Honesty is more than the absence of lies

January 7, 2024

Honesty is more than the absence of lies. You know the classic oath, “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Contrary to popular expectations, I’ve found very few politicians who are outright liars. In private, a good number are quite truthful. Sadly, though, as soon as it comes to public statements, many will blame, make excuses, and misrepresent others. Many are uncomfortable being dishonest, but do it anyway.

I’m not talking about people putting their best foot forward – dressing smartly, or presenting your point well. If I do a live Zoom interview on telly from my home office, I put on suit and tie, even though moments earlier I was in a t-shirt. We all dress smartly when we go to a wedding – it’s not dishonest, it’s respectful.

Likewise, expressing your argument succinctly is an honest thing to do. You have very little time to make your point, and can’t go into every nuance and caveat. If asked about my record as Mayor, I’ll say, “5,377 jobs, 1,948 homes, child poverty prevention in 98 schools, and negotiated a £6.1 billion devolution deal”. It’s all true, and nothing but the truth. But if you want the whole truth, that will take hundreds more words. Or thousands. We have something like 135 live projects at the moment. I can’t fit them all into an answer. Brevity is the soul of wit.

Which is why I’ve hosted Mayor’s Question Times since I was elected. It’s why I’m holding Town Hall meetings across the North East pretty much every week – and giving people detailed answers to whatever questions they want to ask me. Very, very few politicians are willing to subject themselves to that kind of scrutiny. Come along and see for yourself.

The most common form of political dishonesty is not the outright whopper. “I drove to Barnard Castle to test my eyesight.” Or “the Covid rules were observed in Number 10 at all times.” These are deliberate statements of something they knew to be factually untrue. The Michelle Mone corruption was clearly about personal enrichment.

Most political dishonesty is about twisting the truth, rather than denying it.

Deliberate false promises are lies. Boris Johnson was a serial false promiser. I could write a whole article just listing them. But one stands out for me. He made a speech promising to dual the A1 all the way up to Scotland. It was serially delayed, but he repeated the speech. I arranged a meeting with a transport minister. “The PM said you’re going to fund the A1 all the way to Scotland, where’s that at?” I asked him. His answer? “The PM says a lot of things. The numbers don’t add up.”

I think Sir Keir’s Ten Pledges were deliberately misleading. To go from ten down to zero before you’re even elected? That tells me he was never committed to them. He’s now quietly removed them from his website. If he is so cynically dishonest and manipulative before getting into power, what can we expect when he’s under pressure as Prime Minister? We saw how quickly Tony Blair became embroiled in scandals and eventually the lies surrounding the Iraq War.

When Mr Sunak cancelled HS2, Labour heavily criticised him for it. Quite rightly – it was mismanaged on his watch, with many unanswered questions. But when asked, “would you commit to building it?” Labour at first avoided the question. Then came out with the excuse that the land would be sold off before they were in power. Which it turns out, isn’t true. Blaming the Conservatives for doing something you intend to do yourself is twisting the truth.

Mr Sunak’s record on truth is no better. Although he doesn’t put much effort into hiding his agenda of making the rich richer. Or not giving a toss about the climate emergency. Or the bizarre obsession with sending refugees to Rwanda in a cynical electoral gambit. His dishonesty is the way he justifies it.

Liz Truss’s dishonesty was in manipulating normal process to get her doctrinaire tax cuts through. She and Dr. Kwarteng deliberately cut the Office of Budget Responsibility out of the loop. Their disastrous mini-budget cost mortgage holders £thousands.

Most political dishonesty, though, is a form of Whattaboutery. Whattaboutery relies on blame and anger to work as a distraction. It could be scapegoating. “It’s not me guv, it’s the last lot what done it.” Or “it’s them immigrants.” It solves nothing.

It typically stems from intellectual dishonesty. Rather than thinking something through, people reach for an easy, but feeble excuse. Every mistake gets blamed on someone else. Attacking political opponents gets rewarded with tribal loyalty.

The real damage the lack of honesty causes is an absence of sound thinking. It’s hard work to construct an argument about why your opponents are taking the wrong path, and propose a better alternative. Much easier to vent. We need our political leaders to say, “Can we try this instead? Here’s my plan, and this is why I think it will work.” And that’s what worries me most. No one is advancing a plan to make Britain a better place for the people who do the work.

So what’s the future for honesty in politics? Well, you can help. Reject the spin and the hype. The blame. The feeble justifications. Calmly ask for the facts. Ask for the reasoning behind the facts. And always, always, ask, “What would you do instead? And how would you make that work?”