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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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