In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Just Words


Forced to witness and live, day after day, this nation’s fraught and inept and demented progress towards Brexit – the unforgiveable false step, waste and wanton irrelevance of it, the tedium, obsessive delinquency, delusion, shame, the sheer disgraceful wrong and disaster of it – I retreat into words, not just for some slight relief, but in case they provide guidance and comfort, firm ground.

Just words ? In all this tumult ? What can words do ?

They can pierce the dark. We keep turning to our leaders, hapless and hopeless, for their words, in case they will pierce the dark. But instead they just add to this bad dream, ultimately betraying us. They come up with just more lies and slogans and evasions, instead of living words ; they keep defrauding and avoiding, instead of offering us the real thing. The “real thing” involves and encourages meeting and mutuality and, above all, truth and trust.

The greater our need to hear honest and holding words from our national leaders, the worse is their crime if they merely use our hunger as an opportunity to deceive us yet further to their own advantage and agenda.

Hence the importance, I think, of constitution, code of conduct, statute, contract, framework, rule-book  – closely considered words of reference against which to measure, evaluate, judge, hold to account the behaviour and – yes – the words of people who presume to engage with us and to varying degrees hold power over our lives, our welfare and our children’s futures.

I’ve been told by my own MP that, these days, politicians have to swear to uphold the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life. According to the guidance offered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and displayed on the website, the sixth of these principles says simply that “Holders of public office should be truthful.” You can find all seven principles here.

But unlike other professions, each with its own code of professional conduct, it seems that politicians can break their oath with impunity (though, it also seems that Damian Green’s recent withholding of certain facts relating to the pornography discovered on his work computer, broke the “ministerial” code. This last requires ministers to be truthful too and Mr Green had apparently not been entirely truthful with his colleagues on the matter and that was why he was sacked. It would seem then that, as things stand in present day Westminster, lying to colleagues is a sackable offence while lying to the electorate is not).

For some time, I have been thinking and proposing that a more detailed code of conduct for truth-telling in public life should be drawn up. And the code should be enforceable. More than that, it should be enforceable by law and politicians and other accountable public servants who break it should be treated and punished as common felons under the law.

I have developed this argument in a short paper and have been sending it round to politicians, civil servants and journalists, etc (though so far without any significant result. Usually I don’t even get a reply).

But surely it is in everyone’s interest, including that of all politicians, for the language of politics to become a sound currency again. Otherwise, democracy simply founders and society breaks down. Hilary Clinton said something to this effect quite recently in an interview with The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead : “The ability of people in public life or in the media to say the most outrageous falsehoods and not be held accountable [my italics] has really altered the balance in our public discourse, in a way that I think is endangering democracy.”

I have attached my paper here. Earlier versions have already appeared on this blog. It is now distilled to four sides, after much work ! But, more recently, I have squeezed my argument into an even smaller shape. It is now in a nutshell consisting of six short paragraphs. Here they are :

Language and money are both currencies and they are currencies equally essential to civilisation. As our economy will collapse without money that is sound, so our democracy will collapse without words that can be trusted.

In terms of money, people caught defrauding, forging or stealing are put on trial before judge and jury (in a place, incidentally, where lies are described as perjury and risk yet further legal penalty).

In terms of words, I suggest that people in public office who through verbal deceit or evasion, defraud the people who elected them in trust, should also stand before a judge and jury and for the same reasons.

For, as money is the blood-stream of our economy, words are the blood-stream of our democracy. They both need to be kept healthy.

Further, if sovereignty rests these days not with the Monarch but with the People, then the defrauding of that Sovereign People through the Lie is, and should be recognised as, a crime of High Treason.

It is a crime of High Treason to steal the Truth from the Sovereign Power, seeking to replace it with some tawdry, merely self-advancing, construction.

I respect Andreas Whittam Smith, who still writes for The Independent. I sent these thoughts to him. He said he agreed with them in principle. But can such a code be turned into words that will stand up to challenge? He suggested a team of lawyers should be asked to frame something.  Personally, I think a poet or two should be in on the act, as well.

For I would argue that lawyers and poets have much in common. They are both concerned with accurate language in the addressing of, and meeting with, intense human emotion and experience. Poets in residence are fairly common these days, but not so long ago were an entirely new development. One of the earliest poet residencies in the UK was with the solicitor’s firm of Mishcon de Reya.

I shall end this piece with a further thought. As Society and its institutions reel under the pressures of massive change which occurs at ever-accelerating speed, Truth at least stays still and we can rely on it (if we can find it and then hang on). But we seem to be relying as well on a few stray and exceptional individuals to remind us of our true bearings.

The UK is a parliamentary democracy. But do our parliamentarians know what that means and act accordingly? Maybe some MP’s are beginning to remember what it means. Yet in assenting to the appallingly irresponsible and undemocratic proposal of a yes/no referendum on EU membership in the first place, parliament failed in its duty to the nation and the nation’s history and integrity and proved itself unfit for its role. Mere party advantage came first and then went badly wrong.

We have to thank Gina Miller, a private individual, acting at her own personal cost (and not just in a financial sense), for reminding us of parliament’s role and true responsibilities here. She won her case, but again parliament failed her (and us and itself). Still and again, following the court case, the MP’s voted for party survival rather than fact or conscience or the nation’s true benefit. Power to the elbow of any individual who takes this role upon him/herself, on our behalf. And Miller turned to the Law, as back-stop, of course. So thanks to, and thank God for, the Law, as well. Something at least is still standing in this maelstrom.

But it is a symptom of our much wider crisis that we are having to rely on individuals in this way and it is not sustainable. It is merely random.

Surely the real lesson here is our need for profound and widespread institutional change, as well as for transformative and genuinely enlightened policy. The trappings of too many of our institutions, as they are still presently constituted, no longer fit. They have become perversions of the principles they were once built to exemplify and facilitate. The trappings have become traps.

We need community again, having lost it to a large and dangerous degree.  And to restore and renew community we need, not Brexit’s absurd, artificial, unworkable, delusional, self-mutilating severance from where we belong, but real change, possibly revolutionary change, from what we have now. And to get there we need our language back. We need it to be a sound currency of value and truth, so that we can trust again.