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.
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain