Leading Article: A tangled web of lies and politics

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the more peculiar of the many maladies from which politicians suffer is an inability to see how foolish it is to lie except when there are overwhelming reasons of national interest. Apart from the moral aspect, it usually gets them into more trouble than if they tell the truth.

The rail strike has provided yet another in a long series of examples. There is no doubt that the Government stepped in to force Railtrack to withdraw its offer of 5.7 per cent to the signalmen. It may well have been wrong to do so. The offer was a reasonable gesture towards restoring lost differentials to signalmen, who are anyway paid miserably for jobs on which lives depend. The principle of the pay rise had been accepted by other railwaymen, so there was little danger of sparking further demands.

However, there are two sides to the argument, and the Government could have made a strong case for its intervention. It had long made it clear that it regarded 2.5 per cent as the limit for public sector pay rises. Representing the taxpayer, and as owner of Railtrack, it could have openly declared its interest, even at the cost of undermining Railtrack's nominal independence.

Instead, it took refuge behind lies, evasions and squalid diversionary attacks on the Labour Party. Downing Street yesterday claimed not to have intervened in the negotiations. John MacGregor, the Transport Secretary, cornered on Radio 4 yesterday, pointlessly attacked the union's original demand. He denied there had ever been a 5.7 per cent offer, and that he had intervened in Monday's Railtrack board meeting. Eventually he grudgingly admitted he had reminded Railtrack of government pay policy. Altogether it has been a miserable performance by a government that has lost confidence in itself. Some of its denials may, if literally construed, fall short of actual lies, but they convey such a false impression that it makes no difference. They typify the inbred Westminster word games that relate to no other reality, convince no one outside, and contribute powerfully to public distrust of politicians.

Tory politicians should reflect harder on the recent poll which found that only 11 per cent of Conservative voters aged 18 to 54 think they are trustworthy. Labour politicians did better, but not well enough - politicians as a class were ranked close to car salesmen for trustworthiness. This is a serious matter in a democracy faced with some very large problems. Without a determined effort to salvage respect for truth, the malaise will deepen.