Politics by gaslight

Sunday National, 29th May 2022.

It is difficult not to psychologise this UK government. These are people who will insult other people’s patriotism and talk about “citizens of nowhere,” while touring the world collecting cash, monstering people on low earnings while coining it in themselves, and all the while imagining the bag of loot they’ve been able to carry off is simply the product of their own ingenuity and talents.

These are folk who spent their university days whacked out of their gourd on cocaine, and can take to the airwaves with straight faces, arguing for tougher enforcement and stronger penalties for those caught in possession of controlled drugs. These are people who will unironically denounce their political opponents as being “soft on crime” – but when one of their own finds themselves entangled in the criminal justice system, they will minimise, rationalise, and deflect from their behaviour while giving it to the tabloids about crackdowns, bootstraps and zero tolerance.

This is the party of law and order which is determined to dismantle other centres of power in the state, neutering legal accountability they might be subjected to. Faced with allegations of gross moral turpitude, this week the Prime Minister decided to retool the ministerial code to represent less of an ethical encumbrance to his government in future. After all, you can’t be accused of double standards when you abolish the standards.

This is the morality of Judge Turpin, who cheerfully sends prisoners to the gallows by day in Sweeney Todd’s London, and grossly transgresses the self-same legal codes in his personal life, without noticing or being troubled by the contradictions.

Elitist, illiberal and anti-democratic, this administration regards law and even ethics in public life as a kind of noble lie – myths used by leaders to create the illusion of a stable society, while behind the scenery and backstage, the political actors all know the words are hollow, and that justice is only what you can get away with in this life.

And life has taught them you can get away with a great deal, if you approach things with enough front. Cynicism barely covers it. But we can’t ignore how much of this government is also powered by pure unadulterated narcissism – and the British people have been its enablers.

Narcissism videos do big business on YouTube these days – how to spot them, how to deal with them, how to survive them. You can understand why. In 1979, Christopher Lasch published a book entitled The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. The basic thesis of the book is that people with narcissistic personality disorder are made, not born, and the politics, economy and culture in the United States was hothousing a generation of toxic personalities. If anything, these tendencies have accelerated in the decades since.

People often mistake narcissists for folk with an excess of self-love. Exactly the opposite is true. They’re all surface and no depth, a noisy play of confidence but with no real rooted sense of their true self-worth. They’re people who only exist in full and vivid colour when they are basking in the friendly and enabling attentions of others, but underneath the superficial charm, they harbour black thoughts, resentment, and an acute capacity for cruelty where their outsize self-regard isn’t recognised or accommodated by the world around them.

They have associates, not friends. They keenly feel their own suffering, but are unwilling to identify with the needs and feelings of other people. There’s even a clinical term for what happens next: narcissistic rage. When your pathological narcissist experiences a disappoint or a setback – or is called out for their bad behaviour – often as not, they’ll burst into an unregulated ball of fury.

Watch proceedings Westminster, and you’ll see what all this looks like. This Prime Minister is incapable of moderating his mood or tone for any length of time. He is unable to express honest sorrow for the plight of other people. His political brain tells him he needed to give a short act of contrition – but the truth is written all over his face. His principal emotion is not honest regret but enormous resentment at being called upon to justify his actions. Confronted with his past statements, he blusters them away. Caught in the lie, he accuses you of pettifogging, or acting in bad faith. Faced with serious accusations, he makes light of them. It’s a gaslighter’s manifesto.

All which should remind you of Boris Johnson’s housemaster’s assessment of the future PM’s character during his Eton days. In 1982, his school report read. “Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half). I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” Sometimes the child really is the father of the man.

I’ve always been interested in how the confession – and the apology – can be a perverse way of avoiding responsibility. This isn’t dynamic only of our politics. You can see it in the wider culture too, which generally over-values confession for the sake of confession, and treats “opening up” as if it is some kind of moral achievement.

A few years ago, I heard someone being interviewed on BBC radio. They were talking about their hardscrabble upbringing and the personal demons they’d faced in their life, telling the interviewer how badly they’d treated important people in their life. The interviewer’s response to this admission was to pay fulsome tribute to the speaker’s bravery, bouncing past all the folk they screwed over in their heroic journey of recovery and personal growth without a backward glance or searching question about the damage they might have done in the process.

The message this sends – and it is reinforced through countless confessional TV shows and magazine features – is that you can behave like a ratbag, and get a round of applause for “opening up” about it. It’s difficult to conceive of a more basic way of avoiding any real sense of responsibility for your actions, and leaving the recording studio with a spring in your step, the monstrous ego which allowed you to treat those around you so poorly given a fresh polish for its searing self-analysis. Catholic theology has it about right when they talk about “true contrition” being necessary for any kind of meaningful reconciliation. Otherwise it is all just empty words.

It is the same with apologies. I defy anyone to watch the Prime Minister’s performance at the despatch box this week, and to believe he came to Parliament as a humble penitent who feels a scintilla of honest repentance for the Downing Street lock-ins while families across the country were locked out of each other’s lives for month on end. This was an apology not to accept – but to evade – responsibility. It’s this twisted, manipulative logic which has made this week in Westminster so singularly repulsive.

Point this out – and the PM’s surrogates and enablers in the media will tell you you’re the one being unreasonable, that you’re the one who’s lost perspective, that it’s beyond time you moved on. “He’s apologised, hasn’t he? What more do you want?” they say. And in a single bound, the greased piglet is free, sorry only that he got caught, sorry that you’ve decided to make life difficult for him, and ultimately – sorry only for himself.  

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