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‘Mendacity is a system that we live in’.
(Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)


Governments have always lied. They naturally deny it, even long after it is abundantly clear that they have lied, trailing multiple red herrings, dismissing inconvenient evidence, implying that there is counter-evidence they are not free to produce. When a lie can no longer be credibly denied it is justified, usually by an appeal to the national interest. Governments of modern representative democracies are no different, even if they are more liable than dictators to be exposed. Half-truths and outright lies are routinely told. Facts are routinely concealed. Files are unaccountably lost. Tapes are mysteriously erased. Democratic checks and balances are rarely effective and the public’s collective memory is short. 

Even so, in recent years state cynicism has broken new ground. The British government’s flagrant abuse of military intelligence to persuade parliament and the public to endorse its attack on Iraq was a dramatic case in point. In July 2003, soon after the official end of the war, a British government weapons expert, David Kelly, killed himself after being revealed as the source for a BBC report that the government’s dossier outlining the intelligence had been knowingly ‘sexed up’. The government appointed a reliable judge, Lord Hutton, to hold a public enquiry into Kelly’s death. The evidence given to the enquiry showed that the Prime Minister’s staff had been working flat out to make it appear that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to Britain that would justify invading Iraq. The government’s intelligence ‘dossier’ was made to read much more alarmingly than the evidence produced by the intelligence services warranted. It claimed that Iraq had nerve gases, anthrax spores, ricin, botulinium toxin, mobile laboratories, nuclear materials and extended range rockets, none of which the intelligence service claimed as facts, and none of which later proved to be true. It also claimed several times that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction ‘deployable within 45 minutes’. This claim was known to be vague, from an uncorroborated second-hand source, and to refer only to ‘battlefield’ weapons; and it too proved entirely unfounded. But more than any other piece of false information it was decisive in securing parliamentary and public acquiescence in the attack on Iraq. 

The defence minister, Geoff Hoon, admitted to the Hutton enquiry that he knew the report referred only to battlefield weapons, not the long-distance missiles that most people assumed were meant by the expression ‘weapons of mass destruction’. When asked why he had not corrected press reports that made this assumption he said his experience showed that correcting incorrect press reports was unprofitable. He was not challenged on this, or pressed to comment on the influence these reports had had on public opinion, although the record showed that the prime minister’s staff were intently focused on ensuring that press headlines would be as alarming as possible. The evidence also showed that Hoon, Blair, and Blair’s chief press officer Alastair Campbell had all subsequently told further lies about the compilation of the dossier. Campbell told Hutton that he had had no input into the dossier. The evidence showed he had had extensive input. Hoon told the parliamentary committee on defence that he had had nothing to do with it either. The evidence showed he had been involved as much as anyone. Most famously, Blair told the House of Commons that it was ‘completely and totally untrue’ that there was disquiet in the intelligence community over the 45-minute claim, but a senior intelligence officer told the enquiry that he and one of his colleagues had submitted a written report about their disquiet.(1)

(1) Blair’s statement to parliament no doubt relied on what his senior officials told him, so he may have told untruths unwittingly: but one of the noteworthy aspects of the whole affair was the way the responsibility that is supposed to be shouldered by ministers, and not least the prime minister, was constantly shuffled off onto officials – who also remained unpunished.

Of course commentators who supported the attack on Iraq were willing to condone all this. But Lord Hutton condoned it absolutely too. The only behaviour he criticized in his final report was that of Andrew Gilligan, the BBC journalist who had broken the story, and the BBC director general and chairman who had backed him against furious attacks by the Prime Minister’s office. All of them were forced to resign, while Blair and Hoon were totally absolved. John Scarlett, the senior intelligence official who had agreed to ‘sex up’ the intelligence service’s original draft of the dossier at the behest of the Prime Minister’s office, was promoted to be head of the secret service. (2) What is more, Hutton’s decision to put all the evidence on the internet, but then to condemn the whistleblowers and exonerate the liars, meant that members of parliament and the electorate were being asked to become complicit in official mendacity. ‘Transparent’ government, he seemed to say, just means that MPs and voters must accept being lied to and that no one should be penalized for doing so.

