Yesterday I wrote an almost entirely tongue-in-cheek piece about lying politicians. Or politicians who lie. Or political lies. There are subtle differences here depending on one’s perspective and the words used. Much like in the case of politicians who tell lies and political lies told by (or on behalf of) politicians. A difference which seems to have more to do with the credibility of the politician doing the lying than with the veracity or lack thereof, in what is said.
What I’m suggesting is this: Suppose a scenario in which two politicians (or political actors) make identical statements simultaneously and in identical circumstances. The veracity of this statement – or should that be “these statements”? – is contested in precisely the same manner and terms in both cases. My thesis is that despite all this commonality it is still possible for one statement to be deemed true and the other not. Or at least, one more true than the other. The difference having nothing to do with the content or context of the statement(s), these being stipulated as identical. I contend that it is nonetheless possible for the truthfulness of the statement to be judged differently. One may be deemed a common lie, the other a political lie.
The political lie is a special class of falsehood. Rather like a white lie, but with some kind of legal standing. The political lie has been formally recognised as a special class of lie, perhaps most notably in the case of Alistair Carmichael MP (still!) and the so-called ‘Frenchgate’ affair. Readers may check the details of this incident for themselves – indeed I encourage you to do so – but it will be sufficient for our purposes to state only that Carmichael lied, admitted he lied, but was deemed not to be culpable. His lying was held not to be an “illegal practice” in term of electoral law such as would disqualify him from holding elected public office. He had told a political lie.
I recall that at the time of the affair referred to as ‘Frenchgate’ only because the ‘Alistair Carmichael is a Lying Bastard Affair’ identifies both the offence and the offender and that is against the rules of the British political game when the offender is a British Nationalist and the offence a political lie. Had it been some other political figure say for example and picking a name entirely at random, Alex Salmond, the incident would undoubtedly have been titled eponymously. That’s just the way it works.
Anyway! I recall at the time of the ‘Alistair Carmichael is a Lying Bastard Affair’ – this was during the post-referendum surge in support for the SNP that the party leadership made such a fine job of not exploiting – many in the Yes movement (OK! Me!) smugly maintaining that the political lie is a characteristic of British politics not found in Scottish politics. Which was nonsense, of course, because the political lie is a characteristic of politics. And politics is universal.
There are lies and liars in Scottish politics just as there are in politics the world over. Just as there are in life. And all of life is politics. Politics, as I have noted previously, is the management of power relationships. All human interactions at every level from the interpersonal to the international are transactions in the currency of power. We are all doing politics all of the time. We are simply accustomed to calling it politics only when it come to matters of public policy and the people charged with formulating and implementing public policy. All of life is politics. All of living is doing politics. And where there is politics there is dishonesty.
People cheat. In conducting those transaction in the currency of power people naturally seek the greatest advantage at the least cost. Cheating can be a way of doing this. Which doesn’t mean we all cheat all of the time; because there can also be costs associated with cheating which might outweigh any advantage. Being good at managing power relationships (politics) means having the ability to accurately and instantaneously weigh the pros and cons of cheating and make choices based on that assessment which turn out to be ‘right’ at a level higher than the average. There’s rather more to it, of course. But the ability to know when cheating is worthwhile is a hugely important part of politics; whether we’re talking about politics in the sense of parties and parliaments or in the sense of people and social situations.
This being so, it is easy to see how the political lie might evolve. A form of cheating with no or negligible associated cost is very desirable to those seeking extraordinary power. That is to say, effective political power. The power to effect change.
The political lie is ‘a thing’ because it serves the interests and purposes of established power that it should be ‘a thing’; and established power has the ability to make it ‘a thing’. It’s one of the ways in which established power becomes and remains established. Alistair Carmichael’s lie was deemed a political lie not because he is loved and respected or because he has something of worth to offer society, but because it is convenient that there should be such a thing as the political lie – the lie that can be told without unfortunate consequences befalling the lying bastard. Consequences, that is, beyond my being able to call him a lying bastard with total impunity, because he admitted to the ‘lying’ bit and the ‘bastard’ bit is fair comment.
There are liars, lies and political lies in Scottish politics. This will come as a shock only to those so credulous as to require the protections of a state institution. As electors, our role in the system is to identify the liars and distinguish between the lies and the political lies. We have to decide not only whether a politician or political actor is lying but whether the lie is such as should carry an electoral cost.
Either Sue Ruddick is lying, or Anne Harvey is lying. Either Nicola Sturgeon is lying or Alex Salmond is lying. Either Peter Murrell is lying or I’m a giant squirrel. Either lots of people are lying or lots of other people are lying. And I, for one, am sick of it!
I am well past caring what the outcome is, I just want an end to all of this. I don’t pretend to possess some cantraip capacity for discerning truth in words or truthfulness in people, but I sure as hell know a transaction in the currency of power that has gone disastrously wrong. It is beyond doubt that at the centre of this vortex there is a power struggle between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. We don’t need to know every detail of who said or did what to whom in whose company or when to recognise that what may well have started as a run-of-the-mill tussle has escalated to a point where there can be no winners, only losers. Everybody loses. The longer it goes on, the heavier the losses.
It’s not like we don’t have other and by any impartial measure more pressing matters to deal with. Scotland is under threat. It is absolutely no exaggeration to say that everything we understand Scotland to be and everything we aspire for Scotland to become and even the illusions of Scotland we cling to is in peril. Change is coming. Change is underway. If we don’t seize control of that process then change will be imposed on us in the same way that so much has been imposed on us over three centuries of an abominable political union that was itself imposed on us. We need to be dealing with that. We do not need the distraction of a war of attrition between two of our nation’s most able and distinguished politicians.
It was generally supposed, I think, that the two inquiries currently in progress would lead to a resolution – one way or another. The parliamentary inquiry has descended into a sub-Rixian farce. All it needs is for one of the lead players to suffer an embarrassing wardrobe mishap and the piece will be complete. The investigation led by James Hamilton QC into the behaviour of the leading lady is probably not going to be an end to the matter on its own. Particularly given the possibility of resort to the political lie. I just want them to bring down the curtain on a performance that shames our entire nation.
Pardon me as I refer to yet another of my previous articles, but in Where stoppeth the buck? I wrote,
It is time for somebody at the top of the party to step up. Somebody needs to take a grip of the situation. On the inquiries looking at the behaviour of the Scottish Government and the First Minister, let the truth come out. We can deal with it. In the medium to long term the truth however bad will be far less damaging than the suppurating sores of suspicion.
I echo that sentiment here but in the form not of an angry demand, but of a desperate plea to all involved. For Scotland’s sake end this!