We punish politicians for dishonesty, but we also punish them for telling the truth. Photo: Getty
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Ed Miliband is too good at politics – he can’t stop playing the game

Too often, it feels as though the Labour leader has so assiduously studied the rules of political communication that he can’t forget them.

Emily Thornberry’s resignation was the moment when extreme political correctness morphed from a left-wing obsession into one shared by right-wingers. It was also the moment we went full Orwell. Apparently it’s no longer enough to jump on every word a politician utters; now we jump all over their thoughts too.

This is a strange time. In July the Labour leader made a speech bemoaning the superficiality of politics; its focus on image over substance. Then on Thursday, he fired his shadow attorney-general for something that people on Twitter said that she thought about an image. The day after he found himself telling an interviewer that whenever he sees a white van he feels “respect”.

For all the talk, ever since his leadership campaign, of wanting to do politics differently, Ed Miliband plays the game like the political pro he is. The stock criticism of him is that he isn’t very good at politics, but there’s a sense in which he’s too good at it. It’s as if he has so assiduously studied the rules of political communication that he can’t forget them.

The rules are there to be broken, however, because at the moment they’re breaking us. There is no chance this country will get the politicians it wants until it cuts the politicians it has a bit of slack. Right now, our treatment of the people that govern us is so brutal and unforgiving that we’re forcing them to be dishonest. When you feel that you’re under attack no matter what you say, you resort to obfuscation and dishonesty. It’s the only way to survive. “The weak cannot be sincere”, said Francois de La Rochefoucauld.

Victoria Talwar is a psychologist at McGill University in Canada. A few years ago she came across a unique opportunity to test the way that lying behaviour responds to different rules. She was introduced to two schools in West Africa a few miles apart, with similar intakes but very different disciplinary regimes. One of them  - we’ll call it School A - was strict but run more or less according to Western norms - if you broke the rules you got a detention or extra homework.

The other - School B - had a draconian regime of corporal punishment, inherited from the French Catholic nuns that founded it. If the kids were deemed to have done anything wrong - including and especially lying - they were beaten. Talwar refers to it as “a punitive environment”. She got permission from both schools to carry out an experiment with their pupils to test their propensity for lying.

The experiment she ran is known as The Peeking Game. Here’s how it works. The child is asked to sit facing the wall. Behind him, the experimenter brings out a series of toys that make a noise and the child has to guess from the noise which kind of toy it is. If they get it right they win the toy. The first couple are pretty easy - a fire engine making a fire engine noise, for instance. The third is made impossible to get. Talwar brings out a toy football, and opens up a greeting card that plays a tinny tune. The child can’t possibly guess what the toy is from the noise.

Before the child can say anything at all, the experimenter says, “I need to take a quick call outside, I’ll be back in a minute. Have a think. Whatever you do, don’t peek.’”Of course, just about every child peeks. And when the experimenter comes back, the child invariably “guesses” the right answer. The question is, do they lie when the experimenter says, “Did you peek?”

This experiment has been run many times, and about 60 per cent of three and four-year-olds lie in answer to this question. This number goes up with age. It’s not just whether the children lie that’s interesting, but how well they lie. When very young kids are challenged on their lie by the experimenter - “If you didn’t peek, how did you guess?” - many of them fold immediately and say, “I looked”. Others maintain the lie, come up with an explanation and deliver it with a straight face.

When Talwar reviewed the tapes of her experiments at the two schools, what she found surprised her. The kids from School A lied at about the same rate and in the same way to kids from Western schools. The kids from School B, however - the punitive environment - were in a different league. They all lied, without exception, and they did so brilliantly, displaying real creativity in the stories they came up with, and mastery of their delivery. It turned out that by attempting to eradicate lying, School B had become a factory for producing highly proficient little liars.

British politics is now something like a punitive environment. We punish politicians for dishonesty. But we also punish them for telling the truth. No party leader is being remotely honest about the scale of cuts that will take place after the next election. They’re in a competition to see who can lie to us most persuasively, because they know that the first one to tell the truth will get pulverised by a cynical press and by voters who act like children angry at being told they can’t have dessert.

Since our rulers know that whatever they say they’ll be accused of dishonesty then, like the pupils from School B, they try and say whatever it is they think we want to hear. Except that most of them aren’t as skilled at lying as the kids in School B. That’s why they often end up sounding so painfully inauthentic. It’s why they claim to feel surges of emotion at the sight of white vans, or tell us unbelievable stories about some bloke they supposedly met in a park. If we really want more honest politicians, we’ll have to start treating them like grown-ups, and acting like grown-ups ourselves.

The larger point here, though, is that perhaps the reason we have politicians in the first place is to allow us a margin of dishonesty in our dealings with each other. The term “politician” or “politique” was first used widely in its modern sense in sixteenth and seventeenth century France, where it was applied to those who were trying to mediate between warring Catholic and Protestant tribes, who were tearing each other apart in the name of Truth.

The politiques were the only ones saying, you know what, chaps, maybe “truth” isn’t the most important thing here. Isn’t it more important that we find a way to get along without killing each other? If that means a few fudges, evasions and deceptions - allowing different people to believe different things - then isn’t a price worth paying?

They were despised for it, of course. Truth has all the best tunes. But they were right.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.