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The sincere insincerity of centrism

Politicians cannot but seem like they’re lying even when they genuinely aren’t lying

Few things are more counter-productive than someone trying very obviously to seem sincere. Observe mainstream politicians, and this is what you see. Politicians have long-since been mocked for their rehearsed mannerisms, their repetitive soundbites, and their ways of not answering questions. But look into the eyes of Sunak, Starmer, or one of their frontbench colleagues, and something slightly different is going on.  

It is one of the funniest subplots of British politics that Keir Starmer is genuinely a massive football fan, but sounds like a freak every time he talks about it. Similarly, Sunak probably did go without Sky TV as a child, but cannot mention it without also sounding freakish.  

This is a different phenomenon to the old “spin over substance” paradigm. This is something other than smoothly presented, media-trained politicos saying things that just about come within the range of defensible plausibility. We now have the strange scenario where certain politicians are actually telling the truth, but know they cannot do this without seeming to be lying. 

The populist revolts and their associated upheavals since 2016 were genuinely disturbing to those who wanted the adults back in the room. But both Starmer and Sunak are different to, say, Cameron and Miliband, because they each strategically placed themselves adjacently to those shockwaves, and are speaking to an electorate that experienced them too. 

Starmer’s attempts to memory-hole his proximity to Corbyn are often mentioned. But consider his repeated answer to Beth Rigby earlier this week, when challenged on whether he meant it when he said in 2019: “I do think Jeremy Corbyn would make a great Prime Minister”. He answered by saying he was then certain Labour would lose. This can only mean he said something he didn’t believe because he knew it wasn’t going to happen. 

Sunak’s relationship with Brexit and Boris Johnson is given less attention — but a few years ago Sunak presented himself differently to the counter-Realignment technocrat we know today. While he joined Vote Leave by writing that Brexit was “a once in a generation opportunity for our country”, his motivations are questionable. The article appeared just five days after Vote Leave’s fortunes seemed radically changed by Boris Johnson finally joining-up. 

This might seem like just the sort of cynical careerism people expect from elected representatives. Yet it is different because now both figures are singing from a revised hymn sheet which each of them clearly believes. Starmer is the Blairite lawyer he now presents himself as. Sunak is the soulless mathematician who can only think of this country as “Britain PLC”. The problem is that people struggle to believe what they say, and they know it. 

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s described the many layers of duplicity experienced in the Soviet era by writing:  

We know that they are lying, they know that they are lying, they even know that we know they are lying, we also know that they know we know they are lying too

What is happening in the current election is something like: 

We know that they are lying, they know they are not lying, we know they cannot but seem like they’re lying even when they genuinely aren’t lying. 

Sincerity appearing as insincerity is reversed when it comes to the mainstream electorate. These are the people staying faithful to the centrist positions of the two main parties, people who would always vote for one or the other of them as long as they didn’t stray too far to the right or left. These are people who seem sincere, reliable centrist Dads, but are actually voting with insincere motivations.  

Labour voters in this category, for example, are voting for Starmer with the trust that he is lying about Europe — that he won’t really “respect the referendum result” but will seek as close a reintegration with the EU as possible. Similarly, such Tory voters shudder at the thought of leaving the ECHR in order to “get Rwanda done”, while trusting that Sunak won’t go ahead with it. 

The joyless pre-2016 paradigm was one in which people expected their politicians to be insincere careerists, and voted for the insincere proposals they sincerely preferred. The Old Left complained about Blair, Brown or Miliband, but voted for them on the basis that there would be slightly more wealth redistribution under Labour than the Tories. Old Conservatives complained about Hague, Cameron, or Osbourne, but voted for them on the basis that traditional institutions would be slightly safer in their hands than Labour’s. 

The applecart was overturned by populism’s first wave. Suddenly people could expect politicians to be sincere, and vote with sincerity too. 

The response of the old guard was stuck in the paradigm of insincerity — to claim that the populist politicians are telling lies, that they’re making promises they can’t deliver. Hence, the endless references to the £350 million promise on the Brexit Bus, and the alleged post-truth character of Trump’s presidency. Hence also the kneejerk impulse to rail against “disinformation” whenever any populist concerns are raised. 

But now our politicians cannot convince voters that choosing different shades of dishonesty is genuinely better

The current political moment is one in which mainstream politics has glimpsed the sincerity of populism but reverted back to the insincere paradigm. But now our politicians cannot convince voters that choosing different shades of dishonesty is genuinely better. Although — with incredible irony — they actually believe this to be true. 

Their supporters are those who would criticise populism for offering a politics of fear, which, like the allegations of disinformation, implies that populism is irrational, because people are irrational when they are scared. 

Look into the beleaguered eyes of the politician who is telling the truth but can’t express it without appearing freakishly insincere, however, and you see genuine fear. This is the fear that when Nigel Farage speaks, not only does he believe what he is saying, and appears to be telling the truth, but that many voters believe him too. 

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