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The phrase ‘post-truth’ is thought to have been coined by Serbian-American screenwriter Steve Tesich in 1992. Commenting on the degree to which deceit had become ‘priced in’ to popular perceptions of US politicians after the Watergate scandal, he said: “We, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.”
Today, a significant segment of the Tory party chose to embrace that paradox – to freely choose to live in a world of untruth. 114 MPs backed Boris Johnson (more than the magical figure of 105 that virtually guarantees his presence on the final two of the ballot).
Those who have declared for Boris come from a broad swathe of opinion within the party, including former Cameroons, supporters of softer forms of Brexit, and hard Brexiteers. And at least some of those constituencies will end up deeply disappointed by the direction of his premiership, which will no doubt follow the charlatan’s playbook – overblown promises presented as optimism, sharp U-turns as compromise, and lies as truth.
At Boris’s official launch yesterday, where he pretended not to hear legitimate questions posed by the press (“my parrot”?), called a leading BBC journalist a “minestrone” and spluttered out phrases like “sizzling syzygy” to talk about his plans for economic reform, we saw a glimpse of the kind of politician Boris has become, a man who has consciously substituted the art of politics – where power is sustained by necessary (if sometimes undesirable) trade-offs between morality (virtue and vice) and its mask (hypocrisy and sincerity) – for a creed that follows in lock-step the peculiar rhythms of his own charisma: the joker blonde bombshell, who is just so, so likeable.
The price of liberal democracy is that the collective imagination can sometimes seem impoverished – indeed, the last time we had a truly patriotic settlement in this country was in the immediate post-war period when mass participation in political parties, a sense of post-imperial national pride (a War of Survival tends to do that!), and a broad distribution of social goods (welfare, health and housing) brought some coherence to the British story.
Most of the time, we bumble along without grand, collective ideals: society is a patchwork of divergent interests, we tell ourselves, and that’s all well and good.
In despotic societies, by contrast, the collective imagination can seem over-enriched. In the former Eastern Bloc, the State propagated a vision of a Golden Age, which would be brought about by the creative forces of History. The class struggle would do away with the old economic order by systematically wiping out its subjects (artisans and small farmers), and reactionary nationalisms would be dissolved into new forms of universal, social organisation, etc etc.
But never has our sense of purpose and what constitutes a public commons been weaker in this country – after years of catastrophic wars far away, a financial crisis of epic proportions, and an Expenses Scandal that broke down trust in our elected officials, Britain is vulnerable to the kind of wager that Tory MPs have just laid – that if truth doesn’t matter, then let’s elect a man who doesn’t care about it at all.