John Redwood reviews “Political Hypocrisy” by David Runciman

David Runciman has written a clever book. He seeks to show that hypocrisy is an essential part of political life. The main part of the book is an analysis of the views of political hypocrisy by a range of thinkers running from Hobbes and Mandeville through Bentham and Trollope to Orwell. The book also seeks to draw lessons for modern politics and politicians from the insights and philosophical approaches of Runciman’s chosen thinkers.

Runciman thinks that Trollope, the novelist with the least philosophical background, has the most penetrating insights into the nature of political hypocrisy. He shows considerable sympathy for the amusing views of Mandeville, who shocked his contemporaries and successive generations, while he argues rather more over what Hobbes and Bentham meant to say. It means that in part Runciman’s book is an attempt at a rather narrow interpretation of a small part of Hobbes and Bentham’s work, while in other ways it is an essay on the abstract noun “hypocrisy”.

The book opens with a definition of hypocrisy which is wider ranging than the conventional notion that hypocrisy is where a politician holds a set of stated public views which do not confirm to his own way of life. Runciman’s definition runs almost as wide as including all types of lying, which he sees as essential to political success. Towards the end of the book we learn that Runciman really believes that as a politician you can either be sincere and untruthful, as he thinks Clinton and Blair were, or you can be honest and hypocritical as he thinks Brown and Gore are.

It is where David Runciman tries to draw these general views out of his sources and apply them to modern politics that the book is least satisfactory. It is difficult to see Gordon Brown as honest. He has continued many of the practices of the Blair regime in spinning stories in the press in response to the public mood as gauged by pollsters and focus group research, which do not necessarily relate to what the Government he leads is actually doing. Mr. Brown has got into difficulties through seeking to sympathise and emphasise with England and Conservatives when he himself is statist and, at heart, more of a socialist. I am quite sure that Gordon Brown honestly wishes to reduce what he calls “child poverty”. Indeed, that is an aim he shares with his political opponents as well as his own party. But it is also the case that Mr. Brown wishes to pose as a tax-cutter because he sees that tax-cutting is now extremely popular with Conservative voting England, which he needs to woo over if he is going to win the next election. Given that Mr. Brown’s main method of tacking child poverty is to spend more public money on benefits, it is quite difficult to combine this with a general tax-cutting strategy, which leads him to spinning rather than acting to get taxes down.

I do not agree with David Runciman that lying is a necessary or essential part of politics, and we merely have to decide which kind of hypocrite we wish to elect. The public usually loses confidence in a politician who turns out to be a hypocrite or liar in an important area of policy or life, and where the politician’s intervention is seen to be damaging to voters and to the country. Thus the Labour governments of 1974 to 1979 under Wilson and Callaghan were brought low, for whilst they said their closeness to the unions meant they could get on well with the trade unions, the long and damaging strikes over the winter of 1978 to 1979 showed the public something different and inconvenienced the voters. John Major claimed during the election in 1992 that a vote for him would lead to economic recovery starting the day afterwards, only for the electorate to discover that his commitment to the ERM entailed further grief. Indeed, the very nature of a political deal to espouse fixed exchange rates requires leading politicians to lie when they have to reassure the public that the exchange rate will never be devalued, knowing only full well (if they have any self-knowledge) that it is all too likely it will be if the other policies they are following are unhelpful.

Tony Blair got into grave difficulties with his war in Iraq. He told the public that we needed to intervene because we faced a possible threat from weapons of mass destruction. After the invasion it transpired that the intelligence was inaccurate and had been presented to the public in a rather different, positive way from that intended. This greatly reduced the Labour vote in the 2005 election and lay behind the pressure to get rid of Tony Blair for his unpopularity.

David Runciman does not think that Al Gore’s own lifestyle, jetting around the world whilst having a very large house which eats energy, is particularly damaging to his campaign to get other people to take action in their personal lives and limit their carbon outputs. I would disagree. I think the hypocrisy revealed by the Al Gore lifestyle made many people find his preaching extremely unattractive. If a politician is asking people to do something they do not wish to do – in this case, curb their travel, turn down their heating, and lead a less comofortable modern life – that politician should expect great difficulty in winning the argument and persuading people if he or she is not living to the high standards they set for others.

The fact that many politicians in the past have been hypocritical does not mean that hypocrisy is a necessary part of successful politics or that, in the way David Runciman seems to say, we should recommend clever hypocrisy to our politicians. It is not inherent in the political arts that you have to lie. Of course a successful politician builds a big coalition, which means making compromises without leaving aside more difficult issues, and seeking agreement between people who do not have a lot in common. This can be done in an honest and open way, and may be more successful for having been done in that way. Most examples of political hypocrisy one can think of in David Runciman’s canter through the politics of Clinton and Lincoln, Blair and Cromwell imply that when they were at there most hypocritical and were seen through, they faced their greatest difficulties with those they sought to govern. David Runciman has produced some interesting sidelights on some important political thinkers, and he has challenged our little grey cells to consider how much hypocrisy is essential or desirable in politics. He has not convinced me that being a hypocrite is the best model for being a successful leader, and I think he misjudges some of these leaders he seeks to analyse. It is perhaps difficult for a senior lecturer in political theory to have enough grasp of history to appreciate the interplay between ideas, actions and words in the case of so many historical figures operating at different times.


  1. mikestallard
    May 15, 2008

    OK, throughout History, rulers have said one thing and done another. Saul and David? David and Bath Sheba? Absalom? Themistocles? Augustus and the empire? I could go on….
    (sentence left out)
    What is different nowadays (thank heavens) is the press which caters to all tastes. Blair understood that the medium is the message – it doesn't matter what you do, so long as it looks right.
    A politician nowadays has every single chance of getting caught.
    And that must be very scary for people in the public view.

  2. Junius
    March 24, 2009

    So – politician disagrees with book that says politicians must be liars to be successful? Mandy Rice-Davies, your immortal words apply once more.

    Also, you state "It is perhaps difficult for a senior lecturer in political theory to have enough grasp of history to appreciate the interplay between ideas, actions and words in the case of so many historical figures operating at different times." Obviously, it is perhaps difficult for a senior politician to have enough grasp of proper, in-depth academic research or genuine intellectual matters more generally to appreciate the interplay between different schools of thought in the case of so many researchers and thinkers, but it's worth pointing out that Runciman is a representative of the Cambridge School of interpretation of political theory, according to which historical context and location of ideas within discourses and events is of central importance. So if that charge is inappropriate to any political theorist, it's Runciman. Looks like your standards have slipped since those halcyon days at All Souls.

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