Andreas Whittam Smith: The triumph of political mendacity

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

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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

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