Post–truth is this year’s Oxford English Dictionary “word of the year”. The truly striking feature of all this talk about “post–truth” politics is that it seems to make absolutely no difference to anything. For over a year liberal critics and stand–up comedians have been relentless in exposing every exaggeration, half–truth and outright lie made by first the Brexit campaign and then Trump.
But, for all that exposure, and all the YouTube hits for the Daily Show, John Oliver and the Last Leg, in the end both Trump and the Leave campaign won. Do people not care that they are being lied to, or do they simply believe Trump and Farage more than their liberal critics?
Perhaps more likely it is not the specific details that resonate with people but the narrative behind the example. For example, the infamous £350 million claim may be nonsense in accounting terms, but it does get at a powerful point – if you pay for something, no matter the fee, you want to know it gets you better value than something else you could spend your money on; like the NHS. The narrative has become all powerful in political life – and the anti–establishment political right have the most potent narrative going.
That does raise the question as to whether there are any limits to what can be claimed publically as long as the narrative holds up. UKIP leader and parliamentary candidate Paul Nuttall, however, may just have proven that there are still limits.
Nuttall has some “post–truth” form. He has previously claimed (falsely) to have a PhD and (falsely) that he was once a professional footballer for Tranmere Rovers. Those claims, while they provoked a fair amount of mockery (not to mention some very unfair jibes at the expense of a proud and once moderately successful football club), did little to hurt Nuttall.
His latest claim, though, that he had lost “personal friends” at Hillsborough really does seem to have provoked revulsion and condemnation, including from within his own party. Two UKIP local party chairmen have resigned and the row has dominated the run up to the Stoke by–election.
In some ways this ought to be surprising – because there is more truth in this particular claim than in many others Nuttall has made. While it is untrue that he had friends who died at Hillsborough, Nuttall was at the stadium on the day as a Liverpool fan, and did at the least witness some of the tragedy that unfolded. So while his ties to the tragedy are exaggerated they are not fictional. He has every reason to feel entitled to claim a very personal connection – even if it is crass in the extreme to exaggerate it.
Nuttall certainly seems to find the whole thing surprising given his response that:
“It is not as if I’ve taken illegally from the public purse. It is not as if I have said something racist. It is not as if I have sent people to war … I failed to check something that went up on my website. It was my fault, I’ve apologised, and that’s all I can do.”
It’s worth noting that Nuttall could still win. Even the reaction this latest scandal has caused may not be enough to check the momentum of UKIP in one of the most Eurosceptic constituencies in the UK, particularly when the Labour candidate has some issues of his own to overcome.
This episode does, however, reveal something of the standards of public debate. In a world in which the limits of truth claims seem ever more elastic it is still considered beyond the pale to lie about death. Death and grief remain a powerful taboo – and one capable of cutting through ideologically blinkers. So to Nuttall’s list of things he deems worthy of a severe response (misuse of public funds, racism, war mongering), we can add at least one more – the appropriation of death and grief – as something still taken as a scandal genuinely capable of damaging a politician’s credibility.
Ben Ryan is Researcher at Theos | @BenedictWRyan
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