The Politics of Lying: Implications for Democracy

By Lionel Cliffe; Maureen Ramsay et al. | Go to book overview

5
Explanations: Secrecy and Deception in the British Political Context

Lionel Cliffe

There is no shortage of suggestions about what particularities of the British political system might amplify those more general tendencies towards deception and secrecy rooted in the nature of power or of 'elite democracy' that were considered earlier. Some of these special characteristics that are offered to explain how government manages to promote and get away with dissimulation will be reviewed, then an attempt will be made to identify those imperatives that might explain why there has been this tendency in British official politics. A review of some of the more significant cases will help to explain how those patterns have been changing. This account will also provide a backdrop to the most recent and notorious cases explored in the case-study chapters, which have combined to give an impression that deceit is an endemic aspect of contemporary British politics. This perception has also become widespread among the general public, so that in the 1990s the UK was experiencing what the US had gone through in the 1970s — a credibility gap which was in turn generating apathy and the beginnings of a crisis of legitimacy. For instance, a 1993 survey reported that 77 percent of those asked the question: 'does the government tell the truth?' answered 'no', and 60 percent admitted that they did 'not trust the government' ( Observer, 19 December 1993).


Mechanisms of secrecy and deception

In explaining these recent trends towards public distrust it will be argued that the basis for government lying in Britain is less a product of particular developments in the last few decades than in the US, and owes more to long-standing features of 'a constitutional and political system which, traditionally, has been characterised by an adherence to

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