Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Corrosion of Trust

In the summer of 2000 I spent three weeks staying with friends  in Texas. While there I shared their excitement  as we crowded round the TV to watch  their fellow Texan, Lance Armstrong, win the Tour de France. It was his second win and this time he beat his two principal challengers, Ullrich and Pantani, who had both  been missing from the Tour he won the previous  year.  In winning against a full field  he established himself as unquestionably the most gifted Tour rider of his generation. 

The two challengers from 2000 were later  to suffer disgrace and tragedy.  Jan Ullrich was found guilty of blood doping, which he eventually admitted. All his results from 2005 onwards  were annulled. Marco Pantani faced persistent allegations of doping, sunk into depression and died in 2004 of acute cocaine poisoning.

In 2005 I was just a few metres from Armstrong as he sped by on stage 14 of the Tour, on his way to his seventh and final victory while achieving the fastest average pace in the Tour's history. At the side of the road my small holiday hire car was proudly draped with the saltire and the `lonestar'  flag of Texas, firmly adopted now as my `home'  US state.

My view of Armstrong in 2005.

Despite the persistent allegations, Armstrong's vigorous self-defence was persuasive and his victories seemed untainted. In 2001 he published "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life".  I read it and was convinced.  The cancer that brought him close to death, he argued, had conferred such a strong moral sense that the idea of cheating his way to fraudulent  glory was simply unthinkable. Like many others, I bought the line. If this turned out to be a lie, could I ever believe anyone again?

Now we know that Armstrong was a long-term cheat, possibly from as early as 1995, and a ringleader in the doping culture that permeated cycling in the early 2000s.  In a judgement from one of the many legal actions against him, his behaviour was described as "almost certainly the most devious sustained deception ever perpetrated in world sporting history". It was painful to accept that I had naively underestimated the depth of deceit of which a ruthlessly ambitious man was capable.

In the spring of 2003 Pantani was still alive, Ullrich and Armstrong were preparing for another titanic battle in the Tour - Ullrich would finish second to Armstrong for the third time. And Tony Blair was about to make the biggest decision of his political career, or - perhaps more accurately as it turns out - he was seeking approval from the House of Commons for a decision he had already made, in cahoots with US President George  W. Bush, whom he had pledged to support "whatever".   

Blair was fond of saying, "I think I'm a pretty straight kind of guy."  And, yes, I bought that line too.  So when he told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which he could train on the UK, to arrive in 40 minutes, I was inclined to believe him. I was sceptical, yes, but in the end my judgement  - on balance - was that he was trustworthy. Had I been an M.P. I would have voted - albeit with a heavy heart - to invade Iraq. 

But Blair turned out to be the Lance Armstrong of politics. Drugged by his own sense of infallibility and his lust to make history, he discounted the warnings, manipulated the intelligence, and nailed his colours to the mast of Dubya's cause.

Nobody died as a result of Lance Armstrong's lies. The same cannot be said for Tony Blair. Their programmes of deception are not on the same level.  And Armstrong has finally expressed contrition.  But Blair's `apology' : `I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever believe.' is an evasive and vacuous  mangling of the English language. He expresses more apology than we can ever believe? Too right, we can never believe it. Or him. Or perhaps any powerful politician.

Because I had believed they were pure, I was devastated by the deceptions of both men. I revised my understanding of human nature. I am wiser now, but much, much more cynical.
And now the next chapter is upon us. The corrosion of trust has become endemic. When no-one can be believed, all arguments have equal weight. The EU referendum could have been a vote to choose between evolution and creationism. It would probably have had the same lamentable result.