The shocking truth about William Waldegrave

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HERE ARE two statements. One of them is true. The other is a lie. Which one is which?

1. William Waldegrave has told a Commons select committee that, on occasions, Parliament is lied to. Not only does Parliament get lied to, he said, but Parliament knows this, and accepts this, because lying is seen to be a necessary part of the political process.

2. Everyone in Parliament is deeply shocked by what he has said.

I'll give you a clue. The first statement is true. William Waldegrave really did say that.

So that means the other one must be a lie?

Very good.

People in Parliament were shocked, yes - but not by what he said. They were shocked by the fact that he came out and said it.

They were shocked by the fact that William Waldegrave had told the truth.

I was a bit shocked myself, actually. The whole system of society in this country is based on the fact that nobody ever says what they really mean, or they say it as little as possible. This is most obvious to foreigners, who have often noticed when they arrive in Britain that there is some gap between what we say and what we think.

The usual example given is that of someone in Britain saying, 'We must keep in touch', or 'We must have lunch one day'. If the remark is aimed at a Briton, he knows perfectly well that there is an unspoken message along the lines of 'If I can't get out of it', or 'I'm saying this to seem nice but you are well aware how unlikely it is that we will actually have lunch, OK?'

The foreigner, however, unused to British double-think, may take this at face value. He may ring up a couple of days later and try to fix lunch. He may be in for a cold damp surprise, because he has made the mistake of believing what a Briton says.

After a while he gets the hang of it, but the odds are that he will never get to like it and he may even, when he goes home, spread the rumour that the British are hypocritical and two-faced and not to be trusted. If he is French, he will spread rumours about 'perfidious Albion'.

All this, of course, is water off a duck's back to us, because our system of masking the truth is so ingrained that we lie to ourselves about our system of telling untruths, and we really do believe that we are an honest and straightforward and credible race. And when foreigners say that we are hypocritical and two- faced, we really do not have the faintest idea what they are talking about.

Then when someone on our side gets up and says it, we feel even more baffled and furious.

When the minister for open government gets up and says it, our shock and horror knows few bounds.

And yet what William Waldegrave says is what we all know deep down to be true.

Do we not all say that politicians never tell the truth? Do we not all say that you can't believe anything a politician tells you? Is not public tolerance of politicians at an all-time low ebb, etc, etc? When two or three people are gathered together in the saloon bar of a pub, do they not shake their heads wisely and say: 'One side is as bad as the other - you can't trust either set of bastards . . .'?

I think that they do.

The other day Clive Ponting (he who was thrown out of the process of government for telling the truth) was reminding us that questions and answers in Parliament were all based on avoidance of the truth.

When he first started work as a civil servant framing answers to members' questions, he was ticked off for providing truth-

ful answers. He was told that his prime task was to conceal

the truth from Parliament.

I can't remember anyone being shocked or surprised by what he said.

I don't see why anyone should be surprised or shocked if William Waldegrave says it either.

The other day my son and I were playing with the boy from next door and the boy next door said something which was obviously quite untrue, so I queried it, and he laughed and said he had had his fingers crossed behind his back, so it didn't matter, and my son laughed, and I laughed, and we all laughed, because that's the way we grow up in Britain until we all learn the art of doing it without our fingers crossed and then we are ready to go into Parliament if that is what we want to do, but God help us if we go into Parliament and become minister for open government and start telling the truth.

(Tomorrow: William Waldegrave in 'I-had-my-fingers-crossed-behind-my- back' sensation])