Opinion – Authentically Insincere: the conflict between sincerity and authenticity in British Politics

This election confirmed one thing: the problem is not that politicians lied, the problem is that people don’t mind being lied to.

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After nine years of Tory rule, voters have looked at our country and said ‘yeah, this is good, more of the same.’

How did this happen? How could Labour not force the Conservatives, in all their mess and disgrace, out of government? The inquest into the collapse of the Labour Party will be long, conducted mainly on Twitter, and unhelpful. Momentum will blame anyone but Corbyn and the dream will live on. But now we must be honest: whatever Corbyn was selling, the British people did not want it. This is the first time in a century that an opposition has lost seats after being out of government for nine years. The fault must lie, above all else, within the opposition.

But there may be a deeper reason than all this for the Tory victory. This election confirmed one thing: the problem is not that politicians lied, the problem is that people don’t mind being lied to. Andrew Neil said if Boris Johnson had come on his show to be interviewed, he would have centred his questions on ‘trust’ – why ‘critics and even those close to him deem him untrustworthy’. But we may be thinking about trust in the wrong way. Johnson has made it clear throughout his career that he reneges on promises, argues for whatever betters himself, cannot be trusted. And yet people still place their trust in him with their votes.

Why? We might look to the South African writer J.M. Coetzee for an answer. Coetzee lived in England for a number of years, he knows the English well. In a 2015 book called The Good Story, a series of exchanges between Coetzee and the clinical psychologist Arabella Kurtz, Coetzee made a striking observation about the difference between authenticity and sincerity:

“I suspect that the word authentic came into wider usage precisely to capture what the word sincere fails to… If so, this in turn suggests that the phenomenon of the person who holds a belief in all sincerity yet is not committed heart and soul to that belief is of quite recent birth…

“Being authentic includes being able to lie and steal and cheat as long as you don’t pretend to yourself that you are not a liar and a thief and a cheat. As a society we cut a great deal of slack for ‘authentic’ characters of this kind. I have never seen why. The classic English novelists (Fielding, Dickens, for example) are often prepared to forgive immorality yet are dead set against hypocrisy, the pretence to virtue.”

Authenticity, for Coetzee, is about being ‘true to yourself’. Sincerity is simpler: it is more about telling the truth than acting in a way that is true to oneself. We could say ‘I am sincerely sorry for what I did’, meaning that we are really, truthfully sorry. But we wouldn’t say ‘I am authentically sorry for what I did’. Authenticity is not about telling the truth; it is about being one’s own truth, being the truth of one’s self.

This matters in modern British politics because politicians often lie, and so, we should think about what sort of lie we are being told. Is this politician lying about the facts (are they being insincere), or are they lying about themselves (are they being inauthentic)? Coetzee is right: in Britain we tolerate insincerity if it is authentic. What we can’t tolerate is inauthenticity. So, Dickens’ villain Fagin can lie and thieve and cheat and that’s okay – it’s authentic. But when a good guy does something bad, their goodness is shown to be inauthentic, and we begin to doubt their whole character.

Think back to the Conservative leadership campaign. Michael Gove was never going to win that election. But his campaign was utterly crushed by the allegations that he used to sit at home in his Chelsea flat after long days on Fleet Street and take cocaine. Any momentum he had was gone overnight. Why was this allegation so damaging?

Perhaps because Michael Gove presented himself as sincere. He styled himself – before the EU Referendum at least – as someone who cared, someone who would try to make a difference, someone conscientious. In short, he was not a Boris Johnson.

Maybe it was the bug-eyed incredulity, the slight over-pronouncement of the ever-trembling lower lip, the overarching sense of unease and even nervousness that made us believe him sincere. He never had the Johnsonian wink or Cameron’s smug grin. He always seemed like he was trying and falling short. And so, when the cocaine story broke, his sincerity was exposed as inauthentic. Gove wasn’t a good guy: he was getting coked up throughout his twenties. He was insincere – and, worse, inauthentically sincere. Any chance of his becoming party leader disappeared.

So why did the same not happen to Johnson? After Gove, every leadership candidate was asked what they had taken and when. How did Johnson deflect these questions? Quite simply, he lied – and, what’s more, people just didn’t care. When asked, Johnson denied taking the drug. But this was untrue. He previously admitted to taking the drug on numerous occasions: he told Piers Morgan in 2007 that he remembered taking cocaine ‘vividly’. And, really, of course he can. I find it absolutely inconceivable that Johnson has not taken cocaine at least once, and impressive that his septum has emerged unscathed.

It was only in 2015, perhaps with his premiership in sight, that Johnson started to retreat from his earlier confessions. On Have I Got News for You? he said: ‘I think I was once given cocaine but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose’ – the most ridiculous line since Clinton’s ‘I didn’t inhale’. Johnson absurdly claimed a scene of Annie Hall for his own and somehow got away with it. The evidence was there, staring at voters in the face: Boris Johnson, by his own admission, had taken cocaine, just like his fellow candidate Michael Gove. So why did this bare-faced, unflinching, shameless lying not derail his campaign too?

Because Johnson’s deceit, his cynicism, his all-round bad guy-ness, is authentic. We know he lies, we know he cheats. This is who he, in a dramatic sense, is. This is his character, his persona, and he has spent most of his life perfecting it to the point that it is authentic.

