Our elective dictatorship and the threat it poses

Robert Wilcox

Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it”.

Hannah Arendt, On the Origins of Totalitarianism 

It seems to me that we find ourselves on a very slippery slope, and are further along that slope than we are perhaps willing to admit to ourselves. Arendt’s words have an uncomfortable resonance almost seventy years on from their publication. It is no coincidence that Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” to be their international word of the year back in 2016. The adjective is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. It aptly describes 2016’s EU referendum and US presidential election. But what was so different about those events and the campaigns leading up to them? Why did the usage of “post-truth” increase by 2,000% when compared to 2015? The answer lies in the sheer number of patently false claims advanced by the politicians involved. Political discourse, rather than being a debate over particular values in relation to a largely agreed set of facts, was now a stand-off between fact versus fiction; ideological differences alone determined whether a person would acknowledge a statement as true or false, not the evidence underlying it.

What has become clear in the years since is that, rather than being “one-offs”, we have indeed entered a post-truth era. The implications should be extremely concerning to anyone who regards themselves as a proponent of democracy. What certain politicians took from the referendum result was that they could sidestep responsibility, spread misinformation with impunity and, when confronted with evidence which contradicts their position, simply invoke the phrase “fake news” so as to close off inconvenient lines of inquiry completely. All too frequently these days legitimate questions are dodged and criticism treated with an almost traitorous suspicion; politicians seem to react with incredulity that they should be challenged at all.  

The worrying truth is that our current government displays all of these characteristics. This is, perhaps, unsurprising given that its genesis can be traced to the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum. Although it was not until July 2019 that Boris Johnson took over the role of Prime Minister, this was simply the watershed moment of growing pressure from hard-line Brexiteers in the intervening years. Johnson, who has long had a reputation for being a serial liar (he has been sacked twice for doing so), undertook an extensive Cabinet reshuffle. 

Among those Johnson appointed to Government posts were Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, neither of whom are strangers to falsehood and dishonesty. For example, Raab lied when he claimed that he had warned of a no-deal Brexit during the EU referendum campaign. He also dismissed the claim that he supported privatisation of the NHS as “a ludicrous assertion” when interviewed on BBC Radio 4, despite having co-authored a pamphlet which specifically set out plans for selling off hospitals to the private sector. As for Patel, she was forced to quit her role as international development secretary in Theresa May’s government when it was discovered she had undisclosed meetings with top Israeli officials. Occupying the Great Offices of State are people who cannot face the facts and are uncomfortable with being open and transparent, even with their colleagues.

Faced with the problem of Parliamentary opposition to a no-deal Brexit, Johnson took the decision to prorogue Parliament, preventing it from sitting for almost five weeks. He suggested that this was normal practice due to the work required in the run-up to a Queen’s Speech. On the contrary, Parliament is usually prorogued for less than a week. It took the intervention of the Supreme Court to put a stop to this constitutional coup. In R (on the application of Miller) v The Prime Minister [2019] UKSC 41, it was held that prorogation “had the effect of frustrating or preventing the constitutional role of Parliament in holding the Government to account”. Crucially, Johnson had failed to disclose any reasons at all to justify the unprecedented length of the prorogation. For the purpose of determining whether his actions were unlawful, it was unnecessary for the Court to speculate as to what reasons Johnson may have had. To the fair-minded observer, however, his reasons were obvious; he wanted to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny and get Brexit done his way. He went so far as to fracture the constitution in order to achieve this and did not even feel obliged to give a reason to justify his actions. 

Unable to legally bypass Parliament, Johnson instead called for a General Election. One could say that what followed was only too predictable given what we’d already seen from this government. 88% of Tory electoral ads on Facebook were found to be misleading. An ITV interview with Sir Keir Starmer was edited so that it appeared he had no answers to give on the question of Labour’s Brexit position. The Conservative Campaign Headquarters press office changed the name of its Twitter account from “CCHQPress” to “factcheckUK”. This forced Twitter itself to intervene, issuing a statement saying that the change was an attempt to mislead the public. When Raab was interviewed on the matter, his response was “no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust”. Why should we give a toss? Because of the simple fact we are being lied to by our government. 

