“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
George Orwell, 1984
Since Friday a lot of people on my timeline have been quoting Orwell. It may be a bit extreme to state that the new world is now plunging headlong into a 1984 abyss, but there are some worrying signs that, on both sides of the Atlantic, our politicians are distorting or brutally avoiding facts to suit their case.
Nothing new there, you might say. Well no, but it legitimises such malpractice and undermines trust and authority in the political system.
Three instances in speeches and interviews over the weekend struck me most:
- President Trump’s and his colleagues’ narcissistic assertion that the inaugural event in Washington DC was the biggest ever and attended by up to 1.5m people. Despite the photographic and metro authorities’ evidence to the contrary, Team Trump had “alternative facts”.
- Prime Minister Theresa May three times failing to answer if she knew about British Trident missiles misdirected to Florida in test conditions before Parliament debated nuclear weapons renewal last year (now belatedly admitted) and
- Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to recognise his party’s loss of 22 Council seats in 2016 by stating there was a positive swing in one by election last week.
Each of these undermines trust.
If Trump (whom you’d expect to be more concerned with the US economy than TV and event ratings) can mislead about what ought to be such a trivial matter, on what else might he and his aides deliberately misinform?
If May can wriggle and avoid transparency on such a key matter of state, what else will she be hiding from the public?
And if Corbyn deludes himself that one plucked-out-of-the air council result is evidence of a general reversal of persistently dire electoral and polling fortunes, then how can his judgement be trusted on anything?
In a 1946 essay Orwell wrote “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
It is chilling to read this again. As someone who was once a professional political operative, I don’t recall ever actually lying. Economic with the truth, probably. Selective facts, yep. But a real fib – no.
The currency of all business, including politics, is facts and evidence. Once these are sidelined, rational debate is futile. And once that ceases, democracy and the integrity of business are threatened and 1984 comes just a little bit closer.