People don’t believe Blair – or anybody else
Public mistrust has become an automatic, unthinking response.
So Tony Blair’s latest parliamentary ‘crisis’, over Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction, ended in much the same way as his previous ones. In the words of the newspapers, he ‘got away with it’, largely thanks to the pathetic weak-kneed state of the opposition within and without the Labour Party.
But the debacle over those invisible WMD does point up some more serious long-term problems. It illustrates the internal incoherence of the British political elite, and the ineffectiveness of important arms of the state machinery such as the security services (see Weapons of self-destruction, by Brendan O’Neill).
It further diminishes the international authority of the US-UK alliance, which will have even less chance of winning wider support for any future military adventures. And perhaps most importantly, it can only increase yet again public cynicism and mistrust of government and politics.
Large numbers of people now tell pollsters that they do not believe the government’s claims over WMD and, moreover, that they no longer believe what the government says about anything else. Is this a good thing for those who would like to see serious political change? Well, yes and no – and right now, probably more no than yes.
We at spiked have always questioned what the authorities say or do, believing that those in power need to be brought to account. That is why, for example, some of us have spent years interrogating, exposing and opposing the British and/or American case for war, from the Falklands to Kosovo and from Grenada to the Gulf (twice) – wars that most of Blair’s current critics were happy to support.
But there is something different behind the bitter atmosphere that Blair encounters today. It seems that public mistrust has now become institutionalised as an almost automatic, unthinking response.
This is not healthy critical questioning of those in authority, in pursuit of political change. It is based instead on cynicism and something akin to paranoia, reflecting a sense that we are powerless victims at the mercy of dark forces. The feeling is not just anti-politician, but anti-politics. It is not only that people don’t believe the government, they don’t believe in anything much at all.
In recent times the old collective institutions, from the churches and community organisations to trades unions and political parties, have lost their roots and their purchase. The great political projects of both left and right have also collapsed and died. Our societies have become more individualised, atomised and insecure. Unlike the past, when such ideas as nationalism or welfarism might have held things together, most people today see a lack of any common script or collective sense of identity with which to respond to events.
People experience big events as being beyond their control. Many feel powerless, ‘Trust no-one’ as the t-shirts say, and tend to imagine conspiracies behind everything. This process has played an important part in creating a culture of fear, a destructive phenomenon of the age that we have often discussed on spiked.
Of course it is right that many people should refuse to believe the government’s increasingly ridiculous claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But the culture of fear, mistrust and conspiracy-mongering does not distinguish between good and bad government statements – they are all treated as lies.
For example, a thorough scientific review of the evidence for Gulf War Syndrome concluded recently that it did not exist. Yet far from this report settling the issue for the public, many would have agreed with the ex-servicemen’s spokesman who said this must be untrue because the government had funded the research, and ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. The same attitude leads people to doubt the government’s scientifically sound advice about, say, the safety of the MMR vaccine.
And while people may disbelieve the government’s claims about WMD or specific terrorist threats, the culture of fear determines that they still live in a state of free-floating exaggerated anxiety about everything from bio-terrorism to SARS. Thus, no matter how far-fetched the government’s anti-terrorism precautions become, it is attacked for ‘not doing enough’ to turn all of Britain into a bunker.
This sort of institutionalised mistrust is corrosive of democracy and public life. Its corrosive effects are also seeping into our personal lives, as all surveys reveal that we are becoming increasingly mistrustful of one another. Far from the people united in questioning the authorities, it is more a case of all-against-all, everybody doubting the person next door.
Of course, it remains imperative that we subject all of the state’s actions to critical questioning. While Blair and co might pose as the victims of a conspiracy this time, it is important to remember (and to remind everybody of) the central role they have played in creating the culture of fear.
But the current climate also raises a new need: to question the critics, and uncover what really lies behind their attacks. There is nothing positive about the spread of an anti-political mood that is based on cynicism and knee-jerk, know-nothing nay-saying. That is why spiked will continue to interrogate both sides of this often empty debate, and question everything.
Fear and mistrust are the weapons of mass destruction that pose far more pressing threats to the health of our societies than anything hidden in Iraq. And we don’t need either Hans Blix or Mr Blair’s dubious dossiers to tell us where to find them.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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