Following alleged Downing Street contraventions of social distancing rules, Nick Spencer considers what politics should be about. 12/01/2022
Even Boris Johnson’s critics, whose ranks swell daily, admit he is a great performer. Overendowed with intelligence, charm, charisma, and narrative flair, he has been popular among Tory MPs because he reaches the parts that other leaders have not, and arguably could not. Their loyalty, such as it is, is rooted not in Mr Johnson’s ideological vision, or his integrity, or his reputation for hard work, but in his ability to woo and win a crowd.
The word ‘hypocrite’ derives ultimately from the Greek word hypokritēs meaning actor. In classical Greek theatre, characters were identified by the masks they wore. Plays were staged by a small number of talented performers who switched masks to indicate a change of character. In secular Greek ethics, the term hypokritēs could be used positively, to denote the talent for persuasion. Christian ethics took a different course.
The New Testament uses the word and its cognates 36 times, and rarely approvingly. Hypocrites trumpet their piety, parade their probity, fake their devotion, conceal their true motivation, and circumnavigate the truth. Sometimes their sin is one of omission. The people Jesus denounces in Luke 12 are ‘hypocrites’ simply because their earthly savvy is not matched by their spiritual wisdom. “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”
More often, hypocrisy is a sin of intentional, knowing commission. You know very well what you are doing. You are praying, fasting, giving, converting, teaching, honouring but you are doing so in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. You crave the notice and praise of the crowd above the desire to honour God or love your neighbour. What matters, ultimately, is the applause.
But back to Boris Johnson. I would not dream of second guessing the findings of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s enquiry into various alleged Downing Street contraventions of social distancing rules. But the weathervane does not appear to be pointing in a good direction for the Prime Minister. If the Gray report does conclude that he broke the rules, it is hard to see how he can remain in office.
But, then again, he probably will. Or at least he will if his practised ability to perform resurfaces. Because in the world of hypokritēs, it is not truth or integrity that finally matter, but the power and popularity of the performance.
We should not kid ourselves that politics was ever radically different. Modern democracies arguably have it worse, however. For all that emperors, kings and dictators liked to show the crowd their ‘good side’, they didn’t need to worry that much about public opinion. Democrats, by contrast, live or die by the poll. They must woo if they are to win. Politics is performance.
But not pure performance. The ethics of the political stage have always been tempered by those of the courtroom and even sometimes those of the pulpit; justice and mercy, vision and passion vying with performance in a politician’s repertoire. We know there is show. Indeed, we like show. But we also want substance.
Today, alas, all the political world is a stage, and the 24/7 news coverage and ubiquitous social media mean that there are no longer even any exits. The consequence is an exceptionally powerful gravitational pull towards performance.
But we still want the political to be more than performance, and there is nothing like the idea of politicians ignoring their own rules in BYOB parties while people’s relatives died alone to remind us of that.
With 83% of adults (and 74% of Conservative voters) agreeing that “it is one rule for the government and another for everybody else”, we might hope that, whatever this sorry tale does for Mr Johnson, it will help reassert the idea that there is another gravitational pull in our politics – away from performance and towards probity, integrity, and honour and truth.
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