We CAN handle the truth: we need it
Modern politics is stereotyped as dominated by spin and misdirection and increasingly plain untruths, but we need our politicians to be honest, and they do too
This is not a partisan article. I say that because people will, if they can be energised, leap in with direct attacks on specific politicians, from left and right, and it will descend before anyone can stop it into “he said, she said”, and the exquisitely detailed dissection of individual statements, commentary on what was not said and a great cloak of party political advantage, and all of that is fine, insofar as it goes, but it will not get us any further forward. So please don’t.
I realise, of course, that I write this in the week in which the former prime minister, Boris Johnson, is due to appear before the House of Commons Committee of Privileges to answer questions about his truthfulness and transparency over questions surrounding the enforcement of Covid-19 pandemic lockdown regulations, particularly relating to what has, with leaden predictability, become known in shorthand as “Partygate”.
(Another time I will rant full about the use of the suffix “-gate” to denote a political scandal. It has been going on for a long time, at least since September 1974 when New York Times columnist William Safire referred to “Vietgate”, and all I will say here is, well, the Watergate scandal wasn’t about water. It is tedious but simple, and that’s why it appeals to time-poor and imagination-poor journalists. Safire began his career in public relations. Go figure.)
Johnson’s appearance is being billed like some extravaganza in the boxing calendar. The committee has already issued an interim report setting out some preliminary conclusions and framing the questions it will seek to put to the former premier. It is unusual for the Privileges Committee to take evidence like this in public, we are told that the session could last as long as five hours (I feel for the committee staff) and the appetite has been sharpened by suggestions in the last few days that Johnson will release a “compelling dossier” which will exonerate him of the charge of having deliberately misled the House of Commons.
(A note in passing: it appears to be the Johnson camp which is unobtrusively introducing the word “deliberately” into the conversation, which perhaps indicates his potential strategy, but the motion of the House which referred the matter to the Privileges Committee does not, in fact, refer to a charge of having “deliberately” misled the House; rather it talks of “assertions… made on the floor of the House” which “appear to amount to misleading the House”. This is a small but significant difference, and substantially lowers the hypothetical bar for the committee to conclude that Johnson was indeed guilty of falsehoods.)
There will be time for expansive coverage of the committee evidence session on Wednesday and thereafter, and I dare say I will make some myself, but I don’t want to start the argument two days early. At this stage I want to talk about the more general principle of truthfulness and transparency, which Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, described in the House as “the simple principle that honesty, integrity and telling the truth matter in our politics”. I agree with him wholeheartedly on this general point, without necessarily directing it at anyone in particular at this stage, and I think it is worth saying a little about why it is important.
Let us put to bed a few myths. There never was a golden age in which politicians were scrupulously honest. They have always been as guilty as any collection of people, perhaps more so, of moulding, distorting or outright misrepresenting the truth, and I don’t need to explain why that should be. Some recent commentary has identified the Trojan Horse in Homer’s Iliad as the first “great political lie”, which I suppose is true enough, but hardly helpful, relevant or especially enlightening.
(Another sidebar: the “Trojan” horse was of course no such thing, assuming that it existed at all. As Bernard Woolley, his principal private secretary, told Jim Hacker, the minister for Administrative Affairs in Yes, Minister (series 3, episode 5, “The Bed of Nails”, 1982):
If you had looked a Trojan horse in the mouth, Minister, you’d have found Greeks inside. Well the point is, it was the Greeks who gave the Trojan horse to the Trojans, so technically, it wasn’t a Trojan horse at all, it was a Greek horse. Hence the tag “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes”, which you’ll recall, is usually and somewhat inaccurately translated as “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. Or doubtless you would have recalled had you not attended the LSE.
I digress, but I hope not utterly unforgiveably. I feel Johnson would appreciate the clarification as a Balliol classicist, with an upper-second class degree.)
