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.