The jury is still out as to whether the British government has misled the nation about the true reasons for waging war in Iraq. But suspicions have hardly been allayed by the unedifying spectacle of the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues, elected and unelected, reluctantly apologising for the misinformation within the so-called "dodgy dossier" distributed prior to the outbreak of hostilities.
Such reticence to own up to any form of manipulation, mendaciousness or mere mistakenness makes many people uneasy. But it is particularly disturbing to those, like me, who view events from a Buddhist perspective, for it appears indicative of a wider climate of arrogance that haunts many aspects of political life, both foreign and British.
Within the Buddhist tradition, the assumption of arrogance or conceit is regarded as a "madness" or "lunacy" that inevitably leads to further foolish behaviour. Deception, whether on an individual or governmental level, tends to prompt the deceivers to attempt to cover their tracks by further deceit or dissimulation. There is thus both a recklessness and shamelessness observable in individual and collective behaviour. In political life, such behaviour has been demonstrated on a large number of occasions to be not only foolish but downright self- destructive. The spectres of disgraced politicians such as Jonathan Aitken, Neil Hamilton and Jeffrey Archer still haunt the Conservative Party, and the perceived mendaciousness of the government of John Major was widely seen as a factor in its final fall from power. It seems to many that today Tony Blair's government is making a similar mistake in believing that it is impervious to the censure that is being levelled at it - for its instinct seems to be to cover up its errors of judgement by deceit and "spin", and by a blatant and shameless attempt to deflect criticism away from the Government by attacking the BBC.
Moreover, such arrogance is, to Buddhists, attendant upon perceiving oneself to be always right in one's over-evaluated ideas. This trait is readily observable in the incapacity of those in public office to confess even to errors of judgement, let alone to actual deceit. But it does more than that, for when we do this we fail to listen to those who hold different views and are constantly confirmed in the correctness our own view. The result is a severe failure of humility. This is true of all of us, but it is perhaps most easily visible in those in public life.
No one, of course, is suggesting that it is easy to be in government or to hold public office. However, much of the cynicism that infects the public's view of politics and political life is generated by the perception that the arrogance and conceit of our politicians appears to be institutionally endemic. The current row about the reasons for going to war, and other factors, are part of a wider disenchantment of the public with the quality of our politicians and political debate. Unless there is an attempt to address this disillusionment, things will gradually get worse.
The Buddhist tradition offers a particular insight which could help arrest this deterioration. Perhaps the first thing which is required is a lessening of the rampant egotism that appears to dominate those in power. Egotism and conceit are aspects of an individual's personality that, from the Buddhist viewpoint, need to be eradicated, so that truthfulness, honesty, and more wholesome forms of behaviour can emerge. If this is necessary for the individual, it is even more necessary for those in positions of power. In the field of politics this lessening of conceit would require an actual "listening" to voices that are both within, and also outside, the party political system. Such listening is noticeable by its absence at present. It is something that is not happening with regard to many crucial public issues, but which was most clear in the approach to the Iraq conflict, where an enormous proportion of the populace was opposed to war.
In addition, there also has to be a readiness to own up to errors of policy and judgement, together with the humility to admit to fallibility. Admittance of fallibility, far from diminishing the credibility of those in power, would be likely to lead to a strengthening of trust, and a lessening of the cynicism which at present is rampant. The admittance of error would, in addition, be indicative of an honesty and openness with the public. It would replace the present political dispensation - which is dominated by point-scoring and the diminishing of views other than one's own - with one in which the pursuit of what is right is perceived as a common enterprise rather than, at best, a parallel aim with the business of clinging to power at all costs. That this may sound naïve to many in the political world is a measure of how deep the contemporary malaise now is - and how radical a change is needed to rescue our political culture from it.
John Peacock is Director of Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary EnquiryReuse content