Does the UK need an Office of Electoral Integrity? Guest contributor James Heartfield thinks not.
* * *
An early day motion in the House of Commons calls for a new public body to make people tell the truth. It has some appeal for many voters who think that politicians are liars. The argument has more legs since the referendum campaign. The Change.org campaigners who got a hundred thousand people to sign a petition calling for the new ‘Office of Electoral Integrity’ were moved by what they saw as the lies told by the two sides in the referendum campaign.
Lies are not an assault on democracy, they are a part of it. If we were not fallible people, but angels, who could see through all illusions, and were incapable of lying, there would be no differences of opinion, or factions, and no need for democracy: everything would be immediately apparent. But because we are not angels, the best means we know of reaching, if not ‘the truth’ at least a truer picture, is by arguing amongst ourselves, so that the wilder lies are exposed as such. That happened in the referendum debate. The leave side’s claim that they would spend £350million on the NHS was widely and universally ridiculed; the Remain side’s claim that the economy would disintegrate, too, was exposed as a shameless exaggeration. This was not a travesty of democracy, but, for the first time in a long time, a democratic debate that truly examined the issues before us, soberly, and with great intent.
Among the middle class activists of Change.org and the Labour MPs who signed the Early Day Motion, like Margaret Hodge and David Lammy, the idea of enforcing truth in politics appeals because they cannot believe that, or understand why they have lost an argument. So sure are they in themselves that their ideas were pure and true, they can only really believe that dissent from them must come about by ignorance or deception. But that is only because they are not really asking themselves what it is about their own ideas that is less than convincing. The invincible redoubt they want to erect around the one true view only shows how weak that view really is. Rather than take the difficult step of asking what they have got wrong, they want to call for an ombudsman to rule ‘lies’ out of order.
In the 2000s, legislators called for evidence-based policy, deploring the way that policy-making had been captured by interest groups and lobbies. As the greater ideological differences between the Labour and Tory front benches were closing, it seemed that there would be a new era of policy that arose out of simple uncontested facts, rather than dogmatic beliefs. That was a dream, though. The hope that policy would be uncontentious could only come about by silencing opposition. The practical history of evidence-based policy, as all the wags knew, was one of policy-based evidence: namely that social scientists and pollsters manufactured evidence on demand, just as legislators cherry-picked that that suited their preconceived beliefs.
The apotheosis of evidence-based policy was John Scarlett’s report to the Joint Intelligence Chiefs that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein incontrovertibly held weapons of mass destruction. This cooked-up report was used to brow-beat MPs into supporting the decision to wage war in Iraq – an evidence-based policy. Other instances of the same included the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a legal constraint on behaviour that was proved by psychologists and social scientists to be the best way of dealing with the problem – until it proved to be a disaster. Before that ecological economists persuaded the Conservative government to introduce a fuel tax escalator in 1993 to dissuade people from driving cars that had to be abandoned in the face of widespread hostility.
All of these policies were based on the New Public Management theory that contentious issues had to be taken out of the hands of elected politicians, answerable to a volatile public, and put instead into the hands of experts, guided only by the truth. But characteristically the experts got things wrong, mistaking their own prejudices for the unadorned truth, and also they were unable to win the public support that policies need to be successful.
The view that there are lies here and the truth there is fine for children. But in reality there are of course grey areas, one-sidedness and misunderstandings. Even more frustrating for those defenders of the one truth, things change, so that what was obviously unfounded one day, becomes the norm the next. ‘When the facts change, I change my mind,’ Keynes said, adding ‘what do you do?’ And even more frustratingly, beliefs themselves can pass from being subjective fancies to objective realities. This last prospect causes lasting dread among the middle class commentators who call it ‘post-factual politics’.
In a letter to Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx chided his old friend for making the truth into something like a god, which the people must obey:
we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.
Argument and debate are the route to a better understanding. The fantasy of appointed guardians of the truth, striking down error, is the road to doctrinaire, authoritarian and indeed inefficient government.