Given that everyone knows that everyone knows this, accusations of insincerity or hypocrisy – or of being a “phoney”, to use the term with which David Cameron baited Gordon Brown at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions – can themselves be the very epitome of hypocrisy.

For such charges of hypocrisy or phoniness can carry with them the suggestion that the accuser is himself above these sorts of failings, or denies the need for himself or others to operate within the world of political accommodation and compromise, with its attendant rejection of pristine political sincerity.

Whether or not we want to grant philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s arresting claim that “sincerity itself is bullshit” (the conclusionary remark of his splendid little book, On Bullshit), we should at least surely admit that there can be nothing so hypocritical as protestations of sincerity. (In support of either Frankfurt’s claim or mine, one need cast one’s thoughts back only as far as the rhetoric of sincerity deployed by the previous Prime Minister.)

Now, what I’ve claimed is only that there can be good reasons for theft, insincerity and hypocrisy in public life, which is very different from excusing all cases of these apparent vices. Some instances of hypocrisy are so grotesque, self-serving and venal as to be beyond any plausible form of defence.

Of this type, last week granted a wonderful example in the revelations of the expense account lifestyle of Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and as such the head of the National Audit Office.

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that Bourn spent £365,000 on foreign travel at public expense over the past three years, including junkets with Lady Bourn to (among many other places) Brazil, South Africa and the Bahamas.

He also went through an impressive £27,000 on dinners. What raises Bourn’s case above the standard case of an official with his nose in the trough is that, as head of the NAO, Bourn is the person whose public function is the protection of value for money in how the public finances are spent.

Here we have a clear case of objectionable hypocrisy of a truly stellar magnitude, so monstrous that it’s difficult to know whether to view it as farce or horror-show.

Anyone with any interest in standards in public life should hope that Bourn will be forced to pay back any part of those expenses that were not strictly necessary for the performance of his public role. (Which, one might plausibly think, is almost all of them.)

Gordon Brown’s recent problems are intimately connected with perceptions of theft and insincerity. But how far do these perceptions point towards deep problems of hypocrisy, like Bourn’s, as opposed to being political peccadilloes of limited significance?

Let’s start with insincerity. Brown’s insistence that the change in the election date was nothing to do with a panicked reaction to the polls certainly had the ring of untruthfulness. But what seemed especially damaging about these denials was that, by describing his reasons in terms of higher motives (wanting time to deliver on his vision of Britain, and so on), Brown created an uncomfortable juxtaposition of self-proclaimed high motives and all-too-obvious political expediency.

Just like John Major saying that it was time to get 'back to basics' or Blair insisting that New Labour would be 'whiter than white', there is nothing that primes the pump for perceptions of hypocritical insincerity better than the insistence that one has spotless motives.

If one does, indeed, act from the best of motives, this is something better shown rather than merely said. Similarly, the best way to make one’s actions appear to be nothing but spin over substance is to repeatedly insist that one has abandoned the former in favour of the latter.

The problems of theft are easier to deal with. Let us assume that political theft is fine if the ideas that are stolen are good ideas. The problem with stealing the Tory plan of changing inheritance tax thresholds is that this is simply a bad idea; or, at least, it’s a very bad idea if one has a commitment to social justice, which Brown claims to have. Moreover, to be done well, political theft has to done with energy and aplomb (here, Disraeli is a wonderful example), rather than awkwardly and in haste. It’s in no-one’s interests to be caught on the door-step with a bag marked ‘Swag’.

The story of Labour’s Pre-Budget Report, though, is a story both in one way better and in one way worse than that of a botched robbery. It’s better because, in fact, Labour’s changes to Inheritance Tax (IHT) were far less pernicious than the proposed Tory changes.

The Tory proposal was to increase the threshold for individuals to £1M. The headline-grabbing version of the Labour policy was that the married couple’s threshold had been increased to £600,000 (rising to £700,000 by 2010), which sounded as if Labour proposals were to double the IHT threshold, rather than trebling it as the Tories wanted.

But, as some Tories were quick to point out, Labour’s IHT changes were far less drastic, as there are already legal mechanisms (Discretionary Will Trusts and Deeds of Variation) that allow married couples to use each of their IHT allowances in full.

This means that, for the well-connected and well-advised, the de facto married couple’s IHT threshold was already £600,000; in effect, the PBR simply made it the case that every couple’s IHT threshold was the same, whether they had access to pricy legal advice or not.

It is plausible to assume that the distribution of financial and legal expertise within society tracks social class rather assiduously, and so the small print of Labour’s IHT reforms actually reveals them to be mildly redistributive, at least insofar as the children of a working class couple whose house is now worth more than the IHT threshold are no longer disadvantaged relative to the children of a couple who have a solicitor in the family.

Once things have settled down, and if clear thinking prevails, one may also hope that Labour really have “dished the Tories” on this issue, insofar as what the Tories are now campaigning for is a de facto married couple’s IHT allowance of £2M, which will be of any additional benefit only to that tiny proportion of couples who are likely to pass on more than £700,000 in capital.

That was the good news. The bad news is twofold. Firstly, given the many confusions that seem to exist in many people’s thinking about IHT, most people won’t notice the good news. The Tories may well remain “undished” among an electorate who don’t realize that the dispute is now simply over how to treat the seriously wealthy. The second bit of bad news is much worse.

It is that, whatever the real, concrete policy details regarding differences between Labour and the Tories on IHT, the moves made in the PBR have allowed the Tories to set the terms of the debate on the politics of taxation. If Labour had the courage of their convictions, they could make arguments about the fairness of IHT which would relocate the political battleground. Here, a recourse to political sincerity might actually prove to be surprisingly good politics.

Some forms of theft and insincerity may be politically expedient in the long run, but refusing to speak the truth about social justice and taxation cannot possibly be a sustainable long term strategy for a party (and leader) who sincerely believe in progressive goals of fairness and equality. And forms of political insincerity that are just bad politics have nothing to be said for them whatsoever.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.