Some things stick in the memory, others don’t. For some reason I’ve always remembered a university lecturer claiming that “Local people are more likely to challenge their council spending £200 on a park bench than £2 million on a swimming pool”. The reason: scale.
Most people, he suggested, can imagine what they can buy for £200 but not for £2 million. They can assess whether they think £200 for a park bench is value for money but have no idea how much a swimming pool should cost or what value to place on its benefits.
Surely they wouldn’t lie about something so important
Over the last few years I have come to wonder whether this “scale” effect might be applicable to standards in public life. After all, improperly claiming a few thousand in expenses seems to cause more upset than lies about Brexit which are likely to cost us billions.
I first noticed it during the EU referendum campaign. When talking with a friend I mentioned the potential impact of Brexit on the mutual recognition and “passporting” rights. He didn’t know what they were and even when I explained with examples from my own work experience, he claimed I had to be wrong. Project Fear, he insisted, sure that they wouldn’t lie about something so important. They wouldn’t let that happen.
“They’re all as bad as each other and I like his lies best”
Later I noticed it in recurring arguments on Social Media. As the scandals of data manipulation, collusion between the Leave Campaigns and overspending emerged there was considerable denial. It couldn’t be true. Not in the UK. This was a proper democracy! “Get real”, insisted one person, “if that were true they would have stopped the whole thing.” Maybe at that time there was still some residual faith in the integrity of those in government.
It was there again in the recent General Election campaign. This time people seemed to know they were being spun lies, big and small. Nevertheless those overdoing the spin and prone to exaggeration were punished more than those telling blatant whoppers.
A common sentiment I heard in the run up to polling day was “They’re all lying, they’re as bad as each other, but we like what X is promising and we don’t like Y. If they don’t deliver we’ll vote them out.” In other words I’ll vote for X because I like his lies best. The potential for the irreversible damage that could be caused in the meantime seemed barely to be considered.
Lacking knowledge is not the same as being stupid
I didn’t realise until I began campaigning and talking to people at street stalls how little most people engage with politics or how little they know about the operation of law and functions of government and parliament. The politicians clearly knew it and, in my view, exploited it mercilessly. The Leave campaign had cleverly preempted any challenge to their false claims by casting their opposition as elite, self interested, experts. Don’t listen to them with their vested interests. Leave portrayed their opposition as condescending, arrogant people who thought “ordinary people” were stupid.
Lacking knowledge is not the same as being stupid. Many of the ‘stronger in” campaigners and supporters were ordinary working people who for, one reason or another, had acquired relevant knowledge. But preventing the “ordinary people” whose votes they needed from acquiring knowledge, at least until it was too late was in the interests of those offering a “cake and eat it” future.
Then to protect their narrow win from challenge as increasing numbers of “ordinary people” learned more about the issues after the vote, they quickly launched the “It’s not democratic to change your mind” myth and promulgated it far and wide.
A policy of managed “out of sight, out of mind”
Now people have voted to get Brexit done by 31st January, barely five weeks after parliament resumes following the Christmas recess. It won’t be “done” for years. The prime Minister can no more claim Brexit to be done than you could claim to have moved house just because you sold up, put your stuff in storage and are sleeping on your mates sofa with only a vague and uncertain idea of where and what your next house will be.
But the government will make it appear “done” by ending the use of the word Brexit and managing all the negotiations themselves, removing the role of parliament in scrutinising trade deals. Stifle debate; do it behind the scenes, make it difficult for anyone to hold them to account. Do what it takes to give the appearance it has been done with no immediately noticeable ill effects. Rely on those who voted for it to turn a blind eye or believe it done, despite the protection of the transition period. A policy of managed “out of sight, out of mind”.
The bigger the lie, the grander the cover up
The bigger the lie, the grander the cover up, the greater the need for more lies, the more intense the campaign against challengers, the tighter the restrictions and control over publication of information, the more urgent the need for a power grab diminishing the role of parliament, the more serious the threat to limit the authority of the courts.
With an 80 seat majority of, if my Tory MP is typical, all nodding dogs (highly likely given the pledge all the candidates gave and the precedent set when those who had rebelled were purged) the government can do pretty much what it likes.
We urgently need to restore integrity and public standards in government. We need to elect men and women who believe public service should be for the good of the country and not merely a lucrative career opportunity. If we don’t do so and fail to hold them properly to account our country slides further down the slippery slope to demagoguery or even worse, authoritarianism.