You Can Tell an Honest Politician: He Gets into a Tangled Web When He Practises to Deceive

By Parris, Matthew | The Spectator, March 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

You Can Tell an Honest Politician: He Gets into a Tangled Web When He Practises to Deceive


Parris, Matthew, The Spectator


During the trial of Clive Ponting 17 years ago, the accused whistle-blower's counsel put it to Michael Heseltine's private secretary, in the witness box, that it should be the rule that answers to parliamentary questions were not deliberately ambiguous.

`In highly charged political matters,' replied the high-flying civil servant, `one person's ambiguity may be another person's truth.' No doubt a titter (as Fleet Street cliche might couch it) ran round the court.

We do not know whether anyone dared to laugh when Pontius Pilate, responding to Jesus in the Roman judgment hall, asked, `What is truth?', but he, too, will have been greeted by the knowing with an inward smile. As was Sir Robert Armstrong in 1986: `Not a lie,' replied the head of the civil service when cross-examined in the supreme court in New South Wales. `It was being economical with the truth'; a reply that delighted the cynical the world over.

These were intelligent answers, easily denigrated by the dull-witted, but in themselves pretty examples of the very ambiguity they seek to defend. None goes so far as a yes or a no. None asserts a falsehood. None denies the truth. None takes the court a great deal further. All three men wanted to say that in public life things cannot always be as straightforward as true or false; but none of the three says so baldly. In defence of ambiguity, each is, ultimately, ambiguous. Pilate asks a question; Armstrong makes a distinction; Richard Mottram (for he it was in the witness box at the Ponting trial) offers nuances of definition.

Sir Richard is now a KCB and permanent secretary (as I write) in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It is he who has been drawn into the tangle over the removal of the head of communications, Martin Sixsmith, in Stephen Byers's department. We may smile - and Sir Richard weep - at the pass to which it has come when the younger private secretary's elegant `one person's ambiguity may be another person's truth' yields, 17 years later, to the older knight's (alleged) `We're all f*****. I'm f*****. You're f*****. The whole department's f*****. It's been the biggest cock-up ever, and we're all completely f* * * * *.'

`What is "f*****?" ' Pilate might have asked. `Not f* * * * *,' Armstrong might have told the Australian court, `more a matter of being extravagant with the asterisks.' But, as Sir Richard knows, one person's ruination may be another person's f***, and there's pleasure in this for some. There's pleasure, not least, for the opposition and the press.

For myself I cannot deny the thrill to a Tory of finding the news fun again. But nor can I deny a sneaking sympathy with the Pilates, Armstrongs and Mottrams of history. The vulgar have taken these men's utterances as contemptible examples of prevarication in public life, as proving some kind of moral defect in their authors. In the same way, when William Waldegrave suggested that ministers cannot always tell the truth, the stupider sort of commentator saw this as evidence of his mendacity - when of course it showed his truthfulness.

It is the honest who wriggle. The dishonest simply lie. Though there can sometimes be a self-interested reason for avoiding those assertions to which we may later be nailed, a politician's ducking, weaving and squirming to avoid the lie absolute often has a simpler explanation: he is, like the rest of us, brought up to view the total bare-faced fib with a kind of horror. It hurts our self-respect to tell complete whoppers. …

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