Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lies, damn lies and the quiet life

It has always struck me as peculiarly innocent that people should be shocked and outraged when it is discovered, or claimed, that a politician has been slippery with the truth. Yet I can't see how a politician can be squeeky clean. Aside from any personal motives of shame or ambition, just dealing with the daily realities of political life means his relations with fact and fiction are always going to be extremely promiscuous and conducted through the back door.

An illustative case is that of Tony 'Bliar'. His mendacity was thus immortalised because he told 'the British parliament and people' that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat, a man armed with frightening weapons of mass destruction which the tyrant would not hesitate to use. There follows invasion, search of the high and the low, creased brows and admission of the non-existence of said armaments. Ipso facto, he is exposed to all as a liar.

However, you are a liar if at the time of speaking, you are aware of the lie. In fact, at the time of speaking, Tony 'Bliar' was merely repeating what all and sundry believed to be true. All and sundry in this case includes the secret services of France, Russia and Germany and even, it seems, the generals in Saddam's own army. That everyone thought Saddam had WMD was the consequence of Saddam's previous behaviour, no effective infiltration of Iraq so that hard intelligence could be obtained and Saddam's dissimulation. Blair might have been wrong, but he wasn't lying.

Yet there was a deception, one of omission. The search for WMD was the least of the reasons for going to war. It was just the only feasable one to bring before the court of public opinion and the United Nations. Well above that were the desirability of regime change, the remapping of the Middle East and the need to shake up some of the regimes there. All very good reasons both for us and for them. But not good enough for the public either here or abroad.

So what do you do? In the 1930s Winston Churchill knowingly exaggerated the threat from Germany because he could see where it was going and needed to convince people of its gravity. He failed, not because he was being untruthful, but because people just didn't want to know. Blair believed that Saddam was dangerous to us all, not imminently but eventually. He had believed that at least since 1997. September the 11th was the jolt that set the train moving.

But people here, and in the US, France, Germany, do not want to think of a world in which we have to fight and kill to protect ourselves. That's cowboy thinking; we're beyond that now. Aren't our societies built to avoid just that? Yes. Ours are. Others aren't. But we've been born, brought up, educated to and inculcated with peace; we're not ready to be yanked back to the frontier. So what does he do?

According to Callaghan, democracy was a system that led societies to the edge of ungovernability, and that was the best place to be for an advanced human society. In such a system, lies could push society over the edge.

And, yet, the advanced Western democracies have lived, and continue to live, with some basic lies - lies that electorate likes to hear. The former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok had a nice formula: the entire welfare state was based on the lie that the same guilder could be spent many times over.
Whatever lies Blair told about Iraq were far less damaging than the ones we tell ourselve about the world and our place in it. His lies do him honour. Ours do us shame.

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