Matt Hancock symbolises the slippery slope from bullshit to lies, down which it has become acceptable for our politicians to slide, observes Andy Cowper

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.

“For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose”.

~ Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

There is an important difference between the bullshitter and the liar, as Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University noted in his seminal essay On Bullshit.

Mr Frankfurt observes how the liar acknowledges the existence of truth, and defines her or his output of lying in contravention of it. Liars disrespect the truth, but the starting point for their lie is that the truth exists: their lies simply abuse and oppose it.

For Mr Frankfurt, the “essence of bullshit” is “this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are”. The bullshitter’s only interest is in a certain plausibility: they do not care about the truth.

Bullshit is the gateway drug for lies.

The relevance of lies and bullshit to the appalling and depressing state of our politics needs little explanation. It no longer seems to be viewed as shameful or career-ending for a politician to blatantly lie. This creates a very big problem: the consensus about what is real and true breaks down, and we fall into the War On Reality in which we are now lost.

Secretary Of State For The Time Being, ’Appless Matt ’Ancock didn’t himself break politics: he just symbolises neatly the slippery slope from bullshit to lies, down which it has become acceptable for our politicians to slide.

“Mission-critical”

The particular prompt for these thoughts on the relationship between politics, bullshitting and lying was Mr ’Ancock’s speech this week to the chief nursing officer’s conference.

’Ancock’s first offence, in his opening lines, was more minor: use of onanistic management-speak in describing nursing “mission-critical to culture change in the NHS”.

(I almost feel as if I should be slightly flattered by the talk of NHS culture change. I have been banging on about problems with NHS culture for some years, with my much-aired opinion that the NHS needs a chief anthropologist far more than it needs any chief inspector.)

We covered language in last week’s seminar, so I probably don’t need to say much more than that using the phrase “mission-critical” won’t make anyone feel more thrusting and dynamic and a bit like they’re working at NASA. It’ll just make people think that The Appman probably fancies a future in management consultancy.

Standing up for Hancock’s bullshit

No, the key section of the speech was as follows: “Hierarchy can be a hindrance to improvement. I find it shocking that, in my grandmother’s day, nurses were expected to stand up when a doctor entered the room.

“And worse, I find that’s still the case in some antiquated, archaic corners of the NHS. I want it to stop. If anything, it should be doctors standing up for nurses.

“Because who runs a hospital at 2am in the morning? Who keeps the show on the road?”

The minor point to address about ’Ancock’s pseudo-populist inanity is that the entire bloody team is running the hospital at 2am. The porter, cleaner, facilities and estates, chaplain, manager, security – oh yes, and the doctors and nurses. They are ALL running the hospital at 2am. It is ridiculous to talk about hierarchy impeding improvement – which may or may not be a problem – and then pretend that there is another, more “real” hierarchy where nurses are the alpha group.

But the grosser stupidity – the bullshit – is his line about NHS nurses still having to stand up when doctors enter a room.

This doesn’t happen in the NHS. Anywhere. At all.

This is arrant, unadulterated bullshit.

Does it matter?

Does it matter that the Health But Social Care Secretary is talking bullshit?

It does indeed. First, Mr ’Ancock may be very silly but he is not completely stupid: he has spotted that since there is absolutely zero government focus on or strategy for the NHS other than “leave it to Simon Stevens”, he is able to insert himself into NHS operational matters over digital in a way contrary to the spirit and letter of the 2012 Lansley legislation for which he always voted.

It also matters because our PC World loyalty-card-toting poor man’s Chris Grayling, ’Appless Matt ’Ancock, is a weathervane showing us the prevailing direction of the wind in our politics. His behaviour tells us what is tolerated from Cabinet ministers.

Either the health and social care secretary can be so full of respect and admiration for nurses that he wants to pay them the basic respect of telling them the truth, or he doesn’t actually give a monkey’s and as such, is quite happy to insult their intelligence and blatantly bullshit them, as he has done here.

It’s not hard to tell what’s happening.

I leave the last words here to the excellent Harry Frankfurt: “One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference.

“Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.”