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15 November 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 10:31am

The internet won’t forget Cameron’s lies, and neither will the British people

If you delete all the speeches and programmes where you promised a better, fairer country from your archives and attempt to prevent anyone from accessing them without somebody noticing and asking why, the people serving you dinner are not going to pretend

By Laurie Penny

The throne was golden and the lectern was golden and the speech was very clear: austerity will not be temporary policy in Tory Britain. It will last forever. Addressing a roomful of diplomats and business leaders who had just dined lavishly at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, the Prime Minister this week promised a “leaner, more efficient state”. “We need to do more with less,” said David Cameron, looking comfy in his white tie and tails. “Not just now, but permanently.”

But he hadn’t counted on Ruth Hardy, a journalism student, who was working as a waitress that night. “The contrast of the two worlds was striking; someone said it was like a scene from Downton Abbey,” wrote Hardy in a viral piece for the Guardian. “Maybe Cameron didn’t see the irony; perhaps he forgot about the army of waiting staff, cleaners, chefs and porters who were also present at the banquet. Perhaps he thought he was in a room of similarly rich people, who understood the necessity for austerity. Perhaps it didn’t occur to him that this message might not be as easily comprehended by those who hadn’t just enjoyed a four-course meal. Perhaps he forgot about those of us, disabled or unemployed or on the minimum wage, for whom austerity has had a catastrophic and wounding effect.”

The decimation of higher education funding was one of the first cuts the coalition imposed, in direct violation of their election promises, after taking office in 2010. Undergraduates are now facing tens of thousands of pounds of debt, and it is likely that the Prime Minister will find many more disgruntled students serving him dinner before he leaves office. Of the many kinds of revenge angry waiting staff can take, a Guardian article strikes me as amongst the most considerate.

We are no longer living in an era where power is permitted to speak only to itself without pushback. It is significant that the speech in which Cameron chose to announce permanent austerity – a clear contradiction of his earlier position that his party “didn’t come into politics to make cuts” – was delivered not to parliament, or to a press conference, but to the guests at the Lord Mayor’s banquet. Business leaders, captains of industry and diplomats – unelected power and privilege at its most scoffingly self-congratulatory.

The Lord Mayor’s banquet is the date in the calendar of the City of London when the Prime Minister is invited to tell the well-fed business community how wonderful they are. The press and public are allowed to know what goes on, but we’re expected to show proper British deference. Cameron really shines at this. There are many points on which the former PR man falls down but when it comes to stuffing a tailcoat and telling big business what it wants to hear, Call Me Dave really comes into his own.

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The next day, the world found out that the Cameron government hasn’t just lied for years about its true intentions- it has attempted to delete the evidence of those lies from the internet. Ten years of speeches and press releases about how the new Tories were all about modernising conservatism, how they cared about the environment, the NHS, the poor. All gone. Not just from the Conservatives’ website and YouTube page, but from the Internet Archive, the world’s digital library. As Mark Ballard commented at Computer Weekly:

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Conservatives posted a robot blocker on their website, which told search engines and the Internet Archive they were no longer permitted to keep a record of the Conservative Party web archive…The erasure had the effect of hiding Conservative speeches in a secretive corner of the internet like those that shelter the military, secret services, gangsters and paedophiles.

Cory Doctorow reminds us at Boing Boing that now-deleted WebCameron videos were…

…launched by the Tories in 2006 with great fanfare and were billed as a way for the public to see a more natural image of the then-leader of the opposition … The message of transparency was echoed in one of the speeches now removed from the party’s website. George Osborne said in 2007: “We need to harness the internet to help us become more accountable, more transparent and more accessible – and so bridge the gap between government and governed.”

Well, that bridge just got burned. The gap between the government and the governed, the gap between rulers and ruled, has not been so stark in a generation. The Prime Minister puts on a tailcoat, dines on fillet of beef and “a celebration of British mushrooms” and announces that he has lied to the public for three years. He has lied to them before, during and after the election at which he promised to be the most “transparent” leader ever, lied in a way that will make this country a harder, meaner, more unequal place to live for generations, and he expects not only to stay in power, but to finish his tasting plate of patriotic fungus first.

This is no longer the Nanny State. Labour may have treated us like children, but the Tories treat us like animals, like dull penned beasts bred out of every brain cell and trained not to stampede. And the Liberal Democrats?

There is unlimited space for discussion online, and I still refuse to waste a paragraph on the Liberal Democrats. Here, instead, is a video of a weasel playing on a duvet.

It is distracting and will make you feel very briefly better, so it serves roughly the same political function.

Accusing Conservative politicians of cowardice is not technically illegal yet. We know this because a recent attempt to prosecute a university lecturer for doing just that was overturned this week. I can therefore state with only very slight fear of arrest that I believe the Conservative party in government and their pusillanimous coalition partners to be cowards of the worst order. They are the sort of craven invertebrates who will wait three years before even beginning to be honest about their intentions and then try to destroy uncomfortable evidence that they ever said anything different. They are the kind of petty tyrants who will wave around the threat of a D-notice when a newspaper insists on publishing details of its gross surveillance programme. They are the type of cowards who insist on their right to scrutinise, track and spy on activists, protesters and ordinary citizens, then kick into a censorship fit when they are scrutinised in turn.

No. The Conservatives do not get to send ten years of lies down the memory hole. They do not get to erase the commitments to green investment, to healthcare spending, to fairness, tolerance and transparency without pushback. They do not get to pretend that they weren’t pretending austerity would be temporary, would be bearable. They do not get to claim that this world of hopelessness, poverty and plummeting living standards is what anybody voted for three years ago.

They do not get to stab us in the back and call it a shoulder rub.

This is not the 1980s. History cannot simply be rewritten. If you delete all the speeches and programmes where you promised a better, fairer country from your archives and attempt to prevent anyone from accessing them without somebody noticing and asking why, the people serving you dinner are not going to pretend they can’t hear your lies. This is not Downton Abbey. The student pouring out the Burgundy for you to raise a toast to permanent spending cuts has a laptop and an opinion.

We have not always been at war with Eastasia.

Just because the government has retracted its tepid commitment to transparency, just because the Tories have tried to destroy evidence of their own deceit, doesn’t mean we can’t keep track of what they’re doing. The internet does not forget hypocrisy, and neither will a nation that’s sick of politicians lying flagrantly and in public over and over again. The Prime Minister had better enjoy those posh mushrooms while they last.


Now listen to the team discussing why and how the Conservatives have tried to erase their pre-2010 pledges on the NS Podcast: