An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Decline and Fall of British Lying

In Britain’s hierarchical culture, the crime for the upper classes isn’t telling lies—it’s getting caught.

Dominic Cummings, a special advisor to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, looks on during Johnson's press conference about the ongoing situation with the coronavirus outbreak in London on March 17.
Dominic Cummings, a special advisor to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, looks on during Johnson's press conference about the ongoing situation with the coronavirus outbreak in London on March 17. WPA Pool/Getty Images

Lying, ultimately, is an exercise of power, which is why the styles of lying practiced in different countries can tell us something useful about how they are governed. At one extreme are the lies that are not meant to be believed. These come from pure tyrannies, like Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The purpose of lies there is not even to spread confusion but to make it plain that the liar has power and the lied-to can do nothing about it. Black is white, war is peace, freedom is slavery: These slogans may work to some extent because they are believed, but their real force comes when they are not believed and the people are compelled to repeat them anyway. That’s how naked power is expressed.

At the other end of the spectrum are reasonably egalitarian, high-trust societies where politicians really do try to explain themselves honestly and people expect to believe them. They are not always telling the truth, of course, but for the most part they are unconscious of this. Sweden was a country like that 30 or 40 years ago and to some extent still is.

In the middle are countries like Britain, which are governed through a recognizable class hierarchy and where lying among the upper classes is governed by an accepted code. Watching Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson over the last week has been a wonderful illustration of this, not least because both have violated the code.

In Johnson’s case, he does not even pretend very hard to tell the truth. Colleagues and competitors of his from his time as a correspondent in Brussels still gasp and stretch their eyes at the memory of some of the stories he wrote from there. This is not how a responsible liar behaves, and if you learn one thing at a British elite school, it is how to lie responsibly and with a grave face, as if it were done for the good of the people who believe you. Johnson’s intoxicating schtick has always been that to believe him will make you feel good, not that it will do you any good at all.

Cummings is even less capable of behaving as if he were merely carrying out his duty. His performance in the Rose Garden was extraordinary because he behaved throughout as if he were, like a Swede, entitled to a sympathetic hearing. A man who has for years maintained an extensive blog to prove that he is cleverer and more farsighted than almost everyone else in public life seems genuinely to have expected that the world would sympathize with his lonely predicament. The accomplished liar needs to understand the expectations of his audience rather better than that.

Compare and contrast Cummings’s wife, Mary Wakefield, who has an advice column in the Spectator that consists, week after week, of people writing to her asking how to get out of tricky social problems and her replying with the correct lie or evasion of the truth, always calibrated to preserve appearances and remain plausibly deniable. This, it is implied, is what you need to know to be part of the upper classes.

The distinctive quality of traditional British political lying, though, is the understanding that there is not one audience but two. One is made up of the other members of the elite minority who understand the truth and who deserve to do so, and the other is everyone else. They may take your words at face value—and if they do, they also deserve what they get.

This consciousness of a double audience is related to the distinction between public and private truth that has to be maintained in a hierarchical society. It is revealed again by the convention that the one unforgivable sin in a minister is to lie to the House of Commons. What you tell the press or even your constituents is one thing, but you have to tell the strict truth, when that can be established, to your equals in Parliament.

My favorite example comes from the heart of the old establishment, in a row over whether the Church of England should allow women to become bishops. Since the church is an established part of the constitution, and some bishops sit in the House of Lords as of right, this is not just an internal, theological question but one in which some parliamentarians take a keen, legitimate influence.

After two decades of wrangling between supporters and opponents of female priests, a compromise had been reached in 2012, which the General Synod at the last moment rejected. At this, the member of Parliament whose job it is to liaise between the synod and Parliament rose in the synod and said politicians would not tolerate such an offense against equality. Twenty minutes later, in response to a direct question at a press conference, the person appointed to become the next archbishop of Canterbury responded that he was unaware of any pressure from the government on the matter. Archbishop Justin Welby is a man who is, in other contexts, appallingly vivid and truthful in his language—but he is also an Etonian, and when he saw the curtain drawn away to reveal political reality, he did not hesitate to drag it back into place.

Let the problem be dealt with by grown-ups twisting arms behind the scenes while the play goes on as usual on the stage.

This kind of concealment is built into the structure of British public life, and the people who practice it believe they are serving their nation. To quote the otherwise distinguished judge Lord Denning, when he turned down the appeal of six innocent Irishmen who had been fitted up by the police for an Irish Republican Army bombing, “If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted into evidence and that the convictions were erroneous. … That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.’”

The Denning doctrine is that for lies to do their necessary work of holding society together, it must never be admitted in public that they are in fact lies. This is a very different attitude to that of Putin or Donald Trump or, for that matter, Johnson.

It follows that under the British code the only thing worse than lying is getting caught. This goes all the way back to school. In Rudyard Kipling’s classic, Stalky & Co., the schoolboy heroes are constantly outwitting the masters by leading them to believe things that are not true without ever quite committing themselves to any outright untruth—except to their inferiors, of course. It is allowed to be “economical with the actualité” as a senior civil servant once explained when caught in a fantastically misleading obfuscation. It is allowed, and even admired, to get away with marvelously far-fetched excuses, as when a Conservative politician explained that he had written in a memo that he “wanted” something not in the vulgar sense of desiring or wishing for it, heaven forfend, but in the 18th-century sense of “lacking” it—and his party comrades affected to believe him.

Perhaps it is all a question of what you can get away with. Another Etonian politician, the late Alan Clark, recorded in his diary his gushing admiration for Margaret Thatcher when she appeared cornered in a scandal about defense procurement and he was shown by the chief whip the statement she was to make to Parliament: “I read a few paragraphs, started [to giggle]. I couldn’t help it. ‘I’m sorry, John. I simply can’t keep a straight face.’ The paper passed from hand to hand. Others agreed, but were too polite to say so. How can she say these things without faltering? But she did. Kept her nerve beautifully. I was sitting close by, and could see her riffling her notes, and turning the pages of the speech. Her hand did not shake at all. It was almost as if the House, half horrified, half dumb with admiration, was cowed.”

The difficulty with judging lies solely by their success is that you have no defense when they appear to fail. Tony Blair was destroyed by the belief that he had lied over the Iraq War, whether it was technically ever true or not. Once trust is lost, you can’t appeal to the truth of the matter. This is what Cummings and Johnson in their different ways have failed to understand. In a free society, lying works only by consent of the lied-to, and people who tolerate liars who lie by the rules will never forgive a cheat.

Andrew Brown is a British journalist and former Guardian editorial writer. He won the 2009 Orwell Prize for political writing for Fishing in Utopia, his book about Sweden in the high noon of Social Democracy. Twitter: @seatrout