‘If you are suggesting every MP who has never quite told the truth or even told a brazen lie [should quit Parliament], including cabinet ministers, including prime ministers, we would clear out the House of Commons very fast’, said Sir Malcolm Bruce, former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Bruce was defending the action of Alistair Carmichael, who before the General Election had authorised his special adviser to leak a memo about a private conversation in which Nicola Sturgeon, Leader of the Scottish National Party, was supposed to have said she would prefer David Cameron to remain as Prime Minister.
Carmichael now admits that the leak was untrue, and calls his decision to authorise it an ‘error of judgement’.
Bruce seems to be implying that Members of Parliament often lie. Questioned by Radio 4 about whether he believed this, he said ‘No, well, yes. Lots of people have told lies and you know perfectly well that to be true.’
At last! An honest MP who admits that MPs are dishonest!
And the rest of us collude with it. We know they mislead us, we despise them for it, but we still vote for them. We have just done it once again. Why?
It is as though there is an unspoken agreement between the governors and the governed. Regardless of political party, we let them deceive us as long as we think they are doing a good job – or at least, a better job than their rivals. Are we content with this? Can we have a democracy if the voters do not know what is going on?
The slippery slope
There are some situations where we accept deceit. At a time of war rulers are keen to misinform their enemies, and this means their own people have to be kept in the dark as well. Tragic though it is, most of us wouldn’t want to be governed by people committed to never telling a lie.
The idea of promoting the country’s interests, even at the expense of lying, easily gets extended to other situations. Conflict with other nations has become a permanent condition, pursued more often by economic than military means. ‘Defending the nation’s interests’ has, to our shame, become a catch-all justification of competition for economic advantage. So lying is okay there too.
Another failure is the way party politics has become so tribalistic. In the recent General Election both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition publicly insisted that the kind of coalition government common in Europe would be disastrous here, despite – or because of – the performance of the outgoing coalition. The parties distrust each other too much. So politicians convince themselves that acting in the interests of their party equates to acting in the interests of the country. Carmichael was one of many.
Whatever their previous ethical standards, those in power quickly adapt their beliefs to their interests. They become consequentialists. Instead of accepting that some things, such as unnecessary deception, are just plain wrong, they consider themselves competent to weigh up the pros and cons in each situation.
So the slippery slope ends up with elected politicians performing what would be described by most people as an immoral act, by traditional Christians as ‘sin’, and by the politicians concerned as a ‘mistake’ or an ‘error of judgement’.
What is wrong with this?
First, it undermines democracy. Our representative system of democracy is supposed to work by the voters choosing the candidates who will best represent them. This cannot work unless the voters are well informed. They must have easy access to the range of policies being proposed and the arguments for and against them. Carmichael’s piece of misinformation was not just one snippet in an otherwise well-informed debate. Most of the time we expect no better, as Bruce made clear by complaining that the Scottish National Party made such a fuss about it. Democracy, to work at all, needs an electorate that is well-informed, knows it is well-informed and is able to make sure it is well-informed.
Secondly, whether they like it or not our leaders function as role models. If it is acceptable for them to ignore the moral rules whenever it suits their interests, why do the rest of us need to obey them? Over time standards of truth-telling are bound to decline as more and more people perceive their role models to be unrepentant and persistent liars.
What is to be done?
I would like to see constitutional change. The UK Parliament has two houses, the Lords and the Commons. Over the last century the main question has been what to do about the Lords. Do we need them at all? To do what? How should they be chosen? My suggestion is that we need at least two houses, perhaps more, so that each of them can limit the power of the others. If one is to be given the right to mislead the public, another must be empowered to check the lies to make sure they are not just defences of the politicians concerned. They need to be in the interests of the common good. The same should be true of official secrets. The common good will then need defining, of course. The ‘checkers’ will need to be chosen in such a way as to ensure neutrality.
Nobody should have so much power that they can lie to us and get away with it – whether they lied in their personal interests, or the interests of their party, or thought they were doing it for the good of the country.