Lies, Damn Lies, and the British Election

by Chris Patten Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. 01.05.2015
LONDON – Democratic elections cannot be described as competitions aimed at revealing which candidates tell the unvarnished truth. Most politicians try to avoid telling outright lies; they bob and weave like prizefighters when faced with questions that might ensnare them in outright mendacity. But they invariably exaggerate what they have to offer, as well as the perils that would result should their opponents win.

It is understandable that politicians should talk up their own vision of the future and talk down what others have to say. All of this is most credible if it does not go too far, and if it bears some resemblance to what the same politicians have achieved when they have been in power. Voters normally spot political Pinocchios and the lengthening of politicians’ noses a mile off. But they also do not expect their elected representatives to be saints. They are prepared to give some the benefit of the doubt (by far the most important attribute any political leader can possess). My guess is that on polling day, Prime Minister David Cameron will emerge holding this asset.

Voters also have a gut instinct – usually, though not always, correct – that parties of the traditional left will tax and spend more, and that those of the right will do the opposite. The way voters respond reflects the way they perceive recent history and what they want for themselves and their families in the future. I subscribe to the view that they normally get these judgments right.

This year, however, the British electorate must navigate more than the ordinary amount of election-time dissimulation. As voters head to the polls on May 7, their would-be elected officials are asking them to believe three great falsehoods, each of which is dangerous in its own way.

The first two falsehoods – deceptions as large as I can remember witnessing during an election campaign – are being peddled by the country’s two most successful populist parties: the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).

UKIP’s rapid rise has been built on the promise of a return to a British past that never was: mostly white, God-fearing, law-abiding, culturally insular, and narrowly focused on its own national interests. It is a vision that appeals mainly to those who are suspicious of modernity and hostile toward globalization.

The danger is that UKIP’s two primary policy prescriptions – an end to immigration and withdrawal from the European Union – are incompatible with economic prosperity. In order for Britain to continue to thrive outside the EU, it would have to open its economy even further, not only to worldwide trade and investment, but also to increased immigration flows. Following UKIP’s suggestion to close the country off from the world would result only in greater poverty – above all for British workers.

The SNP, too, has built its campaign around a core of dishonesty that, unfortunately, explains a good part of its success. In addition to appealing to an unpleasant undercurrent of Scottish Anglophobia, the SNP promises its electorate the prospect of policies that are far to the left of anything that Labour’s prime ministerial candidate, Ed Miliband, could possibly deliver.

To make matters worse, the increase in welfare spending that the SNP is promising Scotland’s voters would have to be paid for primarily by taxpayers in England. Regardless of which party – Labour or Conservative – wins the largest number of seats in Parliament, its constituents would of course include many English voters, who would never agree to the SNP’s policy priorities. As far as falsehoods go, this is a dangerous one; it once again threatens the constitutional integrity of Britain, just eight months after Scotland voted to stay part of the United Kingdom by a margin of 10%.

But it is the last lie that is the most widespread – and probably the most dangerous of all. National politicians’ campaign rhetoric embodies the delusional belief that the UK can exercise the same degree of control over global events that might have been possible 50 years ago. For better or worse, that simply is not true. The UK no longer wields the international influence it once did; indeed, Britons hardly seem to be bothered by their country’s downgraded importance – or even very much aware of the implications.

National sovereignty is becoming an ever more elusive concept. Britain’s economic prospects increasingly depend on events beyond its shores, whether just across the English Channel or in China or California. Environmental hazards blow in on the wind. Swelling migration pressures threaten to overwhelm any pretense at border controls. Security concerns increasingly implicate foreign and domestic policies simultaneously. A recent political cartoon showed British bombers taking off on a mission, with one pilot saying to the others, “It seems a long way to go to bomb a few young men from South London.”

Addressing the challenges that we Britons face will first require acknowledging our limited control over their root causes. The country is in desperate need of independent-minded politicians with the courage to be candid with voters, by explaining to them clearly and soberly that the UK can no longer solve its problems alone.

In an increasingly dangerous, ever-more interconnected world, Britain cannot afford to make its most important collective decisions based on lies or delusions. The British electorate would be better served if their politicians had the courage to serve up some uncomfortable truths – or at least the integrity not to deal in dangerous deceit.


Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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