Thursday, 2 November 2017
Trust me, I'm a politician...
There's a section in the Vietnam War documentary currently showing on BBC4 (watch if you can) where they're reporting on the fall out from the Pentagon Papers leak and the realisation that Kennedy and LBJ had lied through their teeth to the American people. We now know, and lots of Americans suspected at the time, that Richard Nixon lied through his teeth about Vietnam too.
There's a marine veteran speaking to camera who says something along the lines that, prior to the Pentagon Papers, people instinctively trusted the President and his advisors on matters of great importance - war, peace, life, death. Afterwards no-one trusted politicians - the assumption was that all of us lied.
It seems to me that this simple observation from a former soldier summed up the long-term political effect of Vietnam for the USA. For all the winning and losing, elections and campaigns, there is a grumbling view that underneath it all they're probably lying about something. And are prepared to lie about everything up to and including sending young men to the other side of the earth to get killed. So much of what we see played out today in US politics reflects this moment - from low turnouts in elections through endless rounds of campaigning funding reforms to the current suggestions of sinister conspiracy involving Russians, Facebook and shadowy data companies.
For us in Britain, we had to wait a while longer for this epiphany of lies. When Tony Blair stood in Parliament to argue for us to back a US invasion of Iraq, most of us believed that no Prime Minister would bend and warp the evidence - in effect lie - in order to get parliament to back a war. Yet that is what happened, we backed a war because we believed it when Blair said the threat was real, urgent and significant. There are a lot of people who, like that Vietnam veteran from 1971, had the scales fall from our eyes as we realised that, yes, our politicians were prepared to see men die on the basis of deliberate misinformation.
Our politics is better and worse for this epiphany. Better because the public are less prepared to take their leaders simply on trust when it comes to big and important decisions. Although some of the 'wanting to know' around Brexit is little more than spoiling, the public's support for wanting to know is because, frankly, they don't trust politicians not to sell us down the river.
Politics is worse, however, because decent and honest politicians aren't believed - and most politicians, despite the epiphany of lies, are decent and honest. Worse still, politics becomes even more shallow and unpleasant because the media, reflecting public distrust, treats politicians as dodgy, something to be exposed rather than as a set of folk wrestling with getting the right policies and with making the right decisions.
Every time I see Alistair Campbell on telly, in the papers or Tweeting, I want to scream that he was the warped spider sat in the centre of a web of lies - 'spin' they called it - that resulted in hundreds of dead British troops and untold thousands of dead Iraqis. All done to indulge Tony Blair's desire to be America's best buddy. There is no going back, in most folks' minds politicians will forever be liars and deceivers. Most of us aren't, lying's too much like hard work but, because of men like Kennedy, Nixon and Blair, people start with the opinion that we are. Trust me on this, I'm a politician.