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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.