||Cheshire Cat Smiles Mask Danger in UK Politics|
FT - November 21,2014
carefully at the photos from Thursday’s by-election victory of the UK Independence
Rochester, or those of last month’s Ukip victory in Clacton. Can you see that
disembodied smile? No, this is not Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat; it is a
That feline grin represents a dangerous trend in British
politics, one that goes beyond our arguments about immigration, the EU or
globalisation, important though those are. It is the smile of Silvio
Berlusconi. For although he is a much diminished force in Italian politics, the
political techniques of Italy’s three-times-prime-minister are finding a new
life in Britain.
Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, is our greatest emulator,
though he is not the only one. A longstanding admirer of Mr Berlusconi, one
Boris Johnson, now mayor of London but next May likely to return to parliament,
is another. In 2003 he wrote in The Spectator, at the end of a gushing
interview set at Mr Berlusconi’s Sardinian villa, that the Italian leader was
like Jay Gatsby, “better than the whole damn lot of them”.
The use by Mr Farage, Mr Johnson and others of Mr
Berlusconi’s techniques threatens to destroy at least the Tory party, but also
Britain’s place in the world as a member of the EU and as a country respected
for its belief in truth, fair play and openness.
Am I suggesting that Messrs Farage and Johnson are attending
bunga-bunga parties or handing out bribes? Certainly not. Those have merely
been the most notable traits of Mr Berlusconi. Leaving aside the advantages of
being a billionaire owner of most of Italian commercial television, his key
techniques were just two: the smile and the lie.
The broad grin is what you notice first if you meet him. It
may be followed by a joke, often politically incorrect. He has always sought to
be positive, to radiate optimism, even when campaigning negatively – which
usually meant accusing his opponents of being communists, or “the system” of
plotting against him and his fellow ordinary Italians.
Optimism is always powerful: remember “yes we can”, or
“things can only get better”. It is difficult to use in a protest movement,
however, when fear and anger are your natural friends. But Mr Farage has done
this brilliantly – attacking and condemning but always wearing a beaming smile,
cracking a joke and, yes, sipping a pint.
If they are to beat him, mainstream parties need to emulate
this, to find positive messages with which to inspire voters. Talking about
cuts and new financial crashes is not going to put a spring into voters’ steps.
Mr Johnson has always sought to be a joke-cracking optimist, which is one
reason he appeals to many Tories as a potential leader.
Again and again he has resorted to humorous bluster to get
him out of difficult situations – most recently in his run-in with the US
Internal Revenue Service over an unpaid tax demand. Whether the notoriously
hard-nosed IRS officials will be so susceptible to the Johnson magic is open to
Yet the other part of the formula – the lie – is where the
big danger lurks. Mr Berlusconi showed that if you tell one often enough, it
can become the truth. He did so regularly, telling fibs about the state of the
economy, about his opponents’ policies, even about his own opinion poll
ratings. Moreover, he was able to say contradictory things on successive days
and get away with it. How? Mainly through the joke.
It disarms the audience. It makes them like you. It is also
a wonderful diversionary tactic, as it gives the media a cheerier story than
“Boris trips up” or “Farage flip-flops”. This was shown in August when the
London mayor made a big speech about Britain and Europe. In it, he demanded an impressive list of reforms from the EU. Peter Wilding,
head of British Influence, a pro-European campaign group, stood up and pointed
out seven of the eight reforms he was calling for have already been agreed to
by EU leaders (including his boss, Prime Minister David Cameron). Cue bluster,
dodging and ducking. Yet Boris got away with that, and with an even more
egregious claim. He had listed a raft of outrageous and damaging regulations
foisted on poor British lorry-drivers by the meddlers from Brussels. When
the Road Haulage Association was asked about this, the
claim turned out to be nonsense. The truckers’ lobby supports the rules and has
been pressing for stronger enforcement. Ukip’s brazen efforts to turn EU myths into apparent truths
have been especially successful. Take the claim, often on Mr Farage’s lips,
that 75 per cent of UK laws are made in Brussels. Research
by the House of Commons library has shown the true figure is 20-30 per cent. Or
that the EU’s annual accounts are never approved by auditors. In fact, they
always are. Or that the EU stops us expanding trade with China or the
Commonwealth. It does not.
Politicians and flip-flops go together like bread and
butter. So the fact that Mr Farage proposed two years ago that the National
Health Service be replaced by an insurance-based system, then said this month
that he opposes private companies taking over the NHS, might be dismissed as
politics as normal.
Or listen to Mr Johnson on immigration. In October 2013 he
said: “I’m probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say he’s
pro-immigration . . . I believe that when talented people have something to offer
a society . . . they should be given the benefit of the doubt.” And now? He
wants quotas to end the free movement of EU citizens across our
borders. He says he would prefer people from the Commonwealth. In fact, most
immigrants in the past 15 years have come from outside the EU, not inside.
We used to think that, in our digital age, it would become
harder to get away with lies and contradictions. Not so, given our information
overload and desire for a chuckle. Yet these techniques risk seducing Britain
into taking long-term, life-changing decisions on the basis of falsehoods and
So we move from the Cheshire Cat to Humpty Dumpty: “When I
use a word,” he said, “it means just what I choose it to mean.”