Review
Comment
Politics
4 min read

Truth decay: lying will destroy us

The British way of doing things extends to more than an unwritten constitution. Simon Burton-Jones argues it includes how we lie.

Simon Burton-Jones is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

A Pinnochio figure stands on a window sill beside some net curtains.
Milk Chan on Unsplash.

"Why are things so ***t?"

This was the question veteran journalist Gavin Esler was asked as he walked down a Devon street one day by a member of the public who recognised him. It was a very British kind of question, crudely expressing a common underlying feeling. Esler has set out to answer it in his book: Britain Is Better Than This. It isn’t a pretty picture and will be contested. When a government has been in power for thirteen years, blame for the current state of affairs is hard to refute. There are some who do, but not many these days.  

Gavin Esler’s previous book, How Britain Ends, looked at the demise of the Union, propelled by Brexit. Esler himself was a member of Change UK, so his position as a remainer is well documented. Scotland’s vote to remain contrasted sharply with an English nationalist vote to leave. Northern Ireland’s fragile peace was put greatly at risk by deepening the divide between the island’s north and south. As a political movement, the Conservative and Unionist Party seemed to defy their name. 

Telling fibs in politics is as old as politics, but he and others identify newly organised patterns of lying; untruths being told as a deliberate strategy.

Britain Is Better Than This exposes the lack of a codified constitution as a developing risk. The UK’s deliberately vague and amorphous unwritten constitution has often been a source of its proud exceptionalism. We do it differently because we can, and we pull it off. Esler notes the almost sacred tones in which this is expressed.  It is a mystery, using rarefied, opaque language similar to eucharistic liturgy to inspire reverential awe. But when the constitution is essentially unwritten, commentators rather than judges take precedence as interpreters. And there is elasticity: the constitution is what those with power say it is at any given moment. The Crown, the government and the State seem to be used interchangeably, according to the need. If this has worked in the past, it is because of Britain’s ‘good chap’ theory of government, so called because whatever uncertainty may prevail, decent, well-educated, public-spirited people can be relied upon to make it work. 

Esler’s point is that the cracks are showing, and more people are poking their fingers through the holes to make them bigger. The Queen’s proroguing of Parliament in 2019 at the request of Boris Johnson was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, showing the system can rectify issues, but it also demonstrated the risk of future, unscrupulous leaders exploiting those cracks. Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempted curtailing of judicial power in favour of executive authority has set a model which others may follow. Esler’s case for a written constitution and also for electoral reform to introduce fairer systems of proportional representation are not panaceas and he while he recognises this, he prefers them.   

As a journalist he is on assured ground in the assessment of what the Rand Corporation has termed truth decay: the growing ascendency of the lie in public debate. Telling fibs in politics is as old as politics, but he and others identify newly organised patterns of lying; untruths being told as a deliberate strategy. This is murky territory for the democratic world. Across global, digital media, we disagree more about facts, blur fact and opinion, prefer personal experience to facts and trust historic sources of information less. Esler’s wants to see media literacy taught more effectively, as Nordic countries do. Deep fake technology is only going to make judgments harder.  Courses and syllabuses with a ‘media’ prefix are still considered unserious in some circles, but without this kind of literacy, Britons may become prey for some ugly predators. 

We have an uneasy, open marriage with the truth in public and in private (where research shows we all lie far more than we realise). 

In 2020, the Edelman Trust Barometer put the UK in twenty-seventh place out of twenty-eight OECD nations for trust in democratic institutions; only Russia lay below. Britain’s mythical capacity for ‘muddling through’ is based in part on our ability to ignore bad news until we can do so no longer; kicking the can down the road may be a truer expression. Gavin Esler has done us all a favour by showing what is at stake. The book’s opening question: Why are things so ***t?, however, only takes us so far.  By the end we may know why. What we are able to do about it is the defining question. 

In 1998, Jonathan Freedland’s book Bring Home The Revolution struck a nerve. The UK was transitioning from a tired government to a younger, more energetic one; the tech revolution was taking off, millennial optimism was off the leash. Freedland believed the time was right for the UK to become a republic with a written constitution like the USA. A lot has happened since then, and where Freedland’s book captured the hopefulness of the time, Esler’s feels more like a lament; a cry for a better world in the face of the facts. 

