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Has Truth been the key casualty of the Boris Johnson Premiership?

July 27, 2020 10:01 PM
By Ian Dunt in

The key danger Boris Johnson poses is to the concept of objective truth. The analysis in the press of his first year in power has mostly treated him as a standard prime minister living through extraordinary times - the Brexit fight, coronavirus, his own health problems. But in fact he is not a normal prime minister at all. He is a post-truth prime minister. That is the quality which defines him and presents the core threat to the country under his administration.

Other prime ministers have lied of course. Under Tony Blair, the case for the war in Iraq was stretched beyond what it would sustain, involving a series of misleading arguments which served to discredit not just him but also the institutional reputation of the British state. Under Theresa May, the tribal urgency of Brexit was allowed to replace any sense of logical or empirical validity.

But no administration has lied so consistently, cynically and strategically as the one we are currently living under. We are now in a period of British politics in which the entire notion of objective truth threatens to drift away altogether.

The key to Johnson's approach to government lies in the dynamic between him and his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings. During the campaign to leave the EU, Cummings introduced a striking new proposition to political life. It was that facts didn't matter. Loyalty to them was a hindrance rather than a virtue. Fact-checking agencies could be used against themselves, promoting erroneous claims rather than refuting them. The entire structure of empirical verification - think tanks, experts, economic analysts - could be undermined as a conspiracy against the people. Politics could be degraded into a zero-sum battle over cultural values, rather than a debate which used shared facts to progress different views of how to improve human life.

The combination of Cummings and Johnson proved uniquely dangerous: two men with no interests in, and often an extreme animosity towards, verifiable facts. That approach is now embedded in British government.

During Johnson's time as prime minister he has tried to cancel parliament while claiming it was a routine prorogation, had the party mimic fact-checking agencies to appraise TV debates, avoided nearly all scrutiny during a general election campaign, smeared journalists, presented a demonstrably catastrophic covid response as "world beating", allowed a clear breach of lockdown rules by Cummings to take priority over the resilience of those rules, tried to stitch up the intelligence committee elections while claiming they are independent, and insisted that he is holding firm against Russia while diligently ensuring he does not investigate their operations against British democracy.

But there is one deception which stands above all, in terms of pertinence and implication. It is the one over the Brexit deal. From the moment it was struck, Johnson's administration accepted that it would lead to a border between Britain and Northern Ireland and also insisted that it would not. The black and white of the text made it clear it would. The Brexit department acknowledged it would. Any trading expert knew it would. But Johnson repeatedly insisted it would not.

This meant that the deal operated in the realm of truth and fiction at the same time. And this was not some small esoteric issue. It went to the heart of the UK's territorial integrity and its trading life for the next generation. And yet it operated in the arena of post-truth, something which was and wasn't at the same time.

That is a profound defeat. Not just for Remainers, or the DUP, or Labour. It is a defeat for those who believe in politics as a process grounded in reality, in people arguing on the basis of logic and accepted facts. It takes it veering madly off into the world of never-never land. When core issues like this are allowed to play out without any connection to truth, the entire basis of political life flies away with them.