Hypocrites are not What They Seem

Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond by David Runciman

Books History Politics UK Politics

Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist. Friedrich Nietzsche had got there four years earlier. In Beyond Good and Evil he declared that “every profound spirit needs a mask”. To our present way of thinking, these are profoundly shocking statements. As soon as we spot a mask, we feel honour-bound to rip it off. We value above all else the qualities of openness, sincerity and authenticity. We demand direct, unvarnished contact with our leaders.

In modern politics, humbug is the most conspicuous vice. As the late, great political philosopher Judith Shklar wrote, “For those who put hypocrisy first [in the catalogue of vices] their horror is enhanced precisely because they see it everywhere.” And in this overheated climate of suspicion, she argues that “it is easier to dispose of an opponent’s character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show his political convictions are wrong”. We are keener to track down an environmental campaigner clocking up air miles than to examine his arguments that jets are a significant cause of global warning. Ditto with a Tory leader’s claims to be green, when he cycles to the House of Commons with a chauffeur-driven car ferrying his papers behind him.

Our great political scandals are all about concealment and deception. The cover-up is the real crime. In the Arms to Iraq scandal, which convulsed the House of Commons in the early 1990s and produced Lord Justice Scott’s gigantic report, it was never claimed that any lethal arms had actually been exported to Iraq. The question was whether ministers had surreptitiously altered the rules for the export of defence-related equipment after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, while repeatedly denying that they had done so. Had they been “economical with the truth”?The phrase has a long parentage, traceable to Edmund Burke’s assertion of 1796 that “falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever: But as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth”. This in turn goes back to Francis Bacon’s essay Of Simulation and Dissimulation, the distinction between telling lies and holding back the whole truth – between suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. Or, as John Morley put it later in his essay On Compromise (tremendously influential with his fellow Liberals, like Herbert Asquith, Richard Haldane and Sir Edward Grey; in fact, described by his biographer as “a Prince for Victorian liberalism”), between “wise reserve” and “voluntary dissimulation”. But it is not so easy to keep up that reserve in the heat of an election campaign or when John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman are on your tail. For, as Bacon pointed out a good deal earlier, “They will so beset a man with questions, and draw him on, and pick it out of him, that, without an absurd silence, he must shew an inclination one way; or if he do not, they will gather as much by his silence as his speech.”

As for the second Iraq war, the indignation against Tony Blair festered around the question whether he and his inner court had “sexed up” the “dodgy dossier” in the hope of convincing the public that Saddam Hussein still possessed weapons of mass destruction. Yet even those within the intelligence services who were most angered by the shoddy procedures of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, including poor Dr David Kelly, believed that Saddam did possess such weapons, as did the intelligence services of those Western nations such as France, which refused to support Bush and Blair. What Blair’s opponents were keenest to prove above all was not that he was a hot-headed warmonger but that he was a liar.

This obsession with humbug is not unique to our times, but it is especially intense just now, and it has been curiously little studied. It is not the least merit of David Runciman’s Political Hypocrisy that he shows how our attitude towards this intrinsically tricky subject swings this way and that, never at rest, never blowing in the same direction for very long. This long essay, made up of the Carlyle Lectures he gave in Oxford last year, takes us from the cynics Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville, via the idealistic American Founding Fathers, then the high-minded Utilitarians and on to the Victorians, who were a curious mixture of humbug and worldly wisdom (Walter Bagehot is a notable omission here); finally to George Orwell’s impatience with self-deceiving ideologues. Now and then Runciman pulls in a striking parallel from present-day politics, but for the most part he concentrates his considerable wit and energy on laying out for us exactly what his selected thinkers thought about hypocrisy and how baffling they often found the subject.<--pagebreak->Not the tough guys in his opening chapters, though. Hypocrisy was no problem for Hobbes. Sovereigns must be prepared to dissemble, cheat and lie if necessary to preserve the peace and security of the state. The ruler puts on the mask of power; he “personates” the Commonwealth. Just as “hypocrisis”, putting on a mask, is a term borrowed from the stage, so too is “persona”. The whole of politics, as laid out by Hobbes in Leviathan, is one giant act.

At the same time, the rest of us, in our role as subjects, are acting too. Our duty is to obey and look as though we mean it. Runciman glosses it thus: “It is not hypocrisy to pretend to be something one is not; indeed, in certain circumstances, that is the definition of loyalty.” So we are all humbugs now and then, rulers and ruled alike; that is what the safety of the state requires. But this gives us a hidden liberty; we can mutter under our breath. As Hobbes says in Behemoth: “Hypocrisy hath this great prerogative above other sins, that it cannot be accused” – by which he means “proved”. For Hobbes, all this is true of democracies just as it is of monarchies and aristocracies. As Runciman points out, this doesn’t mean Hobbes is some sort of democrat. It is just that any type of regime relies on absolute sovereign power to function successfully.

For those of a tender sensibility, Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees is even more shocking than Leviathan. John Wesley wrote in his journal in 1756: “Till now I imagined there had never appeared in the world such a book as the works of Machiavel. But Mandeville goes far beyond it.” The “Man-devil” was even wickeder than “old Nick” because he actively celebrated hypocrisy, arguing that society depended on greed, pride and avarice to keep the economy humming. One thinks of Harold Macmillan discouraging a health campaign against smoking on the grounds that this would badly damage Treasury revenues.<--pagebreak->According to Mandeville, nowhere was this clearer than in Oliver Cromwell, “a vile wicked Hypocrite who, under the cloak of Sanctity broke through all Human and Divine laws to aggrandise himself”. Yet, “In the Midst of his Villainies, he was a Slave to Business; and the most disinterested Patriot never watched over the Public Welfare, both at Home and Abroad, with greater Care and Assiduity, or retrieved the fallen Credit of a Nation in less time than this Usurper. But all for himself.”

