The Peter Brookes cartoon in yesterday’s Times shows a blue plaque outside No 10 Downing Street
It would have been inconceivable in 1997 that a political cartoonist would have said this so baldly about a serving prime minister. It is the role of a cartoonist to say the unsayable but they do not (or at least, good ones like Brookes in heavy-weight newspapers do not) pillory a public figure in this way without being reasonably sure that the cartoon will resonate with at least a large minority of the readership.
The worst thing about this one is that most people will barely pause over it. Blair lies. Yes of course he does, what’s new, let’s have some news, something topical. Blair himself will see it as just a statement of the obvious – that’s what happens when you open your mouth, isn’t it – a lie falls out? It will not necessarily be a lie direct – it might be an exaggeration, a gloss on the truth, a half-truth, the omission of something peripheral but material, a bit of spin. I don’t believe he notices any more, or that he cares of he is found out.
That is what Blair was taught by Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson in the early days, and since we (that is, you, not me) have elected him twice more since then in full knowledge of his medacity, it is not unreasonable on his part to think that lying does not matter any more.
There are two aspects to this which are worse than the effect of any one lie, worse even than the lies which bought Blair his mandate to take us to war. One is the coarsening effect on government generally and on public life. The other is the hypocrisy of his 1997 campaign against John Major.
Major’s government was an easy target for Blair. Blair looked fresh and untainted, and promised hope not just generally of a better world but specifically of an end to the air of sleaze which hung over the Conservative government. A Labour government, he said, would be “purer than pure” and even those of us who did not vote for him (in my case because high taxation for no reward was inevitable) thought it possible that government under Blair really might bring us back to an era when politicians kept faith with the electors.
We know differently now. Day one of Blair’s government brought an apparently spontaneous crowd into Downing Street welcoming the fresh new leader. We now know that they were Labour groupies, bussed in and given flags and instructions as explicit as those given to extras on a film set. Everything which followed – from Formula 1 to Iraq to the police investigation into the sale of honours – is a poke in the eye for anyone who thought that 1997 brought a new decency into public life.
The assumption that we are being continuously lied to has now permeated every strand of government. John Major, writing by chance (or perhaps it was not by chance) on the page after the Brookes cartoon puts it thus:
“Spin today is often downright deceit. For all its faults, old Labour had a soul; new Labour only has sound-bites and apparatchiks, careless of constitutional proprieties, who will use any unscrupulous trick to benefit the Government.
This downward spiral began when Labour trashed the Government Information Service and politicised news management. Until then, no one doubted the No 10 spokesman. Now, if No 10 tells you Friday follows Thursday, wise men check the calendar. The consequence of this sophistry is profound and damaging. If, tomorrow, this Government told Parliament that our nation was under threat and we must go to war, would Parliament or the public rally behind it without independent corroboration? I think not – and that is unprecedented. “
The real issue is that no-one seems to mind very much any more. Another serious commentator wrote jokily recently that “if Blair told you the time, you would ring the speaking clock for confirmation” and it seemed no more than a light-hearted way of saying what we all accept as true. But you cannot put the names of Major, Thatcher, Heath, Callaghan or even Wilson into that jest – it doesn’t work. They all, no doubt, told us less than the truth, concealed the truth, put a selective gloss on the truth, but they did not lie to us as a matter of course. Eden is condemned for doing it once, ironically because he misled Parliament over the decision to embark on a middle-Eastern war.
Take it one step further. If Blair’s dishonesty seems worse because he expressly paraded his virtue in opposition, what do we make of Gordon Brown, who paints himself as a pillar of stern moral rectitude? Blair would at least smile at you as he lied to you about the time or the day of the week. The dishonesty of Gordon Brown is of a different order altogether. Spending disguised as “investment”; the same money announced several times as if it were new money; the suppression of Treasury advice on pensions or the sale of gold. Even Gordon Brown’s absences have a dishonest quality to them – that knack of being somewhere else when a decision has to be made or its consequences faced.
When Gordon Brown wants a direct lie told, he sends someone else to do it – it was his bagman Ed Balls who claimed that the CBI backed the pension tax credits. Balls appears to be a decent chap – incomprehensible, of course, tending to over-complicate simple things, administratively incompetent and entirely out-of-touch with the actual effect on ordinary people of the theories he promotes – but a nice bloke underneath it all. It is a measure of the corrupting and corrosive effect of the Blair-Brown style of government that Ed Balls should think it right to tell a direct lie in support of his master’s position.
The distrust goes further than mere disbelief and into a general assumption that they are all on the take. There are a few – Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, Ed Milliband, little Ruth Kelly, Alan Johnson and one or two others – of whom this is not true, but most of them provoke the unbidden thought that someone somewhere is secretly benefiting. I am not, be clear, accusing anyone of anything criminal, just voicing the gut reaction which arises unbidden whenever the government opens its collective mouth.
I do not mean that I think they are pocketing money or some other reward from unworthy sources, indeed I find it hard to express what I do mean. But when you have a government which sells honours for party political purposes, a government whose Deputy Prime Minister thinks it right to accept hospitality and gifts from a known bidder for a valuable licence in the government’s gift, a party which takes £1 million pounds from someone interested in the outcome of an imminent government decision, you cannot help questioning everything else.
It is perhaps that some things seem so incomprehensible that dishonesty does at least provide a logical answer. What was so bad about Jack Straw as Foreign Secretary that Granny Beckett was a better choice? What drives the amiable but useless Tessa Jowell to promote gambling so forcefully? How could Blair bear to have the irritating but useless Hazel Blears within a mile of him? How does the expensive but useless John Prescott survive for so long? How does the useless but useless Patricia Hewitt keep her Health job – or any job? Where has all our money gone?
Once you know that the Prime Minister lies for a pastime, indeed cannot accurately distinguish between truth and untruth, when you appreciate that if he did not flog honours personally he set the climate in which it was seen as proper, and when you learn that he sends the Attorney General away until he comes back with an Opinion which says the right things, then there are no depths which you cannot imagine possible. That falls short of accusing anyone of anything personally improper.
Ten years after Blair’s “purer than pure” speech, public life stinks to an extent unimaginable in Major’s day. I cannot reconcile my instinctive feeling that government is dishonest in pretty well everything it does with my certainty that no one member of it is actually on the take. But nor can I quell that instinctive feeling.
“Tony Blair lied here” is a fitting epitaph not just for Blair personally but for the decade over which he presided.