Lies are a rarity in British public service. Most public servants know to avoid them, for a simple reason: they will be found out. The nature of modern government means that everything is somewhere recorded (usually in writing), subject to exposure or liable to be the subject of legal action. Public servants, in the best tradition of Sir Humphrey, can prevaricate, obfuscate, divert or distract, but if they’ve got any sense, they don’t say things they know to be untrue.
The Brexit campaign was bizarre, and alien to our political culture. There were not only deliberate lies (for example, about Turkey’s entry to the EU), but deliberate and flagrant breaches of electoral law. It’s not going too far to describe those breaches as ‘corrupt’ – the first legislation on electoral spending was, if I have it right, contained in the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883. Now, two elections on, we’ve seen a repetition of many of the same practices. 40 new hospitals and 50,000 nurses belong with the lie on the Brexit bus.
The cavalcade of lies is spearheaded by Boris Johnson. The Conservative journalist Peter Oborne, horrified by what’s going on, is maintaining a tally at https://boris-johnson-lies.com/ . I suspect he’s finding it hard to keep up. Only this morning, the Guardian reports preposterous things being circulated about prostitution, immigration and spending, and less preposterous (but false) statements about state aid, trade unions, tax and defence.
The main offenders are the Conservative party, but the Labour opposition is not exempt. Accused of a ‘mendacious fiction’ in saying that the Labour Party had deal with all cases of antisemitism, Jeremy Corbyn did not try to say (in his interview with Andrew Neil) that the statement he’d made was true; he said only that the accuser would have to prove that it was ‘mendacious’, or deliberately untrue. So the statement was false, but not intended to deceive? Politicians really ought to be aware that people will on occasion listen to the words they use and judge them accordingly.