All Westminster MP’s are required to swear to tell the truth. I have been told this on the good authority of my own MP. She told me that new MP’s must swear to abide by the seven Nolan principles. The sixth of these states that holders of public office should be truthful.
But the Nolan principles are not enforceable, nor are they a legal requirement. Elected members of parliament who fail to honour the code they have sworn to uphold cannot be penalised and are often not even challenged. Thus, those who lie for their own or their party’s ends do not even have to account for their dishonesty to their peers ; and certainly they are not pursued as common felons by the nation’s police force.
But why not ? The language we use to speak to one another is a currency upon whose integrity and viability we all rely for our individual and our community’s welfare, even survival. It is as crucial for the sustaining of our community as a sound blood circulation or untainted drinking water are for the sustaining of our bodies. It is at least as important and material a currency as the money we exchange in the market place.
Yet we don’t treat those two equally essential social currencies with matching care. Quite the contrary. In the case of money, we know that if fraud or forgery go unchecked, so that the pound in our pocket or in our bank account becomes unsound and untrustworthy and hence worthless, our society will just break down. It will stop working. Therefore, people who engage in financial fraud or forgery are pursued as criminals and, if found guilty, sentenced under the law.
But we surely also know that if we can’t trust the honesty of our chosen leaders’ words, if politics become “truth-free” and wholly fraudulent, then our politics will be nullified and our democracies will come unstuck – since the whole democratic package of parliament, debate and argument, election and referendum, and so on, is held together by and relies absolutely upon words, words we must be in a position to trust. Yet asked to consider how the holders of public office address and speak to us, we barely turn a hair at the lies or evasions we are offered, again and again. “Ah, they’re all the same,” we say. And just shrug. And carry on. And the lies carry on, as well, corrosively.
In fact our politicians are not all the same. Most have integrity, though many just disappear behind their party’s line, which in the long term does great harm, in my view. And some are outright liars, seeking to profit from their dishonesty.
Would we just shrug if our house were burgled ? In my opinion, holders of public office who defraud the public by lying to them, are committing a crime at least as serious and material as fraud or burglary. Yet the liars go free, however momentous or dreadful the consequences of their lies.
Furthermore, journalists keep approaching the liars for their thoughts, inviting them again and again to pollute the air we breathe, for the liars’ own irresponsible and anti-social ends.
Do journalists approach forgers and thieves for their responses to events ? Is there a daily queue of journalists outside our many jails, clamouring for interviews with the prisoners inside ? Obviously not. But why the difference ?
I am going to develop my argument further along two fronts.
The first one concerns codes of good practice.
Many if not most activities or occupations or professions in our society have public codes of conduct, or definitions of standards by which to ensure and maintain good practice. It is a way of establishing and keeping public trust, as well as ensuring a sufficient level of professionalism both competent and honourable. And human nature being what it is, those codes are broken from time to time and – in response – the perpetrators are penalised or sanctioned. For the codes have to be enforceable. They must have teeth.
Thus, even PR companies have a code, and a body empowered to police it. The body in this case is called the Public Relations and Communications Association committee, the PRCA, and recently a UK PR firm called Bell Pottinger ran foul of it, to that firm’s significant cost. Here is a summary of the story, supplied by “The Guardian.”
Perhaps the most famous code of conduct of all is the Hippocratic Oath, which all medical practitioners are required to swear and abide by. The code articulates a set of standards associated with good and ethical medical practice. Breaking it to any serious extent renders the doctor concerned liable to be struck off the medical register, after which it will surely be difficult for that person to find another job.
But is there any prospect of a UK MP – or Minister, or assistant – being struck off for lying ? Any powers to penalise the Right Honourable Gentlemen and Right Honourable Ladies for proving themselves unworthy of those grand old titles, by lying ? It appears there are none. Not so long ago, Lord Sugar referred to the EU referendum and the behaviour of certain politicians during that time : Michael Gove and Boris Johnson should be in jail, he said. Under which law, Lord Sugar ? A few days later, James Chapman, former chief of staff to David Davis, tweeted much the same thing : “Let’s be honest, if we had an effective electoral law, leading Brexiteers would now be in jail.” If. But we don’t.
If the People were lied to, then they had their capacity to make a proper decision stolen from them. Lied to in so many ways last Summer, the People could not “speak” in reply. It could only gag, splutter, throw up. Anyone, of whatever party, who tries to legitimize that disastrous incoherence by saying “the People have spoken” is an accessory to a lie.
Here is a second prong of my argument.
Over the centuries, democratic nations have come to the conclusion that national sovereignty must be placed in the People as a whole, not the Monarch, not a Tyrant. Thus can tyranny best be avoided and rights protected under the law. But for a Sovereign People to make real, meaningful and responsible decisions, it has to be properly informed. In the same way, a doctor’s patient is required to be properly informed before he or she makes a critical decision on which treatment to accept ; and a jury must be properly informed before deciding on someone’s guilt or innocence.
That is why an accountable parliament must always be the place where the People’s decisions are made. Competent and worthy individuals, elected by and answerable to their constituents but also to their consciences, and properly equipped with knowledge and having enough time to scrutinize the executive’s intentions, must have the final responsibility for decisions made. For if a decision is not based on proper and thorough information, it is not a decision at all. It is not even a leap in the dark. It is a voluntary, irresponsible and infantile collapse into come-what-may.
The UK’s 2016 referendum result was exactly that : an ill-informed, a misinformed, voluntary, irresponsible and infantile collapse into come-what-may, following behaviour, on both sides of the referendum campaign, which did not qualify for the term democratic.
For demagoguery and lies took over our streets in the Summer of 2016, unrestricted and unregulated, making nonsense of the task and of the subject, and disgracing this nation and its history. Such behaviour should have resulted in a nullifying of the result and a significant number of serious criminal charges. Those charged should have included a few delinquent billionaire press barons. For what crime ? For the capital crime of lying to the sovereign power.
For it is through language that public servants communicate with, and account to, the People they serve. It is through language that the process of elections is conducted and – depending on how trustworthy the language used there – is either meaningful and beneficial, or absurd and poisonous of effect.
Holders of public office who lie to the People are therefore committing a crime worse than fraud or theft (though those as well). In a real sense, they are committing High Treason.
Accordingly, I propose that a greatly extended and more detailed version of the Nolan Principles needs urgently to be formulated and made enforceable, to apply to all public servants and their advisors, with transgressors liable to rigorous punishment under the law. The credibility and authority of politicians, the survival of our democracy, the future of our nation, require us to take this step.
I would suggest that such a code, once composed and agreed, should be passed into Statute by the House of Commons, so that transgressors should be seen and treated for what they are – as dangerous and disgraceful felons, subject to the law of the land. Yes, it will be difficult to compose and implement. But surely the genuinely true and worthy and right honourable politicians in the House would see this as being in their own urgent self-interest ?
And if judges can enforce the law of perjury, cannot the first court of the land enforce a law that protects our nation from the mortal danger of the lie ?
Only days ago, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has suggested the UK could still decide to reverse Brexit. The invitation is there and it is not yet impossible to accept it. Just in time, the tide may turn, common sense return, reality hit home, the time-servers, the fanatic idealogues and self-interested billionaires, be driven into retreat. In that case, there are likely to be more calls for a second referendum, to add to those recently delivered by Tony Blair and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London.
For the reasons set out above, I think a properly functioning Parliament is the correct and sovereign place for consideration of the complexities of this matter and for the taking of a final decision.
But if recent precedent and the political situation direct us to another referendum, then the campaign conducted beforehand must not be allowed in any way to be a repeat of the dance of the billionaire hoodlums that took place in 2016. We need a proper sheriff on the streets for this High Noon. We need some effective law in town to counter the lie.