Andreas Whittam Smith: The triumph of political mendacity

There is no distinction between Mr Darling and the rest of the political class

Share
Related Topics

Politicians like Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer, lack respect for us. Even when anxiously seeking to attract our votes at a general election, they don't show more than superficial regard.

We are the "punters" – as advertising executives scathingly describe customers. And remember, disrespect is only a short step from dealing dishonestly with people. The parliamentary expenses scandal, for instance, cast taxpayers as dupes.

The Budget statement is a good example of disrespect. You will find the same thing if you examine the recent speeches of David Cameron and George Osborne. We are not to be trusted with frank analysis of the country's economic situation. We are left to guess where the inevitable cuts in government spending will take place even though they are likely to be on such a scale that they will re-shape society for good or for ill. Tax rises are presented as reductions in allowances or increases in national insurance because we are thought not smart enough to see what is really going on.

Most of the people who become politicians sooner or later lose their moral sense. They engage in a casual dishonesty that most of the rest of us generally disdain. This is a phenomenon common in closed societies such as Westminster politics.

Go back to Alastair Darling's Budget speech this week. How was it different from the way in which somebody with Mr Darling's antecedents – the son of a civil engineer, who read law at Aberdeen University, became a solicitor and then moved across to the Scottish bar – would have handled the task had he remained a typical member of one of the professions living in Edinburgh and not become a politician?

He would have told himself that you cannot give a fair analysis in the Budget speech of what role the Government should play in putting the country back on its feet without referring to the £2bn-plus of stealth taxes that have been announced recently.

What the Government giveth with one hand, it must be said, it taketh away with the other. Some 30 million people are affected by a 1 per cent rise in National Insurance, by the freezing of personal tax allowances, by failing to raise the threshold for paying tax at 40 per cent in line with inflation and by the introduction of a new 50 per cent top rate. One cannot just gloss over these decisions as if they were nothing.

Then addressing his alter ego, the Edinburgh professional would say that you must not seek to hide the severity of the cuts in public spending that you know you would have to announce after an election. By disguising the truth, you are preventing people and businesses from sensibly planning their futures. Nor should you make one implausible statement after another when you have the high responsibility of being a Cabinet minister. The notion that cuts will be confined to non-essential public services, for instance, is frankly laughable. The numbers, as you and your officials must know, simply do not add up.

The sober Edinburgh citizen would also criticise the politician for basing his Budget on optimistic projections of economic growth. He would say that sensible people use assumptions that are solid. If things turn out better, then that is a nice surprise. He would ask the politician to remember how he told the nation in 2008 that the economy would grow by 2 per cent whereas in fact it expanded by only 0.5 per cent. That he predicted that in 2009 there would be a decline of 3.5 per cent. In the event output shrank by 5 per cent. "Your credibility has gone," he would say. "Even so you forecast growth of 3.0 per cent to 3.5 per cent per annum for the five years 2011 to 2015". Yet professional economists think the rate is likely to be scarcely more than 2 per cent.

I am not sure what word an Edinburgh pillar of society who never went into politics would choose to describe the actions of the one who did. Let us start by using the word "shabby". Because Mr Darling still has the airs and manner of a Scottish solicitor and because his speeches are dull, people think that he must be sound. But if you look again at his handling of his parliamentary expenses you will find that he is not at all sound. By mistake of course, he charged the taxpayer for the working out of his complicated tax affairs. As a result of a further unfortunate oversight, he landed the taxpayer with bills relating to his flat after he had moved out and was renting it to a tenant.

However, if not meticulous in every respect, Mr Darling was painstaking with some of the detail. Taxpayers were asked to finance an oven mitt and an Ikea carrier bag (75p). Mr Darling was also a serial "flipper". Flipping was a technique whereby MPs were able to change the designation of their second home and each time made fresh claims for refurbishment and equipment. The Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Member of Parliament, Privy Councillor, Chancellor of the Exchequer, did this four times in as many years.

I am not sure any longer that "shabby" does sum up Mr Darling the politician. Something stronger and more critical is needed. But while I admire writers who call a spade a spade in matters of character, I am not sure that we ever know enough to apply the harshest descriptions.

It is rarely remembered, for instance, that before Mr Darling joined the Labour Party at the age of 23 in 1977, he was a supporter of the International Marxist Group, the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International. He never was, therefore, a typical representative of the background from which he came. He is not just dull, steady as you go, unfussy, and unshowy, though he is all of these things.

He is also a ruthless politician brought up in a hard school. There is no distinction between Mr Darling and the rest of the political class. He wants to acquire power and retain it. Nothing more and nothing less. He relishes the perks that go with high office. He thinks the electorate is to be used and plucked according to necessity.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before