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The Art of Political Lying

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

“With politicians it appears that the lie is as much part of speech as the noun and the verb.”

Evan Esar

Indeed, this has always been true, but we do appear to be in a political era where the edict is, “If at first you’re not believed, lie, lie and lie again.”

The simple fact is that a lie is a powerful thing and those that pretend to believe lies do not realize they in turn have become liars. Thus, we descend down a treacherous path as one good lie requires another and the truth becomes a distant blur.

I am not privileged to have a classical education, but it is the Roman poet Ovid in his “Metamorphoses” that described rumor so well that Jonathan Swift chose to quote him in his essay, “The Art of Political Lying” published in 1710 a translation of sorts as follows:

“With idle tales this fills our empty ears;

The next reports what from the first he hears;

The rolling fictions grow in strength and size,

Each author adding to the former lies.

Here vain creddity, with new desires,

Leads us astray, and groundless joy inspires;

The dubious whispers, tumults fresh designed,

And chilling fears astound the anxious mind.”

Thus, Ovid identifies the lie as what starts as the quietest rumor becomes one of the most powerful political weapons – fear.

Even the modern poets of pop identify this progression, for example in “Mass Destruction” with the lyrics by Maxi Jazz of Faithless he identifies both misinformation and fear as weapons of mass destruction.

Fear of weapons of mass destruction featured in what is often regarded as one of the 21st Century’s first great political lies as both George W. Bush and Tony Blair asserted at the United Nations that Saddam Hussein had an active weapons of mass destruction program with stockpiled weapons. The 2004 United States Senate report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction intelligence found that “inaccurate materials” misled government policy makers and the American public. Whether these were lies with a motive of creating war will never be known as truth is the first casualty of war.

This reminds me of my old law tutor describing the difference between misrepresentation in contract war being innocent, negligent or fraudulent saying to me, “there are lies, and there are lies, and there are downright lies.”

The power of lies is identified in a 2005 study into public perception of the search weapons of mass destruction in the Iraq war of 2003. It had three distinct conclusions that any politician should make note of in order to help them deceive the public:

- Repetition of tentative stories, even if withdrawn, help create false memories in a substantial proportion of the population;

- Once information is published, subsequent correction does not alter people’s beliefs unless they suspect the motives of the stories;

- When people ignore corrections they do so irrespective of how certain they are that corrections occurred.

This illustrates the potential power of a lie. Indeed, it appears a lie can speak louder than words!

Jonathan Swift described the dawning of a political lie as if it is a creature: sometimes a monster to be “licked into shape”; sometimes born “fully formed”; or often as a regular infant that sees the light in its full growth before dwindling away. When a political lie loses its sting, it dies. We can all imagine certain politicians that are wishing the sting of lies to disappear before they have to. “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late………like a physician who hath found out an infallible medicine after the patient is dead.” (Star Trek Fans may remember Dr McCoy had this very paradox discovering a cure for his father’s illness after he had died).

Swift questioned whether truth does prevail. This is possibly a larger question today as Twitter and Facebook are used to spread lies, as Swift said, “the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers.” How do you determine what is true and what is false?

Of the same era as Swift was John Arbuthnot who in 1712 wrote his satire proposing a “Treatise of the Art of Political Lying……” But at this point I wonder is political lying an art or a science. The art of lying is called “pseudology”. To quote Maureen Lipman from the old British Telecom advert, “If its an ‘ology’ he’s a scientist.” I am reliably informed that science is objective and therefore not influenced by personal feelings and opinions in considering and representing facts. Whereas art is subjective and is therefore based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes and opinions. But both are attempts to understand the world. With science reliant upon the asking of questions to discover facts. But the very act of choosing the questions to ask may be subjective and interpreting facts may be subjective. Thus, science disappears into a black hole of objectivity vs. subjectivity. However, both art and science have a common ability to show us the world in new ways enabling our “truth” to be fundamentally changed.

I would make a special case for “political lying” being an art. For artists often start with a new vision and then explore the best way to get this across, with the political lie being an essential tool for any such political artist. But is the phrase, “trust the science” the greatest political lie of modern times when in reality the politician has merely sought a scapegoat to justify political decisions?

It is interesting to note that Arbuthnot explored the concept of a “salutary falsehood” that is, and unwelcome or unpleasant lie that may have good effect. Of that era the false assurance that France would not invade England could have a positive effect of calming the population and maintaining commerce. Similarly, Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time” bought the country essential time to prepare for war. In our current time a lie may be, “vaccination stops you spreading Covid” which has been repeated by politicians across the globe when in fact “vaccination may reduce the spread of Covid”. The lie is subtle and the motive is perhaps honorable as countries seek to protect their health and welfare systems from being overwhelmed. In my lifetime perhaps the greatest political lies have been told when we entered the European Union and again when we left. As to who was lying is a whole other subject. Political lies can be essential to preserve the modern economy and hiding the truth from the populace is effectively a lie. As Gordon Brown wisely assured the country that all was well in 2008, I was witnessing queues outside Northern Rock and in the Bank I worked in saw massive deposits being withdrawn and converted into cash and the British Banking system teetered on the brink of collapse as he stemmed the failure of our monetary system. In this point do we have a right to political truth? Arbuthnot questioned this right . Arbuthnot proposed rules of “Pseudology” that an implication or fudging of the truth is acceptable under these rules.

