Is it acceptable to tell lies in politics?

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Any student of the ongoing disaster that is British politics in the time since the Brexit referendum now has a new bone to chew on. Boris Johnson.

He of the untucked shirt and the wayward hair, has been summoned to court by a private individual to face allegations that he lied to the public during the 2016 EU referendum when he claimed that the UK was handing Brussels 350 million pounds a week, and that this handout would be better spent supporting the National Health Services. The allegation is that he was ‘lying and misleading’ the British public whilst holding a public office, an offence which, I discover, carries a maximum of a life sentence if the defendant is found guilty.

Under UK law anybody can bring a private prosecution but to reach the courts it has to pass the scrutiny of the Crown Prosecution Service, which will decide on the balance of probabilities whether there is the possibility both of a crime being committed and the successful prosecution thereof. In this case the CPS has allowed the case to go forward and Mr Johnson is to eventually, appear in the dock.

The ‘350 million’ claim was much contested from the day it was rolled out blazoned along the side of a very large bus, and innumerable analysts across the political spectrum and within every conceivable camp of the Brexit debate have analysed it to death. I remain agnostic in the matter but for Boris Johnson this has become front and centre if for no other reason that he is the prime candidate for the top job – leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland after Theresa May crashed and burned on the deck of the good ship Blighty.

At the heart of the debate is what on the face of it is a simple question – should politicians tell the truth, and if they do not then should they be publicly accountable for lying to their constituents or the wider electorate? Simple to say and harder to answer, and a question that is applicable in any country that has a democratic system of governance, regular elections and at least a nod in the direction of political transparency.

Politicians lie. All the time. From their perspective it is merely a retelling of truths as they perceive them even if they fly in the face of concrete realities. They know full well that what they are saying is something less than an unvarnished truth but would never willingly accept that they were actually lying. One observer in the UK said that if politicians in parliament were held accountable for the untruths they had used in their campaigns or even on the floor of the house, then 70 percent of them would be behind bars and the remaining 30 percent counting their blessings at having got away with it.

It appears that there has never been a prosecution such as that faced by Boris Johnson and a debate is now ongoing as to whether it ‘flies in the face of hundreds of years of democratic tradition’ by using the courts to overturn a political decision – Brexit. Some are alleging abuse of process by those hoping to overturn the referendum result – it was close but a clear decision to leave – and fretting about whether Boris Johnson a man who may or may not have lied depending on how you cut the 350 million cake is a fit person to lead one of the oldest political parties in the UK.

There has been a flurry of op-ed and editorial pieces across all media platforms dissecting the Johnson CV – and it is not pretty. An alleged serial adulterer and currently in the process of divorcing his wife of many years and possibly installing his mistress in Number 10, a man who has in the past been economical with the truth and has a tendency to say one thing in private and another in public. He is not a buffoon, an image he has played on for years, but a sharp operator with an eye to the main chance – and the prize.

There are doubts on all sides about his ‘character’ and fitness for public office in wider terms, and those doubts read across to the political herd of Pakistan many of whom (and here the usual ‘but not all’ caveