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Scandal at Westminster

Dicembre 2018
In un saggio del 1946, George Orwell diceva che i politici rendevano “le menzogne sincere e l’omicidio rispettabile”. Oggi la reputazione dei politici britannici sembra essere peggiorata. O forse con questa affermazione siamo scorretti nei loro confronti?

di Alex Phillips © The Institute of Art and Ideas

File audio:

Philip Collins and Shirley Williams
Philip Collins and Shirley Williams

Speaker: Sarah Davison (British accent)

Secret deals, fictitious expenses, campaign funding irregularities, false advertising, money laundering, even sexual assault … In recent years, British politics has suffered a series of scandals that suggest that the country’s reputation for fair play is a farce. As a consequence, many people feel disappointed by politics and do not vote; a state of affairs that has been blamed for the rise in less orthodox, more authoritarian groups. But is this universal condemnation of all politicians accurate? Are they all hypocrites and liars, or are we only talking about ‘a few bad apples’? Is this an ethical crisis we are in, or is the press to blame for exaggerating, even inventing, news to attract the public’s attention?


George Galloway served as an MP for the Labour Party but was expelled in 2003. He subsequently became party leader of the anti-capitalist Respect Party. Galloway dates a decline in politics to the 1990s when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. He sees Blair, who was accused of lying to the public in order to invade Iraq, as indicative of the end of the age of political idealism in favour of personal ambition:  

George Galloway (Scottish accent):

There are plenty of people queuing up to join the British political class. The problem is that they don’t believe in anything. They’re not sincere about anything. And they’re prepared to say that they believe things they don’t. They’re prepared to stab each other and anyone else in the back in order to gain their own advancement. Just to be the parliamentary undersecretary for paper clips for eighteen months and become a footnote of a footnote in British political history.


Shirley Williams is former leader of the Liberal Democrats. She says that it is Galloway’s universal and uncompromising dismissal of the political class – to which he belongs – that is causing the real damage.

Shirley Williams (English accent):

I think the extent to which a lot of people have been led into an endless repeating of rumours and stories that suggest that politicians are mainly liars, what you’re actually doing is driving decent people out of politics. I think we’re going to have a democracy that isn’t worth the price that is put on it because decent people won’t want to go into it. And that’s the effect in my view of this carefully calculated spreading of distrust. Of course some politicians lie; of course some lawyers lie. Of course some major businessmen lie. Nothing new about that! Certainly, some maybe 10 per cent, 15 per cent lie – but it’s not specific to politicians.


So, should we simply accept that a percentage of politicians lie? If the same percentage of teachers or doctors lied, would we be so willing to accept it? Philip Collins is a journalist and former chief speechwriter to Tony Blair. He questions the meaning of a lie. He believes that sincerity may be the problem.

Philip Collins (English accent):

There are those statements, which turn out to be untrue, though you do not know they’re untrue at the time that you make them. But I think we should reserve the word ’lie’ for something when somebody knows that what they say is untrue and are saying it in order to conceal something. The real danger in politics comes from demagoguery. It comes from people who are [so] absolutely seized by their own sincerity that they can see no dissent. Now that, in the history of politics, is when we get danger. It’s not your feeble hypocrites who are the dangers in politics; on the contrary, it’s your incredibly powerful, tyrannical sincere people.


According to Collins, a lie may not be a lie and sincerity may be tyranny. This may sound to some of us like something out of George Orwell’s 1984. Collins continues by offering a defence of hypocrisy.

Philip Collins:

Democratic politics is an arena of negotiation and compromise. Hypocrisy is its modus operandi. The really sophisticated thing to do in a democracy is to work out between those forms of hypocrisy which really matter and those which don’t. Compromise and negotiation is part of what politics is all about.


Today there is an increasing demand for transparency in politics. But Williams says that this simply does not work. She tells the story of what happened when the Labour Party decided to tell the truth about its budget:

Shirley Williams:

They were coming up to an election in 1992, which was widely expected to be won by Labour. This was the aftermath of the Thatcher era. The leader at that time [Neil Kinnock] decided that he should be totally honest with the public. And he laid out, in considerable detail, his budget. Explaining that there were certain areas where there had to be higher taxation, to fund, for example, better education, to fund an improvement in the health service ... And that election, instead of being won, was badly lost. There are certain things that are widely regarded as being lethal to say even though they are the honest thing to say. Politicians in the end have to be elected by the public, and that too is part of the equation.


Williams’ analysis of this controversial election result suggests that politicians lie because the public are unable to accept reality. Collins jokes that it is important to accept that politicians are human beings “doing their best.”

Philip Collins:

The huge motor force of politics is incompetence. There’s [are] all sorts of people desperately trying to achieve things and failing ’cause they’re not very good at it. In every profession I’ve ever been in there’s much more cock-up than there is conspiracy. Everybody thinks everybody else is really good at something nefarious. The truth is, the news desk is full of incompetents [and] politics is full of incompetents!


Galloway is not reassured. He points to the current consequence of political ambition or ineptitude:

George Galloway:

The current parliament - parliamentarians, [the] political class, has led us over the precipice towards economic ruin. Our society is more divided than it was when Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. We’re in wars all over the world and threatening others. People are trying to kill us and sometimes succeeding. I think this is an emergency we’re in. 

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It’s not your feeble hypocrites who are the dangers in politics; on the contrary, it’s your incredibly powerful, tyrannical sincere people. Non sono i poveri ipocriti ad essere un pericolo per la politica, è la gente potente e tirannicamente sincera. In questo contesto il pronome possessivo your ha un uso generico che possiamo tradurre con the, per cui non indica un’appartenenza specifica.