Politicians have always lied. Never more so than during election campaigns. It would be naïve to have sat down before the leaders’ debate with anything less than a handful of salt. Yet even this familiar, comforting assertion rests on there being some notion of truth, a tangible reality that their words contradict. This is no longer the case.
The promises, ideas and images that make up this election have no grounding in our understanding of real life. They exist without any concrete point of reference that might allow them to be understood as true or false. Every soundbite that emerges may be simultaneously heralded as both true and false, justified on each side by five or six more claims that equally have no substantial link to what we experience.
Over the last five years political discourse has dissolved to the point that truth as an expression of fact or reality is dead. It now exists as the rubber stamp, full stop or blue tick that we regard as reality. It is a reality that is entirely malleable and may be given to any image as none refer to anything to which we might point with any certainty.
The “social media cut and thrust” of rebranding the CCHQ Twitter account as ‘factcheckUK’ is not only evidence that the Conservative Party understand there is no such thing as lying anymore – because there is no such thing as truth – but that they know that it is knowledge that is shared by everyone. For their failure to disguise this appropriation of the TruthTM they might as well have hung the corpse of what we understand to be truth from Johnson’s lectern. Twitter’s response amounted to little more than an exasperated glance towards a child who has let slip the existence of the elephant in the room.
Yes the outcry came from elsewhere: accusations of misleading the electorate, referrals to the electoral commission and illusions to Orwell’s prophecy, but there is nothing to be done. To mislead the electorate there must be a semblance of truth away from which they are led. It is no wonder that the Question Time audience laughed when Johnson was asked about the importance of honesty in politics, I’m surprised he did not laugh himself.
And it is not only the right that understand this transition of truth into TruthTM. ‘Fully Costed’, the common suffix to the Labour Party’s election manifesto is their own appropriation of TruthTM. The phrase itself originates from another haunting soundbite: the ‘Magic Money Tree’ that equally finds no grounding in anything we may really understand. It is truth in response to the accusation of its absence.
‘Fully Costed’ is the assertion of TruthTM not only in the viability of their economic policy but of all that is presented in the document. Yet these words are as far divorced from any genuine signifier of financial reliability as the blue tick that props up ‘factcheckUK’. The Financial Times, in the space of five days, described the manifesto as “a recipe for decline” then published a letter from 160 economists that states Labour “deserve to form the next UK government”. Both are equally convincing and perhaps their truths both rest on valid, concrete understanding; nonetheless they are symptomatic of a convoluted political discourse that enforces these simulations of legitimacy. True and false are not binary opposites, one does not always eclipse the other but at the moment, in this election, it feels like we encounter neither.
The truth, in politics at least, is dead but it is not the time for mourning. Instead we must lift our heads and open our eyes to the trademarks of its successor. Where in the past it has been our duty to seek out and safeguard the truth, we must now impose responsibility and accountability upon those who create TruthTM. So as we sit in front of it all with our handful of salt, we must remember never to put it down.