The Art of Political Lying by Jonathan Swift.

Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas (1710).  
The Art of Political Lying, an essay by Jonathan Swift, first appeared in 1710 in the Examiner (co-founded by Leigh Hunt, whose essay Getting up on Cold Mornings I read just a fortnight ago). Swift begins it in rather strong terms:
I am prevailed on, through the importunity of friends, to interrupt the scheme I had begun in my last paper, by an Essay upon the Art of Political Lying. We are told the devil is the father of lies, and was a liar from the beginning; so that, beyond contradiction, the invention is old: and, which is more, his first Essay of it was purely political, employed in undermining the authority of his prince, and seducing a third part of the subjects from their obedience: for which he was driven down from Heaven, where (as Milton expresses it) he had been viceroy of a great western province; and forced to exercise his talent in inferior regions among other fallen spirits, poor or deluded men, whom he still daily tempts to his own sin, and will ever do so, till he be chained in the bottomless pit.
  But although the devil be the father of lies, he seems, like other great inventors, to have lost much of his reputation, by the continual improvements that have been made upon him.
Larry the cat (Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office)
at the door of Number 10.
Who was the first political liar? Of course no one knows, so Swift limits his enquiry into very recent (the past twenty or so years) times in England. This was a time when there wasn't a Prime Minister as such, but a committee of the Lords of the Treasury, which was headed by the First Lord of the Treasury: this is why the Prime Minister is still also known as First Lord of the Treasury, and why the letterbox of 10 Downing Street has 'First Lord of the Treasury' engraved on it. The first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is generally agreed to be Robert Walpole (1721-42). Back to Swift, though: when this essay was published the reigning monarch was Queen Anne and the First Lord was Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin (a Tory), who incidentally passed the Acts of Union 1707 with Scotland, thus creating the Kingdom of Great Britain. In August that year John Poulett took over as First Lord, to be replaced in 1711 by Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, who started his political life as a Whig before defecting to the Tories (that year he was stabbed by Antoine de Guiscard but recovered). Why exactly Harley defected I don't know, but I do know at the time of The Art of Political Lying there was rather a lot going on. The Whigs, over the past few years, had become increasingly unpopular, the War of the Spanish Succession (1710-14) likewise saw a decline in support, the Great Northern War still raged, and Henry Sacheverell (an English High Church Anglican clergyman) had preached a now infamous sermon The Perils of False Brethren for which he was impeached. There was a riot in response. Meanwhile, Swift was attempting to persuade Lord Godolphin that the Irish ought to have a claim in what was known as the First-Fruits and Twentieths, or Queen Anne's Bounty (to boost the incomes of the poorer clergy of the Church of England). Swift found the Tories to be more sympathetic to his cause, and he became increasingly involved with the party, abandoning the Whigs, and becoming a mediator between the leader Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and the First Lord of the Treasury, Harley (this period of Swift's life was recorded in A Journal to Stella). Queen Anne, it's safe to say, was not a fan of Swift, and eventually he returned to Ireland (after the ascension of George I and the fall of the Tories), living in an exile of sorts "like a poisoned rat in a hole". There he was Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin (1713, a year before Anne's death, to his own death in 1745).

The point of all that is to say that Swift would certainly know a thing or two about political lying being as he was so heavily involved. To return to his essay: after that marvellous introduction he continues to remark upon the idea of fame:
The poets tell us, that after the giants were overthrown by the gods, the earth in revenge produced her last offspring which was Fame. And the fable is thus interpreted: that when tumults and seditions are quieted, rumours and false reports are plentifully spread through a nation. So that, by this account, lying is the last relief of a routed, earth-born, rebellious party in a state. But here the moderns have made great additions, applying this art to the gaining of power and preserving it, as well as revenging themselves after they have lost it; as the same instruments are made use of by animals to feed themselves when they are hungry, and to bite those that tread upon them.
Yet, he hastens to add, fame is something quite different from political lying:
A political lie is sometimes born out of a discarded statesman’s head, and thence delivered to be nursed and dandled by the rabble. Sometimes it is produced a monster, and licked into shape: at other times it comes into the world completely formed, and is spoiled in the licking. It is often born an infant in the regular way, and requires time to mature it; and often it sees the light in its full growth, but dwindles away by degrees. Sometimes it is of noble birth; and sometimes the spawn of a stock-jobber. Here it screams aloud at the opening of the womb; and there it is delivered with a whisper. I know a lie that now disturbs half the kingdom with its noise, which, although too proud and great at present to own its parents, I can remember its whisperhood. To conclude the nativity of this monster; when it comes into the world without a sting, it is still-born; and whenever it loses its sting, it dies.
By lying a politician can effectively do anything:
It can conquer kingdoms without fighting, and sometimes with the loss of a battle. It gives and resumes employments; can sink a mountain to a mole-hill, and raise a mole-hill to a mountain: hath presided for many years at committees of elections; can wash a blackmoor white; make a saint of an atheist, and a patriot of a profligate; can furnish foreign ministers with intelligence, and raise or let fall the credit of the nation. This goddess flies with a huge looking-glass in her hands, to dazzle the crowd, and make them see, according as she turns it, their ruin in their interest, and their interest in their ruin. In this glass you will behold your best friends, clad in coats powdered with fleurs de lis, and triple crowns; their girdles hung round with chains, and beads, and wooden shoes; and your worst enemies adorned with the ensigns of liberty, property, indulgence, moderation, and a cornucopia in their hands.
Lying, of course, leads to hypocrisy and necessitates a short memory, "swearing to both sides of a contradiction" every hour. The downside of political lying, for the liar that is, is fairly minimal:
Some people may think, that such an accomplishment as this can be of no great use to the owner, or his party, after it has been often practised, and is become notorious; but they are widely mistaken. Few lies carry the inventor’s mark, and the most prostitute enemy to truth may spread a thousand, without being known for the author: besides, as the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no further occasion for it.
Swift concludes the essay,
Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.
This is a must-read essay for these times. How often I thought of Brexit during this essay! Take the famous bus with its caption "We send the EU £350 million a week, let's fund our NHS instead. Vote Leave".

