Chaos and lies

There seems to be a lot of news at present. It is not just the quantity that is exhausting. Like the weather, severe news events are becoming unnaturally common. Once-a-century phenomena are occurring several times a week. Personally, I would like some respite. Events are piling in on top of each other so that, for example, there was no time to savour Boris Johnson’s strangulation by Michael Gove (a man who by life course and behaviour appears to have turned into Gollum) before Gove’s own fall came along. Brexit, racist attacks on British streets, the demise (for now) of Johnson and Gove, Andrea Leadsom’s meteoric ascent and equally rapid descent, Chilcot (everything you believed about the Iraq war in 2003 was right), and America’s turmoil over police executions of black men. The news items all run around each other, creating a general atmosphere of end-of-times. Dr Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ and occasional iconoclast, has steadied my nerves a little by declaring in his blog that psychiatry is in crisis. In these turbulent times, it is reassuring to find that some things are stable and certain.

Amid the current furore, there is general outrage about lies. Allegations of lying have been levelled at Hunt (junior doctors’ contract), Blair (Iraq), Leadsom (CV), the entire Leave campaign (migration and extra money for the NHS) and Johnson (to be fair, he does have form on this one). The thing about lying is that it is different from simply stating something that is untrue. What makes lies stand out from other types of falsehood is the specific intention to deceive. I doubt if most politicians do deliberately lie very often, because it is fairly obvious that they will be found out before long. Look at Blair. I think that he really believed that there were chemical weapons stashed somewhere in Iraq, otherwise he would have had a better strategy for dealing with the fact that there were none. I am sure that Angela Eagle really thinks that she can unite the Labour Party, which in my opinion is neither true nor a lie.

There are two deadly allegations in politics: lying and corruption. The MPs’ expenses scandal was accompanied by allegations of corruption. Having exhausted that theme, we naturally move on to lying this time. I do not believe that the general level of factual inaccuracy of politicians has really increased. Everybody knows that, lamentably, semi-truths and inauthenticity are fixed features of British public life. Accusations of lying are flying about because everybody, politicians and general population alike, are angry and scared. No one can tolerate this degree of uncertainity for very long. The Brexiteers are just as fearful as everyone else, their post-referendum plans in such disarray that they have been forced to self-destruct in order to snatch defeat from the teeth of triumph.

The only major figure in British politics that is beyond the reach of accusations of lying and corruption is Jeremy Corbyn, truly untouchable in the tradition of Eliot Ness. Indeed, Corbyn’s major sin in the eyes of his Parliamentary Labour Party critics is an excess of honesty, evident during the referendum campaign. His popularity with the Labour Party’s general membership turns on perceived qualities of integrity, truthfulness and authenticity. In a peculiar way, this appearance of being For Real gives him something in common with Donald Trump. They are popular precisely because they are nothing like most politicians. The fact that Corbyn was elected because he seems unelectable may well split the Labour Party. More worryingly, similar factors may give Trump the US presidency.

Looking beyond the headlines churned by the chaos of the UK’s political and constitutional crisis, we have a disturbing prospect. The West is in a state of permanent war, its outbreak symbolically marked by the destruction of the World Trade Centre. We have a global financial breakdown that started nine years ago. It was temporarily stabilised by the use of huge amounts of public money to support the banking system, but it may be reactivated by a global trading crisis, especially if the European Union fails. We have a general collapse of the political order in the UK, precipitated by the refusal of the entire political class to clearly state that migration cannot be prevented and is, in any case, a good thing. Our political parties are enfeebled and tearing themselves apart.

We are definitely in a crisis of epochal proportions. Historical analogies involving the rise of Hitler are lazy and misleading. Events do not follow some historical template. If there is a comparison to be made, it is with St Petersburg in 1917: utter disorganisation and no one in charge. Luckily, there is no Lenin in the shadows to the left or the right of us, unless Mr Farage has something up his sleeve. Demagoguery has a strictly limited appeal in the UK. I offer Corbyn as evidence of this.

We are in completely uncharted territory. It is more or less a waste of time trying to blog, because no one has any idea what will happen next, and ordinary news seems a bit inconsequential right now. Fiona Caldicott put Care.data out of its misery a few days ago. At any other time, this would be big news to anyone with an interest in confidentiality, epidemiology or patient safety, but it has passed almost without comment. At times like this, comment carries the danger of coming across like PG Wodehouse, broadcasting whimsically from Occupied France.

The current bizarre circumstances will eventually pass, and then some of the news that has been drowned out will slowly re-emerge. For example, the Kings Fund has made the latest of a series of warnings about NHS England’s pursuit of impossibilism in bringing budgets under control. The junior doctors are likely to be vindicated in a rather painful way, unless Mrs May sees sense and reshuffles Mr Hunt. Seeing sense is a tall order for a woman with a lot on her mind.