The truth about Honest John

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In a tight corner over the National Health Service the other day, John Major resorted to a familiar tactic. He struck a low blow. "It was the last Labour government," he cried, "which cut nurses' pay." The Tory benches bayed their approval of this fightback from the ropes.

Because I am used to Mr Major's extremely loose regard for accuracy in such circumstances, and since the claim did not seem very probable, I checked with the House of Commons library. Their figures confirmed that Honest John was at it again.

Just for the record, the average weekly earnings of nurses and midwives in 1974 were pounds 23.30 and they rose annually to pounds 66.10 in 1979. This represented a 25 per cent rise in real terms during the Labour government's lifetime.

There is no story, however, in setting the record straight. "Labour did not cut nurses' pay 20 years ago" is scarcely the stuff of which headlines are made. So there is a temptation just to let these things go and rationalise it by assuming that nobody believes what John Major says anyway.

Maybe they do and maybe they don't. But it surely represents a further unnecessary demeaning of the political process if every statement of supposed fact made by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons has to be qualified by a health warning: "Nothing he says should be believed until checked against reality."

It would be unworldly to suppose that politicians, of any complexion, can resist bending truth as far as the available statistics allow them. Flexible data and robust debating points are part of the rough and tumble of parliamentary life. But Mr Major habitually crosses the line.

I first noticed this particular trait when he was rubbishing the record of the former public utilities, as compared to the joys of privatisation. Sometimes he would refer to them having cost the taxpayer pounds 50m per week before being sold off. On other occasions, he would speak of pounds 50m a day. Who cared? It created the desired impression, of terminal fecklessness within the public sector.

A check, again with the House of Commons library, confirmed that electricity had made pounds 6bn profit for the taxpayer in the four years prior to privatisation compared to the pounds 3.1bn paid in tax by the privatised companies

It is obviously idle to draw comparisons, as John Major seeks to, on the numbers of unemployed since Britain refuses to count them on the same basis as any of our partners, even for comparative purposes. But this does not deter him from boasting: "No significant-sized country in Western Europe has as much of its population at work."

Well, this is news to the OECD. In terms of labour force in employment, the UK is 15th in their rather more reliable league table while Germany, which most of us regard as a "significant-sized country" is third. Measured on the alternative basis of proportion of population in employment, Britain comes 11th - not first.

The grander the boast from John Major, the more likely it is to be untrue. For instance: "No economy in Europe has performed or is performing as well as the British economy in the past 12 months." Another quick check with the House of Commons library confirmed that we were the fourth-slowest growing economy in the European Union during the period referred to.

If a prime minister makes a claim as specific as "the lowest inflation rate in Europe" from the Dispatch Box of the House of Commons, then there are bound to be people who think it must be true. That would be a serious mistake.

When Mr Major made that claim, in June, inflation in the UK was higher than in 10 other EU countries.

Mr Major's attempt to show himself as the man who has broken the trends of decades is no more reliable than his comparisons with Europe. Britain under his leadership, he assured MPs, was enjoying "the lowest inflation levels for 50 years". That is, I found, only if you leave out l949, 1958, 1969, 1960, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1993 and 1994.

Another of Mr Major's more blatant efforts was on crime when, back in January, the remorseless rise in the figures was followed by a modest reduction (since reversed). In his man-of-destiny mode, the Prime Minister was not interested in claiming modest reductions. "Crime is falling for the first time in 40 years," he declared grandly.

Sorry, John, wrong again. Reported crime fell in 1977, 1978, 1983, 1993 and 1994. I suppose it is due to the umbrella principle that what goes up must eventually come down.

The list of examples is endless. None of them is, in itself, misleading enough on the parliamentary Richter scale to justify formal calling to account. But cumulatively, they add up to a rather unattractive picture of a man who either cannot tell truth from untruth or else doesn't care too much about the difference so long as the purpose of the moment is served.

Is the intention that only dramatic generalised statements stick in the public mind, and that most of the people who hear them have neither the access nor inclination to check each of them out with the House of Commons library? It's left to the pedants to quibble about truth, while Mr Major carries on boasting about the biggest, the highest, the lowest, the fastest.

But maybe this underestimates the responses of the electorate, most of whom do not believe that they are living in Europe's most successful economy where crime is conquered, earnings are soaring and privatisation is an unqualified success.

On all these subjects, John Major could doubtless make plausible arguments and debating points in his party's interest. That is his perfect entitlement and he can do it as robustly as he pleases. But when he persistently makes boasts and claims which are, on a purely factual basis, simply false then it is not only his office which he demeans, but himself.

Brian Wilson is MP for Cunninghame North and head of Labour's campaign unit.