Truth, half-truth, and nothing like the truth

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The Independent Online
THE MINISTER for open government went along to the House of Commons and told the truth. Silly Willy. A clutch of his colleagues, hearing the news, agreed that sooner or later, the Rt Hon William Arthur Waldegrave would have to leave Her Majesty's service for this and other similarly grave offences. He is a clever man who has done some good things in reforming the Government bureaucracy. Too bad, say the colleagues.

Mr Waldegrave's problem is not that he is shameless or swollen- headed with ministerial power. His anxieties over the arms-to-Iraq affair shine through the documents before the Scott inquiry, even if his decision to shuffle off responsibility was hardly heroic. No, his problem is that he is not quite sharp enough a politician. Sometimes it's as if he can't see a ladder without walking under it.

In this case, bad timing and donnish candour have turned an unwholesome truth into a political embarrassment. The executives of modern states do, on occasion, have to tell what the Governor of Hong Kong would refer to as porkies. These lies - about secret diplomatic negotiations, sterling devaluations, or whatever - are a more serious matter than the old Civil Service art of avoiding the whole truth in parliamentary answers.

The distinction is subtle but absolutely central to the meaning of a parliamentary democracy. Avoiding telling MPs everything, often by using strict factual accuracy to evade a wider truth, is a weapon in the endless power-struggle between Westminster and Whitehall. It is conducted week in, week out, by well understood and complex rules. 'Is the department going to privatise the Queen Mother?' 'We have no present plans to do so.' (Translation: give us time, give us time - the final draft hasn't been approved by cabinet committee.) 'Is it true that the Army has serious complaints about the new Mugger battletank?' 'Field trials of the Mugger have proved extremely successful.' (Translation: it's just its gun that won't work.)

MPs complain all the time about evasive answers. But they assume they are not actually lied to, and the good ones find ways of prodding relentlessly for the truth. But if a minister is asked: 'were you present at such-and-such a meeting?' and is able to say No when he was, then the whole deal collapses. A line has been crossed that makes Parliament, as a scrutineer of the executive, impotent.

Even then, Mr Waldegrave was right to say that MPs understand that, very occasionally, they may be lied to. Not all MPs would accept that, even privately, but the deception of Parliament over the talks with Sinn Fein provoked little uproar because MPs thought, in the circumstances, ministers had overstepped the line for good reasons. The trouble is MPs and the wider public have to believe that ministers are so punctilious and honourable that they always recognise the 'very exceptional case' when a deception is in the national interest, as opposed to when it is merely in the interests of the department. And today, Opposition MPs and many voters do not trust ministers to make that distinction.

The feeling that the Major government is sleazy is vague but persistent. There is the Scott inquiry and the Pergau inquiry, neither of which can be relied on to excite voters overmuch. There have been the various sexual shenanigans, which did excite some voters very much indeed. Most important of all, there have been the big tax rises, which did not feature terribly strongly in the Conservative election manifesto and opened the Government to the charge that it conned Britain into re-electing it.

The Opposition's dilemma is how to remind people of all this in three years' time. By then, everyone assumes, there will have been a longish period of steady, if undramatic growth, and a lowering of direct taxes. Quite a few of today's ministers will have left public life. The mood of this winter will be history, and the country will be thinking about who should rule Britain as the new millennium clicks up. For Labour and the Liberal Democrats, this presents a formidable problem.

It will help, clearly, to be able to plaster the country with posters of Mr Waldegrave, minister for open government, reading: '. . . it is necessary to say something that is untrue . . .' (Readers can make up their own slogan for the top of the poster: in the brutal climate of an election a Government of Lies might be the sort of thing Labour would risk.)

Such a poster would, of course, be a disgraceful distortion of Mr Waldegrave's message. But any alert politician knows that words which seem to resonate unfavourably will be picked up and quoted back, and can have serious consequences. Norman Lamont's 'unemployment is a price worth paying'; Lord Armstrong's 'economical with the truth'; Margaret Thatcher's 'no such thing as society' - are all well known examples. In each case, the selective quote stuck because it seemed to encapsulate a popular perception - that the Government didn't care about the unemployed, that it was being slippery and evasive over the Spycatcher affair, that Mrs Thatcher was a ruthless individualist.

This case looks similar. Mr Waldegrave has naively given Labour a memorable and timely phrase to sum up this winter. His crime is no more - but no less. He is not yet the 'goner' his solicitous colleagues assume. He once annoyed Mr Major by reportedly referring to 'third-rate minds' but he has been active and moderately successful in his department, has been intelligently loyal to the Prime Minister, and sits on a wide range of cabinet committees. None of these, though, may be quite enough to save him from the consequences of admitting an obvious truth: that ministers are, occasionally by necessity, 'differently honest'.