Boris Johnson in front of the bus.
Despite the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UK Statistics Authority condemning it, the Leave campaign stuck with it. They said that each year the amount 'sent' was around £17.8bn (£342 million a week), however taking into account rebates, the figure is more like £12.9bn, or £248m a week. The figures do not take into account what the EU 'sent' or rather spent on Britain. Taking into account all of that (there's a much better explanation here) the figure is closer to £136m a week. Yet there it was, the £350 million a week became 'a thing' and, to fund the NHS with the mythical figure 'gave and resumed employment' to use Swift's words, promised funding for a much-loved British institution. The Leavers won (for this and for other reasons, it should be added) and three days later one of the more prominant Leave Campaign figures, Iain Duncan Smith told Andrew Marr the £350m was "an extrapolation . . . never total". Then there was this famous exchange between Nigel Farage and Susanna Reid:

Falsehood did indeed fly, the truth came limping in: the NHS would not get it's £350m extra a week. It didn't matter: "the tale hath had its effect". We left. One of the may examples of political lying in Britain today: Swift's essay is still relevant.

And that was my 10th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - Night Walks by Charles Dickens.


  1. impressive post... nobody's in charge of the ship, that's clear; a juggernaut careening toward the millenium...

    i don't know if bleaching will work... maybe... but some places you can buy grout in little ropes that you just lay in and smooth: i've heard that works pretty well... some internet investigation might pay... good luck...

    1. "nobody's in charge of the ship" - no one sensible at least. It's quite scary.

      I'm sick to death of the grout. Sick to death of it. Bleaching worked a little but it's barely what I'd call adequate. Got something called 'grout refresher' today and it was a waste of money. This is day 3 of trying to sort the grout and I'm fed up with it. Plus using all that bleach.... I swear I was high before from it, rather unpleasant if truth be told. I have asthma so I think that ought to be my last shot at that sort of attempt. Anyway I'll do some googling. Can't find that grout rope unfortunately...

    2. bleach is not good to breathe; i sympathize with the grout thing; it's just one of those things that you do it for a while and it becomes easy; but few of us ever get the chance to spend time with it; maybe you could paint it... have you stripped out the old grout yet? i think i shouldn't have said anything... maybe take a break for a month or two; or just nail boards across the doorway and paint them instead...

    3. Well, I had a look this morning (with fresh eyes as it were) and it's not as bad as I'm making out. I stopped trying to get the old grout out a few days ago, there's so much of it and I couldn't manage it! A break is a good idea, and so is painting it. Could you just use matt emulsion or should I get special grout paint? It's for a bathroom, so probably matt emulsion is a bad idea... I'll get some special bathroom paint perhaps... :)

    4. i don't know about the paint; i asked the missus, who's an artist, and she didn't know either. i don't know how you'd feel about getting a bit of help, but someone who does that kind of thing on a regular basis might be able to fix it up for very little money... just a thought... i'd come over and do it, except it's a bit far for a winter bike ride... good luck, anyway...

    5. The situation took a rather different turn yesterday - we had to smash a load of tiles to fit a new bath. Now thinking about that plastic wall cladding - have you come across it? Main problem now is switching the water off to do all of this has led to a massive drop in water pressure. Now, if you have any ideas about that I'd be grateful! :)

  2. Just reading the title of the essay, I couldn't help thinking of the political climate here across the pond. *sigh*

    At least I learned a new word today from this post: "dandle" I love it!

    1. I was thinking of the US too, just didn't have the confidence to really apply Swift's essay to anything specific. Remarkable and depressing how relevant it still is, isn't it...


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