Lies, damned lies and the Tory tax bombshell

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Lies, damned lies and the Tory tax bombshell

Four days before the 1924 general election called by Ramsay MacDonald, precariously poised as the UK’s first Labour Prime Minister at the head of a minority government, the Daily Mail delivered a bombshell on its front page: the notorious ‘“Zinoviev letter”.

The letter claimed to be from Grigory Zinoviev, leader of the Soviet Communist International, also known as the Comintern. It called on British comrades in the Communist Party of Great Britain to infiltrate Labour, gain power and start an armed insurrection in the British isles.

The letter is now widely accepted as a forgery, possibly confected by British intelligence, to suggest that voting Labour would lead to a Bolshevik-style revolution. Labour duly lost the election — although, in the pre-TV and TikTok era, the letter probably made little difference to the outcome.

On June 4 this year the Mail ran a story about the previous night’s election debate between Rishi Sunak, Tory leader, and his Labour opponent Sir Keir Starmer. It told its readers that the Prime Minister had “berated Sir Keir for plotting to hike the tax burden by £2,000 a year.” What Sunak actually said was: “Independent Treasury officials have costed Labour’s policies and they amount to a £2,000 tax rise for every working family.”

That too was a lie. In the first place, insofar as the figure is relevant, it is based on assumptions about Labour policies, not over one year but four. The Tories have since conceded as much.

Second the calculation was not “verified” by the Treasury. Politically appointed Tory special advisers came up with the figure of £38bn for unfunded Labour spending plans. It then asked the Treasury to “cost” these as a proportion of what working households in the UK might pay in increased taxes — assuming they were funded by tax rises as opposed to, say, borrowing.

Sunak’s claim was torpedoed when a letter emerged from James Bowler, the Treasury’s top official, that specifically contradicted the claim. In it he states that the Treasury’s assistance should “not be presented as having been produced by the civil service. I have reminded ministers and advisers this should not be the case”.

And yet days after the initial falsehood senior Tories were still being sent out to repeat the lie, deny it was a lie, massage the lie to make it less of a lie.

A lie, Mark Twain may or may not have said, travels halfway round the world before the truth puts its boots on.

The Zinoviev letter was an early example of fake news. Its appeal lay in the fact that it had enough elements in it to make it plausible. Most lies aimed at swaying an electorate do: Saddam Hussein’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction to justify the Iraq war; the fictitious £350m a week for the NHS after Brexit to boost the Leave vote; Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

The Tories’ £2000 Labour tax bombshell comes from the same playbook. It draws on the old chestnut that Labour politicians are uniquely profligate and economically illiterate. (Two words: Liz Truss. )

Of course, human beings lie all the time. We all do it, so why should politicians be any different? Does it matter? Do we care? Or have we become immune to the point where, whether what a politician says is true or false, matters less than the dreams they peddle? There is some evidence that we are.

Just as hostages sometime develop a peculiar attachment to their captors (the so-called Stockholm Syndrome) followers, usually of populist politicians, look beyond the lies to the promised land burying their critical faculties in the process.

Franz Mesmer was an 18th century German physician who developed a therapeutic technique known as mesmerism, the forerunner of the modern practice of hypnotism. His theory was based on what he called “animal magnetism”. Invisible bodily fluids, he said, that interacted between the subject and their therapist could be manipulated to produce a desired response.

It’s a good theory. Politicians who lie with panache and repeatedly get away with it are, literally, mesmerising to their supporters. The two most gifted practitioners of the art of lying their way to victory, modern-day emperors and their new clothes, are, in the view of many, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

The best lies are the big, simple lies expressed boldly, repeatedly, looking people straight in the eyes without hesitation. Johnson on Partygate: Lockdown rules were followed at all times. On Brexit: we can have our cake and eat it. Trump: The virus is under total control. I won the 2020 election.

To be fair to Johnson, Trump is in a league of his own. Shortly after he lost the 2020 presidential election, the Washington Post published a detailed analysis in which it claimed he had made 30,573 false or misleading claims in four years. “Trying to pick the most notable lies from Donald Trump’s presidency is like trying to pick the most notable pieces of junk from the town dump,” the Post wrote.

And yet here he is, a convicted felon who lied about his relationship with a porn star and how it was hushed up, within reach of the Oval Office for a second time. More worryingly, three years after that election, 32% of Americans still believe his Big Lie that the election was stolen.

The beauty of a carefully made-up lie, endlessly repeated, is that it becomes background noise. It loses its power to shock.

Are lies in politics getting worse? Or does it seem worse because of social media and, sadly, an increasingly partisan press? I don’t know the answer to that and I’m not sure it matters. What matters is that we’re being consistently lied to and that figuring out what is garbage and what is not is becoming harder.

Brexit was a pivotal moment. There was a good reason why it became a vehicle for so many wild suppositions and barely concealed untruths. It was a leap in the dark. There was no precedent. Numbers had to be made up, sometimes on the basis of reasonable assumptions, sometimes out of a blatant desire to hoodwink. Spin doctors had a field day.

The debate over sovereignty and control tapped into a vast, deeply-felt store of resentment. It was fertile ground for spin merchants. Millions of Turks poised to flood Britain, just like crypto-Bolsheviks plotting to overthrow democracy, had the teensiest element of half-truth to it. And boy was it exploited.

Does it matter if politicians lie? Well yes, it does. One of the most damaging consequences of the slow decline in public trust is the widely-held view: “Oh they’re all the same.” Governments invariably disappoint. All political careers end in failure, or so says conventional wisdom. It’s easier on the soul to be cynical than to be disappointed.

But government matters, as the pandemic showed. Whether you’re a fan of the big state or a pocket-sized state, stability, progress and, ultimately prosperity depend on a relationship between voters and the people they elect that is as transparent as it can be.

Statecraft sometimes involves, to quote the late Alan Clark, being “economical with the actualité”. Sometimes for good reason sometimes not. A minor inconvenience is that it makes our job as journalists harder; that’s our burden.

But lying, in your face, I couldn’t care less if I’m found out lying, that’s a different matter. That’s a threat to democracy.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 73%
  • Interesting points: 74%
  • Agree with arguments: 76%
40 ratings - view all

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