We have always worried, with good reason, that our political masters are not by inclination trustworthy. In 1622, pamphleteer and currency guru Gerard de Malynes fretted publicly to Parliament’s Standing Commission on Trade that international commerce and the emergence of the mercantile class was causing the depletion of England’s bullion. In 1710, the extraordinary Anglo-Irish satirist and divine Jonathan Swift wrote an article in The Examiner under the headline “The Art of Political Lying”, in which he said that a political lie:
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.
Anyone who has seen the first episode of Blackadder the Third, “Dish and Dishonesty”, knows all too well what a hive of corruption and jobbery the electoral system in Britain was before the so-called “Great Reform Act”, the Representation of the People Act 1832, which expanded the franchise, swept away rotten boroughs and gave large industrial cities their own voices in the House of Commons for the first time. (It is worth watching, if only for the riotously deadpan performance of the late, great Belfast-born political correspondent Vincent Hanna as “his own great-great-great-grandfather”.)
Certainly, Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States, clearly and categorically lied when he told reporters in 1972 that his counsel, John Dean, had conducted a thorough investigation into White House responsibility for the break-in at the Democratic National Convention’s premises at the Watergate Office Building in Washington DC (Dean had done no such thing), and that it had been demonstrated that no-one in the White House had been involved in the break-in (again untrue, though one can argue ad infinitum whether Nixon himself was specifically aware of the operation before it was carried out). Nixon, a fragile, suspicious, unscrupulous but in some ways brilliant man, compounded the problem, and his blackened reputation, when he announced to journalists the following year “people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” That was the line his detractors needed, and he gave it to them gift-wrapped.
It is no prerogative of the right to tell lies. Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States, another brilliant man but with a binfire of a personality, looked the American people metaphorically in the eye and lied to save his political career when he announced “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” in 1998, at the height of the scandal which began with his improper relationship with a young White House intern. He later attempted to shore up his improbable lie by claiming that fellatio (which he had received from Miss Lewinsky in the Oval Office) did not constitute “sexual relations”, a defence received with as much incredulity and ridicule as it deserved. In my 45 years on this planet, I have never met a couple either half of which would have, if you will forgive me, swallowed that line.
In the United Kingdom, of course, our “classic” political lie was in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (which began, as it happens, 20 years ago today). On 3 February 2003, Tony Blair, then prime minister, issued to journalists a memorandum entitled Iraq—Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation, which essentially set out the legal, political and moral case for military action against Iraq. It buttressed a report issued in September 2002, Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government. Between them, they contained assertions which were unsupportable, such as that Iraq had actively sought to procure uranium from Niger and that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed within 45 minutes of an order to use them, as well as extensive plagiarism and an inflation of the degree of reliability of various pieces of intelligence assessed and provided by the Joint Intelligence Committee. The legacy of the two documents was the phrase attached to the September dossier that it had been “sexed up”, and the dubbing of the February document as the “Dodgy Dossier”. Another legacy, I suppose, was the not entirely deserved destruction of Tony Blair’s overall political reputation; but I have written about that before and will no doubt return to it.
Although the golden age of political probity is a myth, it is true, maestum dictu, that things are reaching a nadir. The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016 and the appointment of Boris Johnson as prime minister of the United Kingdom in 2019 brought to the most senior offices two men who were unusually unimpressed by the concept of truth. Trump is obviously the worse, and more psychologically damaged and extreme, capable of trumpeting floridly obvious and wild lies, including the jaw-dropping but simple assertion that the rain “just never came” during his January 2017 inauguration: in fact, it began to rain as he began speaking.
But Johnson too, setting aside the matters being examined by the Committee of Privileges, has always viewed the truth as a transactional and functional matter, to be used when necessary but entirely disposable if it suits better. He had been sacked from The Times as long ago as 1988 for making up quotation attributed to his godfather, the eminent historian Professor Sir Colin Lucas, to support an article he was writing about Edward II and his lover, Piers Gaveston. But his habits never changed. In 2017, as foreign secretary, he told the House of Commons that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-born British citizen imprisoned by the Islamic Republic on charges of espionage, had been “teaching people journalism” in Iran; in fact she had been in holiday, and the lie considerably complicated negotiations over her release. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was not freed until a year ago.
The simple fact is that our political system, and perhaps any political system, depends on a basic presumption of honesty on the part of political leaders. Last year I penned a heartfelt article on the necessity of trust in the way we do politics, and trust, of course, cannot be established without truthfulness and good faith. Of course we have systems and institutions designed to encourage, if not actually enforce, truth-telling, not least the Committee on Standards in Public Life, an independent advisory non-departmental body which was created by John Major in 1994 to try to cleanse the tide of “sleaze” which was threatening to engulf his administration. The House of Commons has not only the Committee of Privileges but also the Committee on Standards which deals with probity and honesty in general terms. That committee also examines matters referred to it by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, currently the wonderful, eccentric and piercingly brilliant Daniel Greenberg, who polices the House of Commons Code of Conduct. There is another set of regulations applying specifically to ministers, the Ministerial Code, which is managed by the Cabinet Office and overseen by the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, currently Sir Laurie Magnus, a distinguished financier and quangocrat.
This slightly tangled skein of regulations, rules and guidelines is not perfect. It is unsatisfactory, but perhaps inevitable, for example, that the ultimate arbiter of the Ministerial Code is the prime minister himself, which means that political considerations will always intrude into his quasi-judicial function. In November 2020, a Cabinet Office inquiry determined that the home secretary, Priti Patel, often charming and kind in person but sometimes rather low-wattage and with a track record of brushing aside regulations, had breached the code in her treatment of the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam. He had resigned earlier that year alleging a briefing campaign against him orchestrated by Patel, who was also charged with bullying civil servants in several government departments. Johnson rejected the inquiry’s findings and asserted that he had “full confidence” in the home secretary, causing his then-independent adviser, Sir Alex Allan, to resign in protest. One felt for Sir Alex: he is no wallflower, had been a permanent secretary, high commissioner to Australia and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee who had once windsurfed to work along the Thames in a suit and bowler hat during a train strike. But his position as adviser was utterly pointless if the prime minister had no regard for his advice.
Nevertheless, we have rules in place, and Johnson’s forthcoming cross-examination by Dame Harriet Harman KC and the Privileges Committee demonstrates that dishonest actions have at least some consequences. So too does the fact that Johnson is no longer in office. There have been suggestions from all sorts of panjandrums and eminent think tanks that the constitution, uncodified as it is (though not unwritten, as is often asserted), is under strain; the logical conclusion for many is that we need a formal, codified constitution which, it seems, will be a magic wand. I am not so sure. The United States has a codified constitution, as does the French Republic, and one could hardly say that either polity is free from deceit, corruption or graft. The doyen of Whitehall observers, Professor Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, whom I adore, many years ago developed the “good chaps” theory of government, which says, in brief, that our constitutional arrangements and norms depend—too much, is the strong implication—on a system populated by good chaps (which category absolutely can and does include women). That is, it relies on honest people acting honestly, because there are inadequate formal safeguards against those who are not honest and upstanding.
I am not so sure. It genuinely grieves me to disagree with Peter Hennessy, the loveliest of men as well as the greatest expert on the UK’s “hidden wiring”, but I think I take two positions which dissent from his: firstly, that the safeguards against “bad chaps” are relatively robust and resilient; and secondly, that there is no magic bullet, no piece of constitutional drafting, however elegant, comprehensive and pellucid, which would do away with the reliance on good chaps. There will always be bad actors, people who will seek to evade and subvert the rules, any rules, which we impose to mandate good behaviour. In other areas we tacitly accept this: testimony in a court of law is taken under oath or affirmation, essentially the idea that people promise to be good. But bad people will obviously be willing to make that promise insincerely, and will do so without the blink of an eye. Of course, there are laws to punish false testimony, but there are also rules to punish dishonesty in politicians. Boris Johnson is living proof of that. He is no longer the occupant of Downing Street, despite widely accepted reports not even two years ago that he had ambitions to outdo Lady Thatcher’s 11 years as prime minister (how distant that scenario seems now!); and he is being brought before one of the most senior committees of Parliament this week to answer accusations of lying which could lead to a recommendation that he be suspended as a Member of Parliament.
A suspension of 10 sitting days (or 14 calendar days) or more would, under the provisions of the Recall of MPs Act 2015, trigger a recall petition in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and, if 10 per cent of the electorate in that division vote over a six-week period to “recall” Johnson, then there will be a by-election. Only an eternal optimist would imagine that, under those circumstances, Johnson would be re-elected. There have been three recall petitions under the provisions of the 2015 Act, of which two, in Peterborough and Brecon and Radnorshire, met the 10 per cent threshold, triggered an election and resulted in the departure of the previous Member (and in one case the seat changed party allegiance). So it is very far from impossible to construct a sequence of events starting on Wednesday while ends in Boris Johnson effectively being expelled from the House of Commons for lying.
Cynics will say that of course any recommendation of sanction by the Privileges Committee must be agreed to by the whole House, which has a Conservative majority of nearly 80. Well, yes, of course. But the decision would be taken on partisan lines! Again, yes, of course. It cannot be right, if one thinks the chain of logic through, that we have some independent body, or even a committee of MPs, overturning the electoral judgement of the voters. We may complain, with reason, that people vote blindly for party, not candidate, and that Members vote blindly according to the direction of their whips, not according to their own judgement or conscience. Again true, but these are the people we elected. We are the electorate. It is not some ignorant, careless, grubby mob which makes poor decisions, and of which we are independent and separate. We are voters, we make our mark every five years or so, and, under the terms of our electoral system, we live with the consequences of our actions.
(Some people may seek to bring in electoral reform here: it is a valid belief that we should change the voting system, although we rejected the opportunity to do so not much more than a decade ago, but, firstly, I am by no means convinced that proportional representation is a panacea any more than a codified constitution, and, secondly, if we start debating the electoral system at this juncture, this will become an entirely different argument.)
The system which provides for and encourages honest, fair politicians is imperfect, and in part that is because we are imperfect. It will always be devised, operated and policed by human beings. There is no surefire way to eliminate error or bias, and to some extent we have to be grown up and accept that fact.
To another extent, however, we have to face the fact that we are all in this together. We cannot tweak the rules which govern penalties for telling falsehoods in formal circumstances, and hope that this will change the nature of our political culture and the society from which it draws its character and strength. In turn, this requires us all to take some responsibility rather than to see ourselves as passive, detached observers of events in a kind of bearpit: we do not stand behind glass, protected but separate, absent agency. And yet think how we talk about politics: we talk about “politicians” being dishonest, we talk about “party members” being out of touch, of “voters” choosing rigidly on party lines at elections, of “the public” consuming media which oversimplifies issues and uncritically repeats spin and propaganda. But these are not discrete, isolated groups, their roles fixed and their actions inevitable. We are all of them and we do those things, and we do them because we choose to, or because we are too lazy to choose not to, and if we want things to change we cannot simply shrug and say “That’s how it is”.
The left-wing firebrand, former mayor of London and Britain’s most famous newt-fancier, Ken Livingstone, has said many foolish things in a career which has veered between doctrinaire factionalism and progressive urban management. For me, his most insidiously destructive utterance was his choice of title for his 1987 memoir, If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Abolish It. It’s an adaptation of a long-standing aphorism sometimes attributed to Mark Twain or Lithuanian anarchist Emma Goldman (though neither can be proven to have said it), and it sums up the kind of clever-stupid attempt at cynical sophistication which has done so much damage to British politics. It represents a mindset which says that the utterer can see through the façade of ordinary events, can see that the electorate is in fact disenfranchised by a “system” which operates under the cover of democracy but in fact exercises enduring authority, and is wise and world-weary enough to realise that this makes taking politics seriously a naïvely futile activity. What it really does, of course, is provide a socially unanswerable motivation for intelligent but lazy and superficial people to abdicate any responsibility for the public weal. It elevates the difficult to the insoluble and the demanding to the impossible. Nothing will change, so there is no point in trying.
This is perhaps the closest I have to a cause. If we persist in this attitude, all we achieve is a certainty that there will be no change. While we look disdainfully at a political culture we think of as crude, coarse, vulgar and grubby, but continue to regard it as an eternal and immutable state of affairs, we condemn ourselves and each other to its maintenance. Comfortingly, corrosively and characteristically of the 21st century and of British intelligentsia, we shrug off any responsibility for the world in which we live and any duty to try to change it. We shore up a political culture of which the watchwords are “If only…” and “Wouldn’t it be nice…”
So what do we have to do? Take some responsibility. It’s not a matter of expecting people to rush out and change the world. But we are all presented with tiny choices every day, and the way we respond to each of them has a cumulative effect. I don’t pretend to offer a comprehensive manifesto—though I might work up to one in the next weeks—and everyone will have different ways to exert small influences over our shared future. But do something to contribute, to make your voice heard, your opinion known. Make some tiny push to change the direction of the proverbial oil tanker.
If your MP is having a public meeting, go along and tell him or her about an issue that affects or bothers you. If you disagree with something in the media, say something; write to your local newspaper or to the national papers, email the BBC, leave a comment on the relevant website. Write to your MP, if it’s about an issue for which he or she is responsible (but don’t treat them as proxies for councillors or social workers). Become a governor of your local school. Join a patient panel at a hospital or practice. Stop and read those planning applications tied to lampposts and road signs. These are all small things, and yes, I know, people may not have the time, or may feel daunted or inadequate or that’s it’s pointless, but these tiny instances of engagement become an accretion of activism.
I don’t subscribe to the V for Vendetta-themed cries of “Governments should be afraid of their people”, and watching that film—I enjoyed it and there are fine and fun performances but it’s flawed and occasionally self-important—and using it as the foundations of a personality is a poor substitute for much less sneering, cold, hard-edged citizenship. I don’t believe governments are or should be afraid of their people any more than I believe that politicians are inherently cynical or self-seeking or base: the politicians I have met and worked alongside, who probably extend into four figures in more than a decade in the Commons were and are generally well-meaning, as we all are, and more of them are held back simply by being ineffectual than by being ill-intentioned. But if there are bad actors in a government, if there are leaders who don’t have our best interests at heart and are motivated by greed and corruption and vanity and cupidity, then the electorate which will serve them best is one characterised by apathy. The shrugging voter is the tyrant’s best friend.
If we are to have a prosperous and caring society, one that does well and values freedom but also respects our mutual bonds of duty and care, we need to have a political class which is honest and transparent. We need instinctively honest men and women, working in an ecosystem which supports and reinforces honesty, even rewards it, they need to work with an administrative stratum which is honest and we, as voters, as taxpayers, as active, aware, engaged and mutually supportive citizens, must be honest, must value honesty, must expect it but must also understand what it means when it is turned on us. We have to accept responsibility for what we do and what we omit doing, and we must see the consequences of our actions. If newspapers thrive on cheap and sordid content, it is because we want it and we buy it; if politicians find audiences cynical and sour and suspicious, it is in part because those are the characteristics which we reflect.
I quote American presidents less often than some, because they exist in a different context and they are a mixed bunch and they are sometimes peddlars of cheap sentiment. But I do admire Theodore Roosevelt, who had the bouquet of faults that any successful politician possesses but was powered by a fierce earnestness. He was what Marcus Cunliffe called “a big man in several respects” and believed in throwing oneself wholeheartedly into the business of life. His view of how we should behave is not a bad summation on which to conclude, as expressed to an audience in New York in 1902.
The first requisite of a good citizen in this Republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his own weight; that he shall not be a mere passenger, but shall do his share in the work that each generation of us finds ready to hand; and, furthermore, that in doing his work he shall show, not only the capacity for sturdy self-help, but also self-respecting regard for the rights of others.
It would be a fine legacy, and if we do all of these things with honesty and transparency at the forefront of our minds, so then things will change: our leaders will change, their behaviour will change, the outcomes will change and our society will change. Honestly.