The people leading this country are content then to not only peddle misinformation but to knowingly do so. They also regard it as entirely acceptable to without information from the public that is essential to our functioning as a democracy. In the run-up to the General Election, Johnson refused to release the Parliamentary report into alleged Russian interference in the UK. This report might tell us about the possible influence Moscow exerted on the outcome of the EU referendum. It might also tell us who benefits from political funding from Russian oligarchs. It is obviously a document which the public should have had sight of before heading to the ballot box. As yet, the report still hasn’t seen the light of day. 

Its response to the COVID-19 pandemic represents the height of this government’s refusal to accept the facts before it. The Dominic Cummings scandal was a case in point. The government attempted to dismiss the story altogether, but even this proverbial pill was too much for the public to swallow.  What was particularly interesting about the scandal was the attempt by the government and some, but not all, Tory MPs to frame Cummings’ actions in such a way that whether he broke the lockdown rules or not was a matter of opinion rather than a question of fact. It was, they said, simply an exercise of judgement, something about which people could naturally and legitimately disagree, while simultaneously pushing the emotionally-infused rhetoric that it is what any responsible father would have done having regard to his family’s interests. 

Even if one accepts Cummings’ own version of events, and the guidance that he himself quoted (which, interestingly, only appeared on the government’s website and was not included in the leaflets distributed to every UK household), it is clear that he breached the lockdown rules. Neither his return to work a few hours after being at home with his ill wife nor driving to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight could be explained by reference to his family’s welfare. In the course of giving his unprecedented public statement, Cummings also claimed that he had written about the “possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning” in March 2019. It turned out that the blog post to which he had been referring had been edited to include mention of coronaviruses in April of this year. 

When Johnson appeared before the Liaison Committee the following day, his first time attending since becoming PM (it normally meets three times a year), Johnson dismissed the entire scandal as “fake news”. This was despite Cummings himself having corroborated much of what was reported. Johnson, however, would not be drawn into a discussion; his decision was made. This is deeply troubling for two reasons: firstly, the government’s confidence in its ability to calm the public mood by attempting to justify the unjustifiable; and secondly, when that failed, the government’s confidence that it could weather the refusal to accept the unacceptable – Cummings, an unelected official, has kept his job.

Fast forward to this week’s PMQs, where Johnson was asked about the spike in COVID-19 infections in Leicester. It was put to Johnson that there was a delay in Leicester City Council receiving all of the necessary data concerning the number of infections; for a week the available data showed that there had been only 80 positive tests when in fact 944 people had tested positively. Johnson claimed that all local authorities had been provided with all the necessary data. The Mayor of Leicester himself, however, had confirmed that this was simply not the case. The government’s unwillingness to accept the facts carries consequences. How can a government be expected to take action to correct delays in providing local authorities with the necessary data when they do not accept there is any such delay? 

It is worth saying that this is not a politically-motivated article. It does not deny that people may have had their reasons for voting for Brexit, for example; reasons which were not based on objectively false claims. Nor does it seek to suggest that ministers in previous Tory governments or, indeed, politicians in other political parties have never been guilty of making false claims themselves. But when faced with a dishonest Person A, the fact that a dishonest Person B comes along does not make that Person A any less dishonest. 

Why then take issue with Boris Johnson’s government specifically? Firstly, and quite simply, they are the ones currently in power. Secondly, this government has demonstrated an unabashed willingness to continually peddle fictitious narratives at the expense of the facts. This should concern us no matter who we voted for. If the facts are distorted or, as is so often the case now, swept aside entirely, holding people to account becomes a Sisyphean task. Seventy years ago, Arendt spoke of the public having “reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true”. One has to wonder: are we so very far away from that being the case today? 

We find ourselves in the midst of an elective dictatorship. Wherever you find yourself on the political spectrum, we deserve better. Not only is our democracy at stake but, given present circumstances, our lives are on the line too.

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