DO we really want honest politicians? Are voters desperate for candidates who will tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, while sticking to their guns regardless of which way the wind blows? Or when it comes to the cut-and-thrust of front-bench politics, do we actually prefer the slightly dishonest ones? The ones willing to train in verbal gymnastics if it means scoring points and “landing blows” against the opposition. The ones so skilled at razzle-dazzling that viewers and listeners never catch on.
I’m not talking here about big lies: not huge, war-starting whoppers. But the lies of omission, the question-dodges and distraction tactics that constitute the much-derided “politician’s answer” to a tricky question. It’s easy to condemn these when they’re deployed by someone you disapprove of, someone you feel is finally getting the tough grilling they deserve, but it’s worth reflecting on how you might respond if you were in their shoes. If your own boss came at you with a gotcha-style question (“Are you satisfied with your team’s performance, despite missing two out of three targets this month?”) you’d probably feel entitled to refuse her a straight yes or no. After all, don’t silly questions deserve silly answers?
Jeremy Corbyn seems an honest man. So honest, in fact, that he admitted to scoring the EU a tepid seven out of ten even when – theoretically at least – he was urging us to give it a 10/10 endorsement on a ballot paper with only two boxes. No-one was asking him to lie; it just might have been better if he’d told a little less truth. The same goes for his shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who felt it appropriate to remind everyone – in a TV interview less than two weeks before the vote – that he was a “sort of eurosceptic”. Is this the kind of honesty we need? The kind that generates a collective face-palm and helps hand victory to a mob so outrageously dishonest that they won’t even stick around to deal with the consequences of their own lies?
Of course the answer isn’t stooping to the lowest level of manipulation and deceit, but it’s naïve to assume that honesty and full disclosure is the best policy in every situation
Of course the answer isn’t stooping to the lowest level of manipulation and deceit, but it’s naïve to assume that honesty and full disclosure is the best policy in every situation. And it’s a little bit arrogant for anyone to imagine they can simply place themselves above the fray and usher in a “new politics” single-handedly without so much as raising their voice.
Nobody likes a spin doctor (unless it’s a fictional one played by Peter Capaldi or Alan Cumming), but the unvarnished truth often doesn’t go down very well either. When Kezia Dugdale conceded she might back Scottish independence in the event of Brexit, she wasn’t sticking to the script. The party-approved line was “I want Scotland to remain part of the UK and the EU”, and the agreed strategy was surely to repeat this, robot-like, until the interviewer changed the subject. I’m far from convinced that until this point Dugdale had “never contemplated” the possibility of Scotland being removed from the EU against its will – such lack of imagination is surely incompatible with serious political ambition – but I do believe she was being honest when she said such a scenario would give her pause. Was her honesty appreciated? Of course not. “Dugdale gaffes”, scolded The Times, as if she’d rolled up her sleeves and accidentally revealed arms covered in scales. Ruth Davidson called it a “staggering admission”, as if off-message honesty was enough to make her knees buckle.
The problem with the false dichotomy of scrupulously honest, noble public servant vs slimy, untrustworthy careerist is that no real-life politician perfectly fits either mould
Dugdale’s predecessor Johann Lamont took a similar thrashing back in 2012 when she suggested some of Scotland’s universal benefits might not be affordable in the long-term – an approach instantly derided as career suicide, and so it proved. Perhaps she was simply on a kamikaze mission to find fault with an SNP that was riding high on a wave of public approval, but she’s stuck to her guns ever since. No doubt mindful of this context, poverty tsar Naomi Eisenstadt chose her words a little more carefully when she reported back to Nicola Sturgeon at the start of this year, gently suggesting that universal provision can mean “spreading a limited budget too thinly to help those who need the service the most”.
The problem with the false dichotomy of scrupulously honest, noble public servant vs slimy, untrustworthy careerist is that no real-life politician perfectly fits either mould. Most will have started compromising the moment they joined a political party, recognising that the specific policy changes they seek won’t happen overnight. Which isn’t to say they all believe the end justifies any means and they can march around with their knickers aflame. But it does mean they realise that going rogue comes at a price.
Mhairi Black has spoken scathingly of the media training provided at Westminster, which she said included coaching on how to get through a tough interview by changing the subject. Such peeks behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain are one of the many benefits of sending straight-talking young folk to shake up stuffy old parliaments, but Black should be careful her words don’t come back to haunt her. If she should ever find herself at First Minister’s Questions – as many hope she will – she might not find it as easy to fight her corner. With a record to defend and a diverse set of constituents to represent, the path of truth and righteousness may not be quite so clearly marked.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.