Three details from Andrew Gimson’s 2006 biography of Johnson tell us more about this ‘character’. First, his school reports, which have long been doing the rounds: “Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies… I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Second, an anecdote from a school play: Johnson didn’t bother to learn his lines, so he pinned them up around the stage, dashing between them as he tried to catch his next cue, much to the audience’s hilarity and the anger of his fellow actors. Everyone could see what he was doing, but nonetheless, they found the performance funny.

And third, his post in an Eton yearbook: a picture of himself with two scarves and a machine gun and a vow to make ‘more notches on my phallocratic phallus’. And there we have our prime minister: lover of self, lover of audience, lover of sex. It’s blatantly there for us to see, and this authenticity works in his favour.

How could the allegations that this man had merely taken cocaine have hurt someone like this? It could hurt Gove, who was meant to be sincere. It couldn’t hurt Johnson, who everyone knows to be insincere – authentically insincere. This is the problem: we know Johnson is a bad guy, but because he doesn’t pretend not to be, we simply don’t care. In fact, it is a huge source of his appeal.

Journalists of late have picked up on this trend. Matthew Parris’s column in last Saturday’s Times picks up on the authenticity phenomenon: “Everywhere I go among fellow voters I meet the same response. They know he’s a scoundrel, know he’s a cheat, know he’s a selfish careerist, and there’s no point in reminding them. But something about his rascality appeals.”

Parris continues: “He’s your virtual mate. Boris is Boris but he’s our Boris. ‘Ooh you are awful, but we like you.’ In the southern Africa of my youth there was a human type widely admired in Bantu culture and the admiration helps to explain some of Africa’s political problems. He’s called a tsotsi and he’s basically a petty thief, an Artful Dodger, but he’s flashy, he’s fun and he’s a winger. Johnson is a blond tsotsi.” Like Dickens’ Artful Dodger, he is authentic, it is all there in his persona. This is the thing that makes voters dismiss each successive scandal with a tut and a frown, but with a stifled giggle and an ‘Oh, Boris!’.

Think about what Johnson was up against. (Not much.) We can see how the authenticity problem might have affected his opponents. Swinson is meant to be young and progressive, yet voted for a number of austerity policies. Corbyn is meant to be against racism in all its forms, yet had a blind spot to antisemitism. It seems as though one could not shake the idea that these sincere beliefs held by Johnson’s opponents may have been inauthentic.

But isn’t there a sense of authenticity I’m missing? Surely Corbyn’s politics are authentic? Yes, absolutely. Corbyn is authentically old left in a way that Johnson will never be a politically authentic anything. There is much talk of how Johnson may now return to how he was as London Mayor, a One Nation Conservative, whatever that soupy term still means. But he may equally continue in his current vein of populist nationalism. Who can say? As Chris Patten warns us: “His principles are so flexible he could do almost anything.” Authenticity is a matter of character, which goes deeper than politics. Johnson’s authenticity comes from his commitment to himself, stronger than his commitment to any political idea.

If we think about the language used to describe leaders like Johnson and Trump, we see the importance of authenticity. Throughout the populist movements around the globe we recognise the same distrust of irony, the same desire for there to be no gap between appearance and reality. People like Johnson and Trump, who supposedly embody a ‘what you see is what you get’ persona. It’s all there in Coetzee: ‘Being authentic includes being able to lie and steal and cheat as long as you don’t pretend to yourself that you are not a liar and a thief and a cheat.’ Johnson and Trump don’t pretend to be otherwise and are being rewarded by voters.

So what do we do with a man who seems to have accessed this special place in the British consciousness, coinciding with the pockets of populism around the globe, who we have just given five more years of power? People say the media failed to hold Johnson accountable. This is undoubtedly true, but even those who do hold him to account find their efforts rather impotent. Peter Oborne, a Conservative voter all his life until recently, has created a dossier (boris-johnson-lies.com) in which he adds a new Johnson untruth every day.

And for what? How can this possibly hurt Johnson or persuade voters? People do not care about Johnson’s lies, perhaps because Johnson himself does not. It’s the shamelessness that the media don’t know how to confront. Andrew Neil’s call on Johnson to be interviewed on the theme of trust was masterful, but ultimately of no effect. Johnson simply said no, and faced no consequences because he showed no shame.

We may be about to learn the hard way. A former ally of his said: “The British people are going to have the same experience with Boris that everyone who has known him have understood. They will feel hugely let down.” Johnson may leave Britain looking like the pain-stricken face of Jennifer Arcuri – incredulous, stunned, betrayed.

Except it won’t be like that. There’ll be nothing personal in it, no sense of tragedy, no communal sense of being ‘had’. Enough people, for whatever reason, just don’t seem to care about being lied to anymore. ‘That was just Boris,’ they’ll say. The truth will not be like a smack across the face, as Arcuri must have felt when her calls were declined and she was left to howl into the wind. It will be slower, less painful than that. Like a dull ache, constant, not overpowering. There will be no national sense of outrage when it turns out this emperor was in fact naked all the time, for, as Johnson’s former editor Max Hastings said: “We can scarcely strip the emperor’s new clothes from a man who has built a career, or at least a lurid love life, out of strutting without them.” Johnson has been nakedly himself for his whole career. While his commitment to ideas, to policies, to people has wavered erratically, his commitment to himself has pertained authentically.

So the feeling won’t be shock, it won’t even be pain. Those who voted for Johnson know, at some level, what they have signed up for. He has been telling us who he is all along. The feeling will be more of having our tails forever between our legs, a sense of shame and embarrassment, as if we must apologise for what we let happen – a sense, at the root of all, that now we are no longer ruled by a serious person, it may be a while before we can once more call ourselves a serious country.