An example given under Arbuthnot’s rules is that you should not “report of a pious and religious Prince, that he neglects his Devotion, and would introduce heresy; but you may report of a merciful Prince , that he has pardon’d a Criminal who did not deserve it.” Boris Johnson’s allegation of Kier Starmer not prosecuting Jimmy Saville appears to be straight out of this rule book. Or perhaps you might say that you had no birthday party, but you were ambushed by cake, for what could be a more terrible fate and instill such sympathy from the public?

Arbuthnot extols that the political lie is most useful if it is terrifying and can therefore be used to enlist support. Perhaps we see this in Russia at the moment where the fear of an aggressive NATO enlisting Ukraine on Russia’s border is a useful lie when it is highly unlikely Ukraine would wish to enter NATO. Arbuthnot advised that in the lies “their Comets, Whales and Dragons should be sizeable; their Storms , Tempests and Earthquakes should be without reach of a Days Journey of a Man and a Horse.” In other words the lies should just be a little out of reach to be verified accurately by the ordinary person. Of this I am mindful of doomsayers of the past that predicted that by 2000 we would: run out of oil; be underwater due to sea level rise; run out of water; be fried by the hole in the ozone layer; die in nuclear holocaust; see British society collapse due to immigration; and finally, the twentieth century’s greatest fear cumulated in the damp squib that was the Millennium Bug. All these lies have the same common denominators in that they played on fear and were just out of reach for the ordinary person to verify even if he was on a horse. The problem is that some of these “lies” may be true, but their over use has made us indifferent. Global warming is perhaps the biggest issue to suffer from such a malaise of indifference from people of a certain age as so many past predictions regarding it have failed to be identifiable to the ordinary man that credulity has suffered. Is the truth that we need to avoid Gas in an effort at future self sufficiency of power free from the political whims of other countries whether oil from the Gulf or Gas from Russia?

Arbuthnot identified this problem as he proposed that the threat of invasion by the French should only be used once a year for risk of creating indifference and “the Bears should be chained up again till time twelve-month.” Transposed to today could we see the threat of the Russian bear a welcome political distraction on both sides? I may be pushing comparables at this point. Or am I?

Arbuthnot compared the two main parties of his day the Tories and the Whigs as to which were “the greatest Artists in Political Lying.” His view was that the Whigs had over-used the political lie to their detriment summing it up in the phrase, “When there is too great a quantity of worms it is hard to catch Gudgeons.” He proposed a remedy that the party should vent nothing but truth for three months which will then give them credit for six months lying afterwards. I wonder if modern politicians would cope with such a prolonged period of three months truth?

Arbuthnot made it clear that to deliver six months of political lies requires great genius and accused the news-writers of the day of being, “wholly ignorant in the rules of Pseudology.” This may be true today, but at least we have Private Eye that appears to fully understand the rules of Political Pseudology.

The value of the whisper to support the political lie should not be under-rated. I have to agree with this, for if we hear a whisper do we not strain our hearing to perceive what the whisperer is saying? Whereas a shouter is readily ignored, even if he shouts truth. Indeed, the modern tweet may be but a whisper that can be shared by the multitude. Of its time Arbuthnot described how a terrible lie can move “faster than a man can ride post”, above “ten miles an hour.” Nowadays, thanks to the internet, they travel at the speed of light.

Arbuthnot made the great claim that he had studied the art of lying to such a great skill that if he was told a lie he could identify the source of that lie. As of today, it appears that they tended to be sourced largely in the capital. His contemporary, Swift, agreed with him stating that if man had the ability for seeing lies, “he might entertain himself in this town, by observing the different shapes, sizes and colours of those swarms of lies which buzz about the heads of some people, like flies about a horse’s ears in summer…..enough to darken the air; or over a club of discontented grandees, and then sent down in cargoes to be scattered at elections.” Nowadays I perceive the swarm of lies darken the whole area from Downing Street to Westminster with a particularly nasty infestation hovering around the Carlton Club whilst they await fumigation.

As for our Prime Minister, he is no doubt making good use of his classical education and along with others is well versed in John Arbuthnot’s advice and considering “the great prosperity to believe Lyes in the generality of Mankind of late years, he thinks the properest contradiction to a lye is another lye.”

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