Brian Wilson: Please let this uncivilised word lie

Alistair Carmichael was exposed over leaked memo but name-calling is not a dignified response. Picture: Greg MacveanAlistair Carmichael was exposed over leaked memo but name-calling is not a dignified response. Picture: Greg Macvean
Alistair Carmichael was exposed over leaked memo but name-calling is not a dignified response. Picture: Greg Macvean
IT adds little to the clarity or dignity of political life to have ministers or former ministers called liars, argues Brian Wilson

The word “liar” has been floating around the Scottish political firmament rather a lot in recent days. It is difficult to imagine that the standards of public discourse are enhanced by its use.

Westminster is not wrong about everything and the Parliamentary courtesy of not calling opponents “liars”, on the grounds that there usually are more civilised ways of communicating the same general sentiment, is not a bad one. If having once committed an untruth justifies being branded for life as a “liar”, then few of us would be left unscathed.

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Yet Alistair Carmichael’s pursuers seem determined to achieve just that, though one must wonder, for what purpose? A Nationalist publication thought it the height of genius to print multiple pictures of Carmichael with the word “liar” alongside each. While this doubtless thrilled its core readership, others saw it as mere evidence of piqued spite. Most of us are sufficiently sympathetic to human frailty to resile from such righteous exercises in character assassination. Let he (or she) who is without sin...

Soon after his term ended, Bill Clinton came to London and was pressed interminably by an interviewer about the Lewinsky affair. When Clinton eventually suggested that they might move on to other aspects of his presidency, the interrogator asked one last question: ”Why did you lie about it?” Clinton responded with a weary look and the classic answer: “Because I didn’t want people to know.” It’s really that simple.

Alistair Carmichael didn’t want people to know that he knew about the leaked account of what Nicola Sturgeon allegedly said to the French Ambassador. It is entirely understandable that he did not want people to know and entirely foolish that he got into the position of having to tell a lie in order to maintain that fiction. Can we not just leave it at that, rather than pretend that a unique moral and constitutional outrage has been committed? It hasn’t.

Elsewhere, the Scottish transport minister, Derek Mackay, found his conflicting statements on the Forth Road Bridge characterised as “a bridge of lies”. Political opponents stopped short of that charge and an important issue will be side-tracked if it turns into an argument about the fine line between mendacity and confusion. Give him the benefit of the doubt and let’s just have an inquiry to get to the bottom of it. Resisting that would be as politically dishonest as any lie.

Few politicians, regardless of persuasion, would emerge from reading Lady Paton’s judgment with any desire for the principle underpinning current legislation to be extended. If it was, then many who have lived by off-the-record briefing and terminological inexactitude would be entering a more hazardous era. Maybe that would not be a bad thing but it is an outcome they are unlikely to vote for.

One might think that if it is in the public interest for a misleading statement made during an election campaign to be subject to such intensive retrospective scrutiny as Carmichael endured, the same should apply to politics more generally? In particular, there may now be a pressing need for the law to cover referendums which have become a crucial feature of British political life.

Whether the United Kingdom leaves the European Union or Scotland leaves the UK are bigger questions than any marginal impact on Alistair Carmichael’s re-election in Orkney and Shetland. Yet there is no legal safeguard against the dissemination of false information in relation to such momentous decisions – a real danger, particularly where normal standards of civil service impartiality are by-passed. What law protects us from that?

Lady Paton actually addressed the question of whether Alex Salmond’s fabled “legal advice” on Scottish membership of the EU would have fallen foul of the law. She concluded that it would not because “it was not a statement in relation to personal character or conduct. It is of the essence of section 106 that it does not relate to lies in general” but only those told by election candidates to improve their own prospects.

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That does seem a rather narrow and unsatisfactory distinction but who will expand it? It is one thing riding the high moral horse about Alistair Carmichael’s clumsy entry into the world of leaked documents; quite another to volunteer for the same exacting level of scrutiny over government and political machination more generally.

Another good reason for not calling people liars is that it is rarely that simple. This comes as a great disappointment to those who wish to reduce politics to black and white, good and wicked. Politicians are usually dependent on the advice they are given and those who provide it are, as in any other walk of life, of variable capability and sometimes motive.

It is now a favourite saloon bar technique to dismiss any other issue of veracity through reference to Iraq – as if the allegation (probably false) that “lies” were told in that context exonerates anyone charged with the same offence in lesser ones. It may be completely irrational and indicative of weak ground, but it kills many a conversation stone dead, for reasons of pointlessness.

The best antidote to deception, at all level of politics, is fear of transparency – not in order to witch-hunt individuals or destroy reputations but for the much more useful purpose of making it a more dangerous option to mislead in the first place. And, in a curious way, the Carmichael case bears that out.

It was inevitable, once the story was published, that a Cabinet Office inquiry would follow – and anyone who seeks a model of transparency at work should read Lady Paton’s account of the ruthless thoroughness and efficiency with which it was pursued. So inept was the “leak” operation that the truth was quickly established and revealed with all the reputational consequences which flowed from it. Nobody would have volunteered for that if they had seen it coming.

If we had the same guaranteed level of scrutiny over political behaviour, wherever questions arise about the integrity of decision-making or pronouncements, there would be no need to call people liars. As far as Holyrood is concerned, respect for the spirit of Freedom of Information legislation and a few powerful scrutiny committees would be decent starting points.