Peter Oborne: No one seems to mind all the lies we've been told

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The Independent Online

There are two types of general election. There are the rare ones which inaugurate a turning point in political history: 1905, 1945, 1979, 1997. The others merely confirm an already established pattern. It looks certain that 2005 will fall into the second category, that Labour will win by a fairly large majority, and that life will go on much as before.

There are two types of general election. There are the rare ones which inaugurate a turning point in political history: 1905, 1945, 1979, 1997. The others merely confirm an already established pattern. It looks certain that 2005 will fall into the second category, that Labour will win by a fairly large majority, and that life will go on much as before.

But this election may turn out to mark more of a turning point than it appears. There are various remarkable features of this election, which are quite novel and very menacing. It is the first for over 100 years which has been fought with a shadow over the integrity of the ballot box. The electorate is more disengaged than at any time in living memory: one ominous sign is the absence of window posters, even in fiercely contested constituencies.

Most striking of all, it is set to be the first election in history in which a British electorate has re-elected open-eyed what it regards as a lying government. Until 2005 conventional wisdom held that a deceitful government would be booted out by a disgusted electorate. This year that rule will be broken. Polls show that trust in the Prime Minister has fallen away. There is a widespread view, supported by a mass of evidence, that the New Labour government behaved disgracefully over Iraq.

Furthermore there is abundant evidence that New Labour misled us in other areas. The 2001 Labour manifesto promised not to introduce top-up fees. They were duly forced through. Labour has made misleading statements through this election campaign, making false claims about Tory spending cuts, Liberal policy on drugs, and much beside.

The electorate senses much of this, and yet it is likely that next week Tony Blair will be re-elected with a third successive landslide. How can this paradox be explained? One answer is that the Tory Party, which supported the Iraq War, has made just as many dodgy claims as the Government over the past few weeks. But the Liberal Democrats had an almost unblemished record on Iraq. They tend to be regarded by the voters as more decent than the main two parties. Yet there has been no great swing towards the Lib Dems. On the contrary, if anything it is New Labour which has made most progress since campaigning started for real two weeks ago. The rules of politics are being re-written. The electorate knows that a government lies, yet still trusts it to govern better than any of the other parties. In other words, political lying seems to have become no more than a forgivable sin, a foible. The political philosopher Glen Newey has proposed that democracy and truth were contradictory ideas, and that demands by the electorate for transparency should bear their share of the blame for political deceit. Yesterday the writer John Lloyd joined philosophers from Plato through Machiavelli to the neo-conservative guru Leo Strauss in pressing a variant of this argument.

And yet you can be too sophisticated about this. Democracy does not simply imply the right to cast a vote. We need to be able to know the facts in order to make an informed decision. If politicians lie to us, that isn't possible. Lying strips us of our democratic rights and turns us into dupes. Once mendacity becomes a normal part of government statements, political discourse ceases to seek a common solution to all our problems. Instead it becomes an exercise in manipulation and power. A society where politicians can no longer be believed has taken a step closer to barbarism. That is why the 2005 General Election, apparently so unremarkable, is one of the most terrifying in British history.

Peter Oborne's latest book 'The Rise of Political Lying' was published last week. His film 'Why Politicians Can't Tell the Truth' is on Channel 4 at 8pm tomorrow.

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