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Boris, Brexit and taking it up to political bull



The essay writer and nobleman Michel de Montaigne was unequivocal about the mendacious when penning his thoughts 400 years ago. In On Liars, he is punishing in judging the dissimulators and deceivers. 'Lying is indeed an accursed vice. We are men, and we have relations with one other only by speech. If we recognised the horror and gravity of an untruth, we should more justifiably punish it with fire than any other crime.'

Boris Johnson wearing a beanie and facing a TV camera in March 2019. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)The theme of lies often finds a home in political campaigns. Australian Labor Party voters felt that the effort made by the ultimately victorious Scott Morrison was distinctly short on the facts and heavy on the fear; death taxes, in particular, featured. The response from the Liberals was yawningly predictable: this was ample retaliation for the election campaign of 2016 marked by Labor's fibs about what a conservative government would do to Medicare.

An enduring memory of the 2016 Brexit campaign was the claim by pro-leavers that the EU was extracting some £350 million a week that would be otherwise better spent on the health of good Britons. The claim, ignoring EU subsidies, returns and contributions to Britain, was so outrageously proud and inaccurate, it stuck. It made its way onto the infamous bus used by arch Brexiteer Boris Johnson.

Which leads us to a novel citizen's experiment on the issue of lying in politics. Johnson, a leadership contender for the UK Conservatives following the resignation of Theresa May, is facing a private prosecution mounted by Remain campaigner Marcus Ball that he 'repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of EU membership'.

The argument presented by Ball's legal representative, Lewis Power QC, followed a familiar line raised by many an aggrieved voter in the past: 'when politicians lie, democracy dies'; lies spread from 'a national and international platform undermines public confidence in politics ... and brings both public offices held by the (proposed) defendant into disrepute'. But Power went even further, arguing that such deceptions constituted misconduct to such a degree as to warrant sanction.

Johnson's legal team was equally familiar in their rebuttal: politics is a matter of scrapping and tussling, an untidy business of competitive claims. Truth, to that end, is often obscured. Adrian Darbishire QC, representing Johnson, described the private prosecution as a political stunt in an effort to use the criminal law 'to regulate the content and quality of political debate'. Johnson had used the £350m sum 'in the course of a contested political campaign' bound to have claims 'challenged, contradicted and criticised'.

This legal encounter draws out those broader issues Montaigne was so firm over. In 1975, Adrienne Rich suggested that, 'The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.' Even more damagingly, the liar in public office is pernicious to the workings of 'public life, human possibility, and our collective progress'.


"Should the case against Johnson stick, the political misfortune he faces will be more than a personal matter. It opens up a possible avenue for private citizens to hold politicians to account."


Do such figures as Rich and Montaigne raise the bar too high? Hannah Arendt, in a famous essay from 1971 assessing the rippling shocks arising from the publication of the Pentagon Papers, was resigned. 'Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.'

When confronted with what she describes as 'factual truths', we face an insuperable problem of compellability. 'Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.' Little wonder that such claims as fictional death taxes and the £350m EU sum resist debunking.

Despite reservations on the part of the cynics, District Judge Margot Coleman was happy to take Ball's arguments seriously. 'Having considered all the relevant factors, I am satisfied that this is a proper case to issue a summons as requested for the three offences [of misconduct in public office].' Johnson will face a hearing to see whether the matter is able to go to the crown court.

Should the case against Johnson stick, the political misfortune he faces will be more than a personal matter. It opens up a possible avenue for private citizens to hold politicians to account. While potentially rendering the practice of political campaigning, even governing, less flexible, it reprises the ethical dimensions of what Montaigne found most accursed and vile.

Those factual truths that Arendt warned against, however, are unlikely to go away. Removing the contaminant of mendacity using the criminal law would still be an imperfect solution.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Boris Johnson in March 2019. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Boris Johnson, Brexit, Scott Morrison, election 2019



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Existing comments

Is Marcus Ball’s suing of Boris Johnson really the action of a noble citizen who doesn’t like lying politicians, or just politics? Mr. Ball was in the Remain camp and called Brexit voters “thick”. He then used crowdfunding to raise money to “prevent Brexit”, and used some of the money “to pay for a plush London flat, professional headshots and ‘self-defence classes’.” All politicians spin, and in the Brexit campaign many dubious claims were espoused—by Labour’s Alan Johnson (two-thirds of British jobs in manufacturing are dependent on demand from Europe), and Conservative George Osborne (Brexit would cost everyone £4,300). After Donald Trump’s win, numerous economics gurus, including Economics Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, predicted a global recession. Reality or politics? With a booming stock market, perhaps those who sold stocks could sue these “experts” for wealth lost. Then there are those who peddle socialism. The socialist movement has been responsible for the murder, imprisonment and impoverishment of millions. In view of the historical record, how do socialists escape the indictment that they are purveyors of tyranny and mass murder? Should socialism be identified as a hate crime and people like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez indicted?

Ross Howard | 04 June 2019  

If you believe Paul Krugman was incorrect, have you looked at the implications of the present inverse interest rate curves. Recessions take time to be expressed: two consecutive quarters in fact.With interest rates falling back to very low rates again, there will be no leeway for reserve banks to defend against recession.Perhaps Krugman was indeed prescient , as one might expect of a Nobel economist.

jpb | 06 June 2019  

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