His implicit call for us to live in truth (as the late Czech president Vaclav Havel would put it) carries most conviction. We have an uneasy, open marriage with the truth in public and in private (where research shows we all lie far more than we realise). The traction of ‘my truth’ rather than, more accurately, ‘my story’ may show how close we have come to a precipice.  My truth does not set me free. If we believe the truth sets us free, we also get what David Foster Wallace meant when he observed: 'the truth will set you free, but not until it has finished with you'. Words Christ perhaps left unsaid. Big ideological changes are not afoot in Britain today, but culture is formed of a million daily interactions, where the glue of trust sticks and the power of imitation prevails. Telling porkies when others don’t becomes a tougher gig.  

Article
Comment
War and peace
3 min read

Letter from Lviv

Loss, resilience, and a hope one day to count blessings not missile intercepts.

Iryna Dobrohorska is Christian Aid’s Country Response Director for Ukraine.

A woman stands at the back of an armoured military vehicle, the door of which is open.
Iryna stands by a displayed military vehicle.

Ukraine is only two years older than I am. My personal history is intertwined with Ukraine’s history. Instead of the carefree fun I should be having as a young Ukrainian woman, on Saturday I was reflecting that my last two years have been dominated by war since Russia began its full-scale invasion. Over those 730 days, I have witnessed the best and worst of humanity.  

I was evacuated from Kyiv to the sounds of explosions nearby, fearing I would be raped or murdered by Russian soldiers if they entered the capital. I’ve wept over losing university friends in combat. I’ve despaired at how Ukrainian writers are being deliberately targeted by the Kremlin.  

But I also observed the speed that we Ukrainians built trust and social connections with unknown people. I was proud of the warmth of my hometown, Lviv, which welcomed people from the east of the country - it crushed the myths that Russia was trying to ooze into our national life that we were a divided country that didn’t have the right to exist except as part of Russia. 

Not just in Lviv but all over Ukraine. This month in Odesa I felt the same warmth extended to elderly displaced people when I hosted a visit to our local humanitarian partner Heritage Ukraine by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He saw for himself how the team, funded by the Scottish faith charity Blythswood, had opened their doors and their hearts to these traumatised strangers facing an uncertain future. 

One of those displaced people, Nadia, told me: “We want to go home, but our home is being shelled. At least here we stay with dignity.”  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face.

t’s a scene of resilience I’ve grown accustomed to as I’ve crisscrossed the country to play my small part in the astonishing humanitarian effort powered by the UK public’s incredibly generous donations.  

The Iryna I saw in the mirror in 2021 wouldn’t recognise the young woman I see looking back at me today.  

In Kherson, I was recording the stories of illegal detention of civilians to the sound of artillery fire. In Mykolaiv, my window view was an apartment block with the roof blown off and clay-coloured water was the only drinking option.  

I never thought that I would learn the types of weaponry used in modern warfare. Now I know the difference between the motorbike sound of a drone from the missile whistle above my head followed by the clank when it detonates nearby.  

Security awareness is an everyday reality in Ukraine. We often debate during an alert whether choosing to sleep in our own beds instead of going to a shelter may turn out to be our last night. A six-months pregnant teacher friend of mine in Kyiv was killed in her sleep from a drone strike.  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face. Yet I also sense the paradox that we’ve accepted the war becoming everyday normality and so has the rest of the world. 

Global attention today is not focused only on Ukraine. A host of other crises are taking precedence in the need for a humanitarian response. My biggest fear is that the long-term nature of our crisis reduces global actors to sympathizing observers.  

What I do know is that my generation of young Ukrainians who have lost so much will not allow that to happen. More than ever, I feel the need for a just and resolute peace for Ukraine. With the help of our international friends, the day will come when those who have suffered can go back to rebuild their homes and communities.  

As I move on to engage further in Ukraine’s recovery efforts, I feel privileged to have worked for Christian Aid as part of the humanitarian response. I’m most proud of our role in being a catalyst for local people to help themselves by setting their own community priorities in the kind of support they need, giving them a sense of dignity and self-worth.  

It’s that kind of world that I dream about - where one day I will count my country’s blessings instead of how many drones and missiles were intercepted the night before.