Clearly this would not do. Mandeville stank in pious nostrils. A new model of humanity was required to people a new model of politics. The great men of the Scottish Enlightenment claimed that we possessed an innate moral sense, a natural tendency to virtue and to sympathy. The founding fathers of the American republic adopted the Scottish model and scorned dissimulation. Some quite genuinely so, like Benjamin Franklin when he was minister to France. He left papers lying around, did not care who opened his letters, gossiped and flirted quite indiscriminately, to such an extent that the French assumed his openness must conceal a cunning plan. Others, like Thomas Jefferson, preached honesty and sincerity while showing a sharp eye for the main chance.

Jefferson, like William Gladstone, was a master at finding the ace up his sleeve and pretending – no, believing – that God had put it there; though Jefferson’s God was a pallid ghost compared to Gladstone’s. Who then was the greater hypocrite: Benjamin Disraeli, who openly schemed and dodged from one position to another, scarcely bothering to conceal that ambition was his only driving force; or Gladstone, who, after much conspicuous agonising, performed the lowest U-turns from the highest motives? Anthony Trollope, in his thinly disguised portraits of Mr Daubeny and Mr Gresham, seems to tell us that Gresham/Gladstone is worse because he does have principles, which he is prepared to subvert in the interests of his own self-advancement.<--pagebreak->Modern-minded people hope to escape from having to choose between the two. Surely there must exist some impartial, objective way of running things that does not require such devious chancers and humbugs to secure the greater happiness of the greatest number. If we demystify politics, as Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians intended, then we shall recognise the hypocrites for what they are.

Unfortunately, the Victorians found this no easier than had their ancestors. In fact, they introduced new forms of hypocrisy themselves. The philosopher Henry Sidgwick recommended keeping silence on ticklish questions of faith like immortality, on the grounds that “the general loss of such a hope, from the minds of average human beings as now constituted, would be an evil of which I cannot pretend to measure the extent”. Philosophers ought to shroud some question of morality in expedient secrecy for the public good and keep this secrecy secret. This has been called “government house utilitarianism”. One can think of a ruder name. Sidgwick wanted better–educated people to stay out of party politics altogether and confine themselves to the purer realms of foreign policy. John Morley, as Asquith’s secretary of state for India, tried to follow Sidgwick’s advice and suffered agonies of conscience as a result. He liked to pretend that he was simply an “official”, had nothing to do with government and party and steered clear of the House of Commons.

As Runciman very properly remarks: “In the end, there is no escape from the messy and unmanageable hypocrisies of domestic democratic politics in the seemingly cleaner and crisper compromises of liberal imperialism. In fact, there is no escape at all.”<--pagebreak->

It is no way out to call for the press to clean up its act, a recurring theme from Jefferson’s complaint that “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper” through Trollope’s savage portrait of Quintus Slide, editor of The People’s Banner, to John Lloyd’s present-day lament for the decline in media standards. The licence of the press to be rude and irresponsible is part of its mission to criticise and denounce, as well as to report and explain. Nor is it an alternative to resort to quangos and management-speak of roll-outs and partnerships and consultations and performance indicators, for this is only a fresh form of humbug, in which central control puts on the appearance of democracy.

Well, what is the way then? Orwell cannot avoid appearing as the hero of the enterprise, the plain man ex machina who appears in the final act to keep us honest. Runciman easily sees off those of Orwell’s critics, such as Stefan Collini, who detect in Orwell’s polemics against intellectuals a degree of internal contradiction and humbug. But I am not sure that Runciman puts his finger on what Orwell is teaching us. Certainly it is not to avoid hypocrisy at all costs. On the contrary, Orwell says in England, Your England that “British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears”, not because there isn’t much hypocrisy about it, but because there is: “Even hypocrisy is a powerful safeguard … [It is] a powerful symbol of the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in familiar shape.”

I am sure Orwell would have agreed with Runciman’s conclusion that “sincerity of personal faith or belief is an overrated virtue in politics … By putting the premium on personal sincerity, political leaders make it too easy for themselves to ignore the difficult facts.” That was the ultimate corruption of Blairism: the warping of the system so that facts and their honest interpretation were smothered and spun to suit the Prime Minister’s mission.<--pagebreak->Runciman puts it nicely: “If, say, one were a democratic politician sincerely believing that another regime posed a threat to national security because of its weapons programme, and also recognising that maintaining the sincerity of one’s convictions was crucial to persuading the public of this threat, then one might seek to insulate that sincerity from reasonable doubts, by deliberately avoiding any evidence that might raise such doubts. In this way, the politician remains sincere, and is able to act in ‘good faith’. But the politician is still a hypocrite. The old adage says: ‘If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.'”

In a sense, the mask is and always has been a misleading metaphor. The political leader is not a god set apart from his people. Most of the time, as Mandeville pointed out, even the most skilful politician must be a slave to the fashions of the times. What he stands behind is not so much a mask as a solar panel, which picks up the public heat, absorbs it and transforms it into energy. At its best, there is a benign synergy, but that can happen only if the facts are shared and if the debate is conducted honestly. The democracy that really matters is the democracy of information.

In the end, what counts is not so much whether we believe that our leader is sincere, but whether we believe that he/she is giving us the facts straight. We may or may not wish to be roused by Gordon Brown at 7am for a personal heart-to-heart over the phone. What we certainly do wish to know is exactly who wins and who loses from his tax changes. To adapt Bertolt Brecht, facts first, schmooze later.