Would you believe it?: Ministers talk in half-truths and are amazed no one believes them. But the public are not fools, says Clive Ponting

Click to follow
The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT ministers have great faith in the gullibility of the public. That faith is bolstered by the two great dogmas of the Whitehall church - the power of secrecy to conceal the truth and the power of transubstantiation to change the meaning of words. Most of the time the rituals of government are conducted by ministers and their acolytes, the senior civil servants, in their own private world in the language of euphemism and partial truth. The political and mandarin defenders of the faith are therefore worried and disorientated when, just occasionally, the doors of the church are pushed ajar and a little light penetrates the darkness.

Over the past few weeks, the Scott inquiry into the arms for Iraq affair and the investigations into the arms and aid deal(s) with Malaysia have shown the public how Whitehall works and how ministers and civil servants react when called upon to defend actions and decisions they never thought would become public knowledge. To some officials, this is a strange new world to which they find it difficult to adapt. They do not understand why their public statements are greeted with disbelief.

During the Spycatcher case Sir Robert Armstrong, Cabinet Secretary, admitted that he had been 'economical with the truth'. Lord Justice Scott, making his first acquaintance with the world of Whitehall, has been worried by the way in which parliamentary questions are (not) answered. Sir Robert's successor, Sir Robin Butler, has argued that the half-truths and evasions 'are not misleading'. Outsiders probably find such views both comic and worrying. To Whitehall insiders, the expressions used by Sir Robert and Sir Robin are a fact of daily life.

I remember when, as a new civil servant, I was asked to draft an answer to a parliamentary question. I naively collected as much information as possible and tried to answer what I thought the MP wanted to know. My boss told me that the rules were slightly different - the department's aim was to say as little as possible and to use ambiguity and subtle drafting to avoid answering the question.

Douglas Hurd gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee last week and found that talking in public in the language of Whitehall is likely to lead to all sorts of difficulties. He admitted that, at one point, arms and aid to Malaysia had been directly linked through a formula which made the scale of aid proportional to the amount of arms purchased. This, he told the committee, was wrong and had eventually been stopped. However, on the very day that the Malaysians were told that arms and aid could not be linked they were also told they were to receive almost exactly the same amount of aid as they would have had under the linked deals. This enabled those in Whitehall to argue that the two policies had been 'de- linked' - Douglas Hurd told the committee 'as a matter of fact, the two policies have proceeded separately'. Outsiders might reasonable feel that language cannot be used to deny reality to that extent.

The gullibility of the public, politicians believe, also extends to their supposed inability to remember events more than a few weeks old or compare behaviour on different occasions. In order to force through the Malaysian arms and aid deal, Douglas Hurd had to overrule Sir Tim Lankester, the head of the Overseas Development Administration and thus the accounting officer to Parliament for correct and proper use of public money entrusted to the department, and force him to agree to the deal. We are now told this was necessary to protect British jobs.

In the mid-1970s Tony Benn overruled his accounting officer to insist that the Department of Trade and Industry provide public money to support some workers' co-operatives in order to protect British jobs. Then the Conservatives were outraged at such behaviour.

Michael Heseltine, the other political performer of the week at public inquiries, has had a better press. Indeed, the odds on his becoming the next leader of the party have shortened from 25-1 to 5-1 - a rare case of 'honesty' and 'openness' improving political career prospects. It was not always thus. Ten years ago Mr Heseltine told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he shared the Whitehall aversion to greater openness. During the inquiry into the General Belgrano cover-up he told members of the committee: 'One of the things which influenced my mind profoundly was that the more information we provided the more it would be argued yet more information was needed.'

Mr Heseltine's concern about the use of Public Interest Immunity certificates in the Matrix Churchill case is commendable - it is surely an abuse of power to protect the 'principle' that all communications between ministers and civil servants, however mundane, must be kept from public view, even if this means that innocent men have to go to jail. However, 10 years ago, he was slightly less worried about my own prosecution for revealing the details of the Belgrano cover- up to an MP, even after I had been assured by some of the most senior officials in the department that I would not be prosecuted.

Mr Heseltine also seems to have difficulty in following a consistent policy on one of the supposed central pillars of the British constitution: the collective responsibility of ministers. Eighteen months after the Belgrano affair he resigned from the Cabinet over what he regarded as a major constitutional principle - he had not been allowed to put his case on Westland fairly to his colleagues, the Prime Minister had manipulated cabinet committees against him and therefore collective responsibility could not apply. Now his attitude is rather different. He had always had doubts about the use of Public Interest Immunity certificates in the Matrix Churchill case, he told the Scott inquiry, and had initially refused to sign the certificate. He only did so, he said, under pressure from the Attorney General and after being told that it was his duty to do so and that his disquiet would be brought to the attention of the trial judge. This may have helped Heseltine in his attempt to demonstrate that he had reasonably clean hands over what he described as the 'cover-up' of the Iraq arms deal. However, the crucial point is that Heseltine did sign the certificate. Ministers often have doubts about a particular policy but if they accept government policy, as Heseltine did on this occasion, then they are, according to the doctrine of collective responsibility, required to support it or resign. Heseltine took the latter course over Westland. Now he tries to have it both ways - disassociating himself from government policy while remaining a member of the government.

Exposures of how Whitehall really works are not just of interest to students of public administration. Clearly the Scott inquiry and those into the Pergau dam affair will join the Franks inquiry into government incompetence before the invasion of the Falkland Islands, the tribunal on the gross mismanagement of the Crown Agents, and the inquiry into government mendacity over Rhodesian sanctions-busting as classic examples of the shoddy world of British government.

On a broader basis, though, recent events raise even bigger questions. Throughout the Western world, but particularly in Britain, there is a growing public malaise about the political process. Politicians seem to believe that they are entitled to the respect of the public whatever their behaviour and whatever they say. It is disreputable to blame the media for the problems when it has only drawn attention to what the politicians have done and said. People resent being treated as fools. Until the political class in Britain stops believing it can dissemble, mislead and lie and get away with it, it will not earn the respect of the people.

The author, a Ministry of Defence official acquitted under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act in 1985, is now a lecturer at University College, Swansea

(Photograph omitted)