Politics is still not ready for the truth

Click to follow
'WHAT IS truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.' We have suddenly, it would appear, become more serious and more patient. For truth in 1994 is almost as fashionable as transvestism.

Indeed, in the Stephen Milligan case the two are closely intertwined. Smut is purveyed in the name of a higher honesty, and the Sun proclaims with George Washington that it cannot tell a lie: 'We weren't lying about Mellor, Lamont, Mates, Yeo, Caithness, Norris, Duncan, Waller or Milligan. What do MPs want us to do: censor the truth because it embarrasses them?'

A visitor from Mars who read only newspaper reports and columnists who foresaw a 'politics without illusions' might be forgiven for thinking that we had become a country of indomitable Cromwells, sternly demanding to have the national face painted warts and all. When our visitor went on television to explain his views he would, however, find that any blemishes in his attractively vivid complexion were carefully smoothed out by the make-up lady.

For a politics without illusion would be revolutionary indeed. Old Plato, who started it all, made his carefully stratified republic of virtue rest on a myth, or 'noble lie', in which each social group was supposed to be infused by the gods with the properties of a particular metal: the Rulers or Guardians were men of gold; the Auxiliaries of silver and the farmers and craftsmen of iron or brass. Thomas More, writing in the same tradition 2,000 years later, agreed that contemporary England was ruled by lies and liars. But he found them neither noble nor virtuous.

More set out his grim conclusions in two closely linked works. In the History of King Richard III he showed a man who won the throne of England by twin means: inconvenient individuals were murdered; the masses were won over by lies. Richard is portrayed as a consummate actor. But the people were not exonerated. Their willingness to be deceived made them complicit in Richard's treachery.

The England of Richard III, which rests on lies, is all too real; for a society built on truth More had to construct the fiction of Utopia - Nowhere. To heighten the point More surrounded the description of his imaginary state by passages that show the impossibility of speaking the truth in his own political world.

The figure he uses is his imaginary philosophic traveller, Raphael Hythloday or 'Dispenser of Nonsense'. Hythloday tells home truths as when, for example, he denounces the policy of hanging and flogging as both ineffective as a deterrent and unjust as a punishment. Instead, he says, let there be rigorous workfare. He is greeted with shock horror.

That nothing has changed in 500 years was suggested by my experience when I appeared on Question Time last year and played the role of Hythloday. Three main issues were debated: some peace initiative, now forgotten, on Northern Ireland; pit closures and Russia.

On the first I said that 800 years of failure held out little hope of success this time. This was received in stony silence. On the second I opined that mining was a brutalising occupation, welcomed pit closures and said they were anyway inevitable. This provoked disgusted dissent. On the third I argued that it was clear that Russia had got it wrong while China had got it right: you should reform your economy first and your politics second. At this point some London village-Hampden yelled that I should be sent to Tiananmen Square and massacred.

Now each of my replies, I would submit, was objectively correct while the third was also prophetic. Much good it did me. Indeed, in one respect I fared worse than Hythloday.

More represents Hythloday's opinions as having been protected by the great politician Cardinal Morton. The Tory elder statesman appearing with me began by being similarly benign. When, however, he heard the tenor of my answers he shuffled both his chair and his replies as far away from me as possible. The moment the cameras were off it was a different story and back in the hospitality room, with the whisky and without the female panellists, he unbuttoned: 'Wonderful, dear boy] Agreed with every word you said. Couldn't have said it myself, of course.'

And that is the trouble. The truth, which was unwelcome at the council boards of kings, is equally alien in our democracy. Look at how she fares with each of our three parties. If any party needed the truth, it is the Conservatives. To save his skin John Major should go on television and admit frankly that back to basics was a ghastly mistake. Instead he appoints a new press secretary. The position of press secretary is paid by the public to stop the public being informed. The new occupant seems to be well qualified.

The Labour Party is no better. On the one hand, it attacks the Conservatives as the party of high taxation; on the other, it constantly advocates policies that will cost more yet refuses to cost them. This is behaviour unworthy of the merest jobbing builder. To find a parallel, you have to go to the sort of phoney antique shop where nothing is priced.

And the Liberals if anything are worse. Instead of expelling the racists in Tower Hamlets Paddy Ashdown appointed a commission to sit on the laundry basket of dirty linen and proclaim, after a decent interval, that the contents were unexpectedly clean.

But we cannot blame only the politicians; we, the people, as More pointed out, are willing accomplices in our deception. Plato, to describe the state of illusion in which men live, came up with the simile of the cave: most are unable to see in the bright sunlight; instead we look at the distorted shadows of things on the cave walls. Plato's laboured simile has become the real unreality of the cinema, television and the video game, in which nothing is as it seems.

And to illusion we add contradiction. We want low taxes and high-quality public services; personal freedom and family solidarity; economic growth and stable jobs and a green environment. It is our dishonest desire to have our cake and eat it that makes politicians' deceits necessary, while our world of illusion offers the means to make their lies effective.

More, once again, offers the best advice. There is no point in telling the unvarnished truth, he says; people won't understand and will only be hurt. And that is what is happening now. Instead of going forward bravely to a politics without illusion, we drift sulkily into disillusion with politics. The Sun, if it were wise, would abandon its strange forays into uplift and return to cleavages: tits are less shocking than truth.

James Fenton is away.