Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
It’s a common trope that we live in an age of post-truth politics. It increasingly appears that politicians have impunity to say things that are either demonstrably false or – more often in the UK at least – promise a future that is not supported by a rational reading of the evidence at hand.
The EU referendum and the subsequent process after serve as good exhibits for the prosecution. The Leave side of the fence is probably the more egregious with the £350 million red bus, the promises that a free trade deal with the EU would be the easiest such undertaking ever and – most pressingly now – denunciations of those who suggest that a ‘No Deal’ Brexit would come with a cost.
The Remain side of the divide is not without fault either though; lest we forget the ‘punishment budget’ that never happened, the pre-referendum modelling on the impact of the vote that ludicrously assumed no policy response from the Bank of England – not to mention every piece of bad economic news now being held up as a ‘told you so’ with no examination of whether the real cause is Brexit or not.
We should not of course hark back to a mythical golden era where those with power dispassionately handed down truth to the people. From the hagiographical Anglo Saxon Chronicle in the ninth century to the 1945 General Election campaign, where our wartime hero, Winston Churchill, said that a British Gestapo would be needed to implement Labour’s policies – politicians of the day have always presented their interpretation of the truth to try and win support.
It is all a matter of degrees. But nonetheless it does feel like something has changed for the worse in politics in recent years. Certainly since the extension of the franchise in the nineteenth century, I do not think there has been a period in modern British history where politicians pay such scant regard to objective evidence and where the general public are willing to suspend disbelief in response.
The causes for this are well-rehearsed enough; the explosion of the internet in the past 20 years that has given the charlatan and the populist an unvetted voice and forced ‘moderate’ politicians to engage in an arms race to catch up; a declining trust in traditional sources of authority because of the profound economic effects of the financial crisis, globalisation and automation; the exponential growth of data, meaning that it’s easier to build a surface argument no matter how flimsy; a news cycle that moves so quickly that the best and speediest rebuttal in the world still comes too late; an increasing divide on values which means people shut out information that they don’t want to hear.
Less well tested is how we might rectify the situation.
There are two options. We can accept that, short of banning the internet and censoring political discourse, there is very little we can do. We are at the mercy of events and will have to accept a mid twenty-first century characterised by demagogues winning elections and referendums, chaotic policy making, a gradual erosion of the global rules-based order – with evidence only coming back into vogue after a series of shocks and recessions that lead us to see the error of our ways.
There is another school of thought though, which I much prefer – if only because the alternative is unlikely to be peaceful or economically stable. While there is no silver bullet, there are certainly things we can and should do to raise the standard of political debate in this country.
First, we need better politicians who the public are willing to trust in a face-off with the charlatans of the hour. Part of this is about getting people who have genuinely achieved things outside of Westminster into the Commons, and speak with gravitas and knowledge of what the real world is like. We could frankly do with more Andy Streets and Geoffrey Cox’s going into the frontline.
But there is more to it than that. We should also be honest that self-defined moderate politicians of this era stick to the line too much, and are obsessed with repeating back what they think people want to hear. As someone who spent several years in the bowels of Downing Street and Conservative Campaign HQ, raised on a diet of Clinton 1992 and Blair 1997 as model campaigns, this has been a humbling and gradual realisation. Most effective public policy is difficult and involves trade-offs; campaigning is very different to governing.
There is no better illustration of this than the current mess we have reached in the implementation of Brexit where our political leaders were not honest about the compromises needed to give practical effect to the referendum result. The temptation to boil political communications down to a form of cereal marketing will always be there. But I suspect that future leaders who level that there are no moral absolutes or easy answers will do better than is commonly supposed; the electorate are many things but they are not stupid.
Second, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there needs to be greater regulation of the veracity of claims made by registered participants in political campaigns. There are important free speech considerations here and unregistered mendacious participants will still slip through the cracks online. But a more developed regulatory regime would nonetheless remind mainstream politicians that they should not stoop to this level. One could, for example, trial a role for the Advertising Standards Authority – who currently cannot adjudicate complaints and impose sanctions on electoral material – in an upcoming campaign in the UK.
Finally, and perhaps a little uncomfortably, we have to get better at working on difficult issues across traditional party lines. If we are constantly saying the other side have nothing good to impart then there are consequences. The electorate do not know who to believe. They think everyone is as bad as each other. The door is opened to those who take the easy way out and propose mythical ‘unicorns’ rather than evidence-based solutions. Cross-party coalitions on issues such as fixing social care, an honest conversation about the right balance of tax and spend to fund twenty-first century public services – or dare I say it implementing a version of Brexit that respects the narrow mandate of the referendum – would lend credibility to viewpoints because they don’t look politically driven.
Some will of course cry ‘establishment stitch-up’ and ‘Westminster cartel at its best’. It will be the responsibility of the moderate politicians of the future to demonstrate that evidence, and developed understanding of the issues at hand, remain the most reliable route to improved living standards and a better tomorrow.