UK democracy being hollowed out by election lies
At what point can one tell if democracy is dying? When did the German, Italian and Spanish people in the 1920s and 1930s start to realize? Are Western Europeans guilty of a degree of complacency given that dictatorship in Europe ended in the 1970s? Is there too much scoffing and sniggering as European politicians glance across the Atlantic and see President Donald Trump’s one-man assault on the political, legal and media establishments?
These questions should be in sharp focus when examining the current UK election campaign. Are the delicate democratic norms and conventions increasingly being sidelined or, worse, trampled over in the rush to secure power? Is Britain only a few steps behind Trumpland? Remember, it was only in September that the Supreme Court ruled the government had prorogued (suspended) Parliament unlawfully.
Integrity and trust lie at the heart of any democratic system. Without these, everything starts to crumble. As much as constitutions might outline the rules of the game, no text covers every scenario, much less in the UK, which does not have a formal written constitution and depends in large part on precedent and unwritten rules.
How to rate this campaign? The first casualty has been truth — an accusation also correctly leveled at all sides during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. Winning by deceit clearly undermines the will of the people. Fact-checking sites have been working overtime. Lies and spin seem drearily routine. One candidate faked a chance encounter with a voter, setting up a canvassing encounter with a long-time friend, all caught on microphone. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accosted in a hospital by the furious father of a sick child, who said: “And now you come here for a press opportunity.” Johnson replied: “Well, actually there’s no press here.” Video shows the exasperated man pointing at the media throng and saying: “Who are these people?”
The most egregious examples are the deliberate manipulations. The Conservative election team thought it was appropriate to rename its Twitter handle “@factcheckUK” for one of the leadership debates. Twitter disagreed and said the account would be suspended if it happened again.
In Britain, much of the focus is on the prime minister, whose track record on “la verite” is checkered. After all, Johnson has twice been sacked for lying, although he claimed in a recent TV interview he has never lied in his political career.
So has he during this campaign? It did not require a mathematical genius to determine that his promise of 50,000 new nurses did not add up, given that 19,000 of them were nurses the government aimed to retain, not freshly recruit.
Is the Labour Party much better? The Tories accuse it of lying over claims they would put the National Health Service up for sale in trade talks with the US.
The terrifying thing is that lying often works. In the 2016 referendum, the claim splashed across the side of the Vote Leave bus that, if Brexit happened, the UK would have an extra £350 million ($451 million) to spend on health clearly worked.
Another convention is that party leaders participate in television debates, but several no-shows prove this is on the wane. Two melting ice sculptures substituted for absent political leaders at a televised climate change debate last week, while the most forensic of the BBC’s interviewers appears to be too scary a proposition for Johnson, who has so far ducked the challenge.
Much of the focus is on the prime minister, whose track record on ‘la verite’ is checkered.
Dog-whistling also undermines political trust and democracy. Both the Conservative and Labour leaders are regularly accused of being Islamophobic and anti-Semitic, respectively. Race has become a political weapon in the campaign, once again mirroring the US.
When politicians lie, they also disrespect the electorate, yet another theme of the campaign. The smug, entitled attitude could not be summed up better than by the comments of Stanley Johnson, the prime minister’s father. During a live television appearance, he was told one viewer had called his son “Pinocchio.” Stanley Johnson replied: “Pinocchio? That requires a degree of literacy which I think the Great British public doesn’t necessarily have.”
Lurking behind all of this is the specter of foreign interference. A bitter accusation leveled at the government is that it is sitting on a parliamentary report into Russian meddling in British politics. Opponents claim it exposes not just Russian activities but also close links to the Conservatives. A leak to The Times newspaper indicated nine Russian businessmen had donated to the Tory party. Conservative politicians hit back, saying such accusations took some cheek from a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, who they depict as sympathetic to Russia. The report will be published, but only after the Dec. 12 election. Who knows what the Russian troll farms have been up to?
This is a Brexit election. Brexiteers argue that a failure to implement the result of the 2016 referendum is also a threat to democracy. At face value, this is undeniable and carries significant weight — 17.4 million voters wanted Britain to leave the EU and a failure to do so would risk public disorder. However, against that, the manner in which the whole campaign was run does not bode well for its public legitimacy and acceptance.
Britain still retains a resilient democratic structure, even if its heart is slowly being hollowed out. The voters are fed up with the low-grade political debate and the lies and ineffectiveness of the political classes. A sense of national embarrassment and shame envelops the country. If a credit ratings agency was reporting on the state of British democracy, it might just downgrade it from AA to A-.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech