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21 November 2010

Why politicians can’t tell the truth

As Lord Young’s case shows – we don’t want them to.

By Sholto Byrnes

Here’s a Tale of Two Tories. Both make statements of what they regard as the truth, however unpalatable. One is effectively sacked by a prime minister who lets it be known that he is furious with his erstwhile adviser. The other, however, gets quite the opposite treatment – he is rewarded with a peerage. Puzzling?

Well, in the first instance we have Lord Young of Graffham, who has quit as David Cameron’s Enterprise adviser after declaring that we’ve “never had it so good” and that this “so-called recession” has left most of us better off. So he’s had to go, despite the fact that plenty of commentators, from the former CBI Director-General Digby Jones, to the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Mark Littlewood, as well as my colleague George Eaton, have pointed out that in many ways he was right. Not only that, Young’s forte has always been in plain-talking and plain-dealing. As Margaret Thatcher said of the man she made her Trade and Industry Secretary: “Other ministers bring me problems. David Young brings me solutions.” Why appoint such a man if you don’t expect him to speak his mind?

The second case concerns Howard Flight, who suffered grievously when Michael Howard was Tory leader for letting on that his party probably planned greater cuts than were being made public if they won the 2005 general election. Flight, then deputy chairman of the Tory party and a former shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, was not only sacked from the front bench, but banned from standing as a Conservative candidate. Flight’s predicament did not attract an enormous amount of sympathy: he was given to wearing City-style pinstripes and was prone to perspiration on television, his demeanour and accent suggesting he’d just finished a particularly good lunch at Wilton’s. But it was a very harsh punishment. The political career of a man who had dreamed of being chancellor was ended, and brutally. The fact that he has just been made a peer suggests that Tory high command now admits what John Reid and Alan Milburn said at the time was right: “Howard Flight was sacked for telling the truth.” On this pattern, can Lord Young look forward to rehabilitation – he’s already a peer, so perhaps a viscountcy might not be out of the question – in five years time?

We are constantly told that the public wants greater honesty from politicians. A survey last year showed only 13 per cent of the population trust our tribunes of the people to tell the truth – the lowest in Ipsos/ MORI’s 26 years of asking the question. But when they do tell the truth, how do we react?

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In 1994, the then minister for Open Government, William Waldegrave, told a select committee that in “exceptional circumstances it is necessary to say something that is untrue to the House of Commons”. Uproar ensued. Entirely hypocritical uproar, that is. As my late colleague Miles Kington put it: “People in Parliament were shocked, yes – but not by what he said. They were shocked by the fact that he came out and said it. They were shocked by the fact that William Waldegrave had told the truth.”

Sometimes we are indulgent. When it was reported that Ken Clarke had not bothered to read all of the Maastricht Treaty as a senior minister in John Major’s government, most of us sympathised. Who would want to? Even though as one of the most contentious pieces of legislation during that Tory administration, and the one whose divisive nature made the party unelectable for over a decade, its minutiae were arguably at least quite important.

But most of the time politicians who tell the truth as they see it, who are candid – and we do tend to think of candour as an indispensable attribute of the truth – are dismissed as liabilities or loonies. When John Biffen told Weekend World in 1986: “No one seriously supposes that the prime minister would be prime minister throughout the entire period of the next Parliament,” he was branded a “semi-detached” member of the cabinet by Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, and was sacked when she went on to the win the following year’s general election. (He was right, though.)

Tony Benn may be thought of as brave, principled and committed to the truth now, but for a long time “Wedgie” was considered quite frankly bonkers. As the Telegraph put it in 2007: “He will not thank us for reminding him, but Tony Benn’s most important contribution to British politics was to help make the then looney Labour Party unelectable for a generation. His hard-Left demagoguery – so richly comic from the son of viscount who as a minister had given us nuclear power stations and Concorde – propelled his long-suffering party to the outer political margins.”

What has the voting public got to do with all of this? In Lord Young’s case, whether what he said was true or not is not the issue. What matters is how it appears, how it makes the government look, how it goes down in the focus groups. How shallow of politicians to pander to such base and uninformed populism, we may say. But it works. In fact, if you were the leader of a political party who wished to win power, it appears you would be a fool to tell the truth or to refrain from lying to the public. For whatever we may say about hankering after I-cannot-tell-a-lie politicians, we continually prefer to vote for those who tell us what we want to hear instead.

Let me quote to you from William Rees-Mogg’s review of Peter Oborne’s book, The Rise of Political Lying. Oborne, he wrote in April 2005:

[S]ees the Blair government as inherently dishonest in its strategies and schemes, in its chief aides and in many particular instances…. Particular events, such as the dodgy Iraq dossiers, have been glossed over. There has been a complete lack of candour in the internal management of the Labour party and, particularly, in its external public relations.

Has Tony Blair claimed to be exceptionally straight? Yes. Has he used deception as a basic strategy of power?… Surely so. Peter Oborne’s case… is, surely, an important one, as Britain seems to be about to re-elect the Prime Minister. Perhaps the British voter does not care?

Evidently, the British voters – or sufficient numbers of them – did not, just as they had not in 2001, by which point the mendacious nature of the Blair government had already been thoroughly exposed. Honesty is clearly not the best policy. If electioneering in this country has become a nationwide version of the children’s card game “Cheat”, the first reaction may be to blame the media. But it is not the media that decides elections. If the public really wants more honest, trustworthy, truthful and candid politicians, I have a suggestion: why doesn’t it start voting for them?