Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Poisoned Public Discourse

The Cultural Revolution in China - Mao's last great act of madness - killed many and ruined more, but one of its lasting negative contributions was to poison public discourse in China for years to come. After a decade or more in which official pronouncements not only lied, but turned reality completely on its head, no-one in China could give credibility to their government's word any longer. Alastair Campbell's confident, unashamed swagger before the Chilcot Inquiry the other day reminds us of just how ruthlessly he and Tony Blair manipulated the national conversation in this country, and to similar effect. Government announcements are greeted with cynicism and disbelief as a matter of routine, thanks to the triumph of Campbell's 'black arts'. Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian has an excellent article reflecting on the lack of public faith in politics, and especially the politics of war. He says:

The Iraq episode has poisoned public support for any and all military action, including the wars we are still fighting. Hardening public opposition to the Afghan mission is not solely about the loss of life: it is about the loss of faith. After Iraq, whenever we hear our leaders telling us force is necessary, we start counting the spoons.

And this does matter. It matters that government should be trusted, for the health of civic society depends upon a mutual trust. We who do not spend our lives making political decisions should be able to have as our most basic understanding a belief in the integrity of those who do, and an acknowledgement that they will at least speak the truth to us. Campbell has ruined this, and ruined far more. Freedland goes on to warn:

Let's say a new administration ­concludes that Iran really is developing a nuclear arsenal, and that its regime ­genuinely poses a danger to the world's most unstable region. Who would believe David Cameron when he began talking about "intelligence ­assessments" and "credible threats"? Not only has Iraq killed off the 1990s notion of liberal intervention; it may have destroyed for a generation Britons' willingness to use force anywhere.

The poisoning of public discourse is never a small matter, and it infects the body politic for years. As Campbell pockets the profits from his diaries, we should remember his most lasting contribution to British politics.

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