(2) ‘Sexed up’ was the expression allegedly used by David Kelly, the source for Gilligan’s story. The expression preferred by the prime minister’s office and Scarlett was ‘presentational changes’.

As the occupation of Iraq dragged on, its apologists’ indifference to the facts became more and more insulting to the intelligence of the public. In March 2005 Gary Younge, a usually restrained commentator, summed up the general sense of disgust: ‘We have entered a world where reality … is just a minor blockage in a flood of official, upbeat declarations … Each new dispatch from the departments of irony on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that truth can be created by assertion …’. (3) 

(3) ‘Never Mind the Truth’, Guardian, 21 March 2005.

Dissimulation is, of course, part of war, even if lying to your own electorate is a negation of democracy. But a cynical indifference to the truth is now hardly less common in domestic policy. For instance, in the Labour government’s determination to ‘marketize’ health care it has shown itself equally willing to use flawed evidence. An article published in the authoritative British Medical Journal (BMJ) purported to show that an American Health Maintenance Organization or HMO, Kaiser Permanente, was more efficient than the National Health Service. The medical research community around the world immediately denounced the study as hopelessly flawed. (4) The government, however, adopted Kaiser Permanente as a model for the NHS to follow – citing it in policy documents and inviting Kaiser staff to advise the Department of Health. (5) 

(4) Richard G.A. Feachem, N.K Sekhri and K.L. White, ‘Getting More For Their Dollar: A Comparison of the NHS with California’s Kaiser Permanente’, BMJ, 324, 2002, pp. 135-43. For the critiques see ‘Rapid Responses’ on the BMJ’s website,, a selection of which was later printed in the BMJ, Vol. 324, 2002, pp. 1332-35.

(5) The Kaiser article’s authors declined to respond to the criticisms, and the BMJ declined to print a systematic critique. The reason for the latter decision remains obscure; it seemed to reflect the growing tendency of the medical establishment to make its peace with the government’s determination to impose a market system on the National Health Service. 

Another example was the government’s decision to adopt a programme called ‘Evercare’ operated by another American HMO, United Healthcare. United Healthcare claimed that Evercare reduced the rate of emergency hospitalisation of frail elderly people by 50 per cent. United Healthcare had a notorious record of health care fraud in the USA, but its CEO gave $1.5 million to the 2004 Bush-Cheney election campaign and Bush’s secretary for health recommended the company to the British secretary of state for health. In 2004 Simon Stevens, Blair’s senior health policy adviser, resigned to become United Healthcare’s new President for Europe, and secured a contract to introduce Evercare in Britain. A study of nine pilot schemes in the UK costing £3.4 million, however, showed that Evercare was unlikely to cut the rate of hospitalization by more than 1 per cent. Yet the government’s primary care ‘czar’ declared that ‘there is nothing in the research to make us have second thoughts about the strategy’. (6)

(6) Guardian, 4 February 2005. ‘Czar’ was the popular name for a series of appointments of individuals to oversee the achievement of government targets in primary care, cancer care, drug abuse, etc.

These stories, which could be replicated for almost any field of public policy in contemporary Britain, illustrate the emergence of a new, neoliberal policy regime that is more brazenly willing to dissemble, more indifferent to evidence, more aggressive towards critics and distinctly less accountable – to the point of being virtually unaccountable – than ever before. This policy regime is not peculiarly British. The old ‘liberal/social democratic’ policy regime which it has displaced did have distinctively British features. The new neoliberal policy regime is a more standardized affair. It not only spans the Atlantic but thanks to neoliberal globalization it is being gradually replicated, in essentials, throughout the world. Its key feature is that policy is now fundamentally about national competitiveness and responding to global market forces. The crucial roles are played neither by political parties nor by civil servants but by personnel seconded into the civil service from the private sector, a handful of ‘special advisers’ to the prime minister, a small group of certified market-friendly civil servants, and polling, advertising and media experts. Scientific evidence is still relied on, but only in so far as it serves competition policy; otherwise it is treated uncritically, if it helps the government, and dismissed if it does not. When this new policy regime is properly understood the lies about Iraq no longer appear as a special case, but only as a special dimension of a general one. Cynicism, we realize, is a necessary condition of neoliberal democracy.