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Roch Dunin-Wasowicz

September 24th, 2019

Two cheers for hypocrisy: when politicians believe in their own lies

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Roch Dunin-Wasowicz

September 24th, 2019

Two cheers for hypocrisy: when politicians believe in their own lies

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Lying to others is part of the political game, and so is hypocrisy, lying to oneself; but hypocrisy can take politicians down one of two very different roads, argues Charles Turner (University of Warwick).

According to Leszek Kołakowski, we should not knock hypocrisy, because the hypocrite will often put admirable principles onto the public agenda. This is a virtue in politics even when the principle is being articulated by people whose policies fail to embody them.  The really dangerous politicians, by contrast, are the pragmatists, who would not recognise a principle if it was staring them in the face, and who simply confront the public with what they are going to do anyway. Hannah Arendt took a different view. Lying to others is part of the political game but when you lie to yourself and believe those lies you are a hypocrite and ‘truly rotten to the core’. 

As the Brexit game reaches its denouement, charges of hypocrisy have been flying around more freely than usual, and perhaps it is worth wondering why.  To get a handle on it, let’s distinguish between two types of hypocrisy: call them benign and malign.

Let’s say further that the benign sort is part of the fabric of liberal democracy. For liberal democracy to work there must be a difference between pragmatic day to day struggle and the principles that help define the rules of the game.  It is the opposite of polities run along the lines of Lenin’s ‘kto kogo’, who does what to whom. Liberal democracy flourishes when its architecture provides politicians with a clear sense of when to talk the language of policy, when to voice their own beliefs, and when to articulate the more general principles they believe should be upheld. This balance separates the arenas in which these voices are heard but also allows them to communicate with one another.  In particular, when the balance is right the values are implicit, so that ‘democracy ’or ‘human rights’ or ‘sovereignty’ are not part of daily political discourse, but are articulated only in the gaps between the hard grind of policy formation and legislative work, and on occasions when policy decisions have made it necessary to clarify them. If harmful policies, like taking benefits from people in wheelchairs, get justified by hasty appeals to some higher value, like standing on your own two feet, we may cry hypocrisy because we suspect a politician’s motives, but the need for justification has nonetheless put the principle in the spotlight: it has not been voiced, so to speak, in mid-air, and a policy can be tested against it. At one PMQs Tony Blair was asked what his basic political philosophy was and offered merely an embarrassed grin, but in a way he was right to: it was neither the time nor the place.

“The Triumph of Hypocrisy” by Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827), The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One effect of Brexit has been to shift the balance between policy-making and principles, and with this, hypocrisy has taken on a different, and we may say, malign tone. The referendum itself helped to foster this, for rather than being about a specific legislative proposal, as they usually are in advanced democracies, it was framed in terms of an existential decision about the future of the UK. It was wrapped in abstract generalities, with the fiendishly complex matters of detail concerning supply chains and agricultural product inspections treated as an irritating sideshow.

The campaign, like general election campaigns, disrupted the balance between the general and the particular, but while post-election parliaments plunge MPs back into the business of policy-making and scrutiny, the one elected after 2017 has had that existential decision hanging over it. Policy making has taken a back seat, while much time is taken up either with policy in relation to one overriding objective, or with a straight fight between decisive leaving and committed remaining. One effect of this is that more of our day to day politics is being conducted with basic principles in the foreground, as befits a country undergoing a constitutional crisis. We are less of a settled polity than we were, and so principles float freely and politicians are invited to display their convictions undiluted, and untested, by policy. Nobody has said ‘democracy means democracy’ yet, but you can’t help feeling it’s coming.

Writing of France under Robespierre, Arendt wrote: ‘the search for motives, the demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation, since it actually demands the impossible, transforms all actors into hypocrites; the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human relations’.  Perhaps we are not quite there yet, in a situation where everyone is at the same time a hypocrite and seeking to unmask hypocrisy, but principles talk appears to have become cheaper.   If our polity is not chasing its tail that is perhaps because there is still a division of labour between the hypocrites and the liars. The hypocrite’s duplicity, Arendt wrote, boomerangs back on him, while the liar retains a ‘core of integrity from which true appearance could arise again, his own incorruptible self’.

Here the liars are Boris Johnson’s inner circle, scheming and manipulating, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, describing proroguing the House of which he is the leader as a matter of routine, having himself recommended it in January as an emergency measure to circumvent a Brexit-blocking house of commons. The hypocrites meanwhile are the cabinet ministers who should be attending to their policy briefs but who are being asked for their views on matters of principle that have no connection with those briefs.  Thus, a few weeks ago they were all asked the same question about the proroguing of parliament and all said it would be an affront to democracy. Now it has happened, they accept it, to widespread disdain. We might though reflect that the question itself had no anchor in matters of ministerial responsibility, indeed relieved them of the burden of answering questions on such matters. One effect of this cluttering of the public sphere with matters of basic general principles has been a dramatic weakening of our sense of what specific members of the cabinet are responsible for, what it is that shapes their character as politicians, and what the principles are that define their area of competence. To mangle Tolstoy, Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid and Nicky Morgan are malignly hypocritical in the same way, while ministers in a settled liberal democracy are benignly hypocritical in their own way.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. 

Charles Turner is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

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Roch Dunin-Wasowicz

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