As Notre Dame burned, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt reached for his phone and diplomatically tweeted his sympathy… “thinking of all our friends in France tonight following the devastating fire… heart-breaking for the millions who love this great cathedral and great city across the world”.
Similar messages poured in from around the globe, from Donald Trump’s monomaniacal advice on how to put out the fire to the more compassionate thoughts of those blessed with empathy, such as Angela Merkel who, rarely for someone who likes to speak publicly in German despite being fluent in several languages, expressed her sympathy in French.
Hours earlier, Jeremy Hunt was giving a very different sense of his feelings for France. He was in Japan, talking to students, trying to explain Brexit.
“Many countries in the EU,” he said, “their vision for the EU, is they would like one day Europe to become one country, like the United States of America. And they think Europe can be stronger that way. But Britain has a different vision of our own history. We always want to be independent.”
Two things are noteworthy about his statement. First, it is a lie. Second, even before the Notre Dame blaze became the number one story around the world, despite being a lie, Hunt’s comments were barely figuring on the UK news agenda.
Welcome to Trump’s Britain, where the truth of a politician’s statement matters less than its purpose or its political impact.
As with Hunt’s tweet for Notre Dame, we can still go through the motions, as perhaps some MPs did in joining in rare parliamentary applause for Labour MP Rosie Cooper, speaking last week of the thwarted attempt to assassinate her, when she told them:
“I was to be murdered to send a message to the State, to send a message to this place. Our freedoms, our way of life, our democracy is under threat and we must do our utmost to defend it.’”
The Commons show of unity was a rare moment of light in a politics beset by darkness. Hunt’s Notre Dame tweet was part of the fading light; his comments in Japan part of the growing darkness.
There is no light in our judiciary being declared ‘Enemies of the People,’ as they were when standing up for the rights of MPs to examine the detail of Brexit; or anyone who dares to question any version of Brexit being labelled ‘saboteur or traitor’ by right-wing politicians and media alike, on a daily basis. There is no light in decent civil servants being attacked by MPs and even greater darkness when ministers refuse to defend them for doing their job. There is some light in the Electoral Commission establishing that the Vote Leave campaign broke the law but it is extinguished when both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition decide it doesn’t matter. There is little light to come from journalism when the Daily Telegraph’s (failed) defence to the press regulator of the proven lies of star columnist Boris Johnson, Mr Hunt’s predecessor as Foreign Secretary, is that his work is “clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters” or the BBC playing Nigel Farage’s game for him with huge, wholly uncritical coverage of his warning when launching the new Brexit Party that “it is time to put the fear of God into our MPs”.
Trump and Brexit have shown that you can lie and get away with it
MPs like Rosie Cooper perhaps, her life saved by a brave undercover operation at the heart of right-wing extremists? MPs like Jo Cox, murdered by one such extremist before the referendum of 2016, won by Leave ‒ you may remember Farage gloating on his night of victory “without a bullet being fired”. He knew what he was doing. Did the BBC?
If every generation has a darkest hour, a darkest month, a darkest year, this could well be ours. That is precisely what some people want.
“Darkness is good,” said white supremacist Steve Bannon, self-styled architect of Trump’s America, at whose feet Johnson and Farage sit in obsequious wonder. Try to catch the footage of Bannon setting out his plans for global domination by the far right and Farage telling him how he has grown in stature. Nauseating.
I do not put Hunt in the same bracket as Farage or Johnson. But his ‘lesson on Brexit’ to Japanese students showed that he has potential to get there, as did his grotesque comparison six months ago between the EU and Soviet prisons.
Like his Cabinet colleagues Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock, Liz Truss, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom, like his former colleagues Johnson and Dominic Raab, and doubtless others even less suited to be prime minister, Hunt is engaged in a pseudo-leadership contest, at a time of national crisis.
His real view, as expressed during the referendum campaign, almost certainly remains this: “I believe we will be better off and more secure by remaining in the EU.”
But that view, especially now, is anathema to the ageing Tory membership who will decide our next prime minister when Theresa May’s fingers are finally prised from the crown.
So instead, like Johnson and the others, he is reduced to caricature and mendacity. “They would like one day Europe to become one country.”
Did any of those world leaders watching in horror as Notre-Dame burned send sympathy to ‘Europe?’ No, because this was France in shock. Did Emmanuel Macron rush to the scene as a One Nation European? No, he went there as President of France.
“They would like one day Europe to become one country.”
Who are ‘they’? ‘They’ are part of the UK eurosceptic panoply of lies, along with the bent bananas and the unelected bureaucrats who supposedly call all the shots, and the ‘vast sums’ we send to them which could be better spent on the NHS, the lie which more than any other helped the Brexiters win in 2016.
What Hunt showed is that when needs must, he will pander to the liars; real leaders would challenge them.
Can he name a single serious French politician who wishes to call time on ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,’ and be part of this single European country? A single German who wishes for Bach and Beethoven, Einstein, Bauhaus, Bayern Munich, Volkswagen, Bratwurst, Weizenbier to be viewed not as German but European?
Also, how does his caricature fit with the rise of Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban, friends of Bannon and Farage in Italy and Hungary, who wish to break up the EU in the name of far-right nationalism.
Un mensonge, Mr Hunt. Eine Lüge. Una bugia.
You lied. Whatever language we care to use, you lied. You flew at our expense to Japan to lie to young students abroad to appeal to old Tories at home. In part, you did so because Trump and Brexit have shown that you can. Lie and get away with it; lie and even prosper.
To quote John F. Kennedy: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
Like the myth pushed for the last two years that ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, despite countless reports of the dangers, including a 10 per cent rise in food prices, the reimposition of direct rule over Northern Ireland, a recession and devaluation of sterling ‘more harmful’ that than of 2008.
Mrs May can take a bow for that one, and look at the mess it has landed her in.
Such is the lack of accountability that politicians on the extremes feel they can lie without consequence. Present the myth, abstain from the truth. Keep people in the dark. Just the way Bannon likes it. But as with Trump, as with the architects of Brexit, the liars are now not on the fringes but centre stage.
And the Hunts of this world have clearly decided: “If you can’t beat them, join them.” It is sad and dangerous, and needs to be called out and defeated at every turn.
Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair’s spokesman and strategist and is now campaigning for a new Brexit referendum.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece