By Alastair Campbell
As Notre Dame burned, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt diplomatically tweeted his sympathy …‘thinking of all our friends in France … heart-breaking for the millions who love this great cathedral and great city across the world.’
Similar messages poured in from around the globe, from Donald Trump’s monomaniacal advice on how to put out the blaze, to the more compassionate thoughts of those blessed with empathy, such as Angela Merkel who expressed her sympathy in French.
Hours earlier, Jeremy Hunt was giving a very different sense of his feelings for France. He was in Japan, talking to students, trying to explain Brexit. ‘Many countries in the EU,’ he said, ‘their vision for the EU, is they would like one day Europe to become one country, like the United States of America. And they think Europe can be stronger that way. But Britain has a different vision of our own history. We always want to be independent.’
Two things are noteworthy about his statement. First, it is a lie. Second, even before the Notre Dame blaze became the Number One story around the world, despite being a lie Hunt’s comments were barely figuring on the UK news agenda. Welcome to Trumpland, where the truth of a politician’s statement matters less than its purpose or its political impact.
As with Hunt’s tweet for Notre Dame, we can still go through the motions, as perhaps some MPs did in joining in rare Parliamentary applause for Labour MP Rosie Cooper, speaking last week of the thwarted attempt to assassinate her, when she told them: ‘I was to be murdered to send a message to the State, to send a message to this place.’
The Commons show of unity was a rare moment of light in a politics beset by darkness. Mr Hunt’s Notre Dame tweet was part of the fading light; his comments in Japan part of the growing darkness.
There is no light in our judiciary being declared ‘Enemies of the People,’ or anyone who dares to question Brexit being labelled ‘saboteur or traitor’; there is no light in decent civil servants being attacked by MPs, and even greater darkness when ministers refuse to defend them; there is some light in the Electoral Commission establishing that the Vote Leave campaign broke the law, but it is extinguished when both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition decide it doesn’t matter; there is little light to come from journalism when the Daily Telegraph’s (failed) defence to the press regulator of the proven lies of star columnist Boris Johnson, Mr Hunt’s predecessor as Foreign Secretary, is that his work is ‘clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters;’ or the BBC playing Nigel Farage’s game for him with huge, wholly uncritical coverage of his warning when launching the new Brexit Party that ‘it is time to put the fear of God into our MPs.’ MPs like Rosie Cooper perhaps? MPs like Jo Cox, murdered by an extremist before the referendum of 2016, won by Leave, you may remember Mr Farage gloating on his night of victory, ‘without a bullet being fired.’
If every generation has a darkest hour this could well be ours. ‘Darkness is good,’ said white supremacist Steve Bannon, self-styled architect of Trump’s America, at whose feet Mr Johnson and Mr Farage sit in obsequious wonder. Try to catch the footage of Bannon setting out his plans for global domination by the far right, and Farage telling him how he has grown in stature. Nauseating.
I do not put Hunt in the same bracket as Farage, or Johnson. But his Japanese ‘lesson on Brexit’ showed that he has potential to get there, as did his grotesque comparison six months ago between the EU and Soviet prisons.
Hunt is engaged in a pseudo-leadership contest, at a time of national crisis. His real view, as expressed during the referendum campaign, almost certainly remains this: ‘I believe we will be better off and more secure by remaining in the European Union.’ But that view, especially now, is anathema to the ageing Tory membership who will decide our next Prime Minister when Theresa May’s fingers are finally prised from the crown.
So instead, like Johnson and Farage and Trump, he is reduced to caricature and mendacity. ‘They would like one day Europe to become one country.’
Did any of those world leaders watching in horror as Notre Dame burned send sympathy to ‘Europe?’ No, because this was France in shock. Did Emmanuel Macron rush to the scene as a One Nation European? No, he went there as President of France.
‘They would like one day Europe to become one country.’ Who are ‘they’? ‘They’ are part of the UK Eurosceptic panoply of lies, along with the bent bananas and the unelected bureaucrats who supposedly call all the shots, and the ‘vast sums’ we send to them which could be better spent on the NHS, the big black lie on the big red bus which helped the Brexiters win in 2016. What Hunt showed is that when needs must, he will pander to the liars; real leaders challenge them.
When Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo spoke to a People’s Vote rally last week, earning a standing ovation for his passionate outpouring against the damage Brexit is doing even before we have left, and his call for a referendum so that people can decide on the basis of all they now know whether they still want to leave, was he speaking for ‘Europe’? No. He was speaking as a proud Gibraltarian first, a leader of a British Overseas Territory second, a European third. We all have our own sense of identity. I feel British first, Scottish second, but also Yorkshire because that is where I was born, London because that is where I live and have raised a family and, now more than ever as I fear something precious being lost, European too.
Can Hunt name a single serious French politician who wishes to call time on ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,’ and be part of this single European country? A single German who wishes for Bach and Beethoven, Einstein, Bauhaus, Bayern Munich, Volkswagen, Bratwurst, Weizenbier to be viewed not as German but European?
Also, how does his caricature fit with the rise of Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban, friends of Bannon and Farage in Italy and Hungary, who wish to break up the EU in the name of far-right nationalism?
Un mensonge, Mr Hunt. Eine Lüge. Una bugia. Egy hazugság. うそ
You lied. Whatever language we care to use, you lied. You flew at our expense to Japan to lie to young students abroad to appeal to old Tories at home. In part, you did so because Trump and Brexit have shown that you can. Lie and get away with it; lie and even prosper. To quote John F Kennedy: ‘The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.’
Such is the lack of accountability that politicians on the extremes feel they can lie without consequence. Present the myth, abstain from the truth. Keep people in the dark. Just the way Bannon likes it. But as with Trump, as with the architects of Brexit, the liars are now not on the fringes, but centre stage. And the Hunts of this world have clearly decided: ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ It is sad, and dangerous, and needs to be called out and defeated at every turn. It is why, also, that Gibraltar should be proud to have a Chief Minister who came to London, a stone’s throw from Westminster and Whitehall, and told the unvarnished truth about Brexit, that there is no easy way of doing it, and no way at all of delivering the central lie of the Leave campaign, that it can be done without cost.
Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair’s spokesman and strategist, and is now campaigning for a new Brexit referendum
MAIN PHOTO: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt REUTERS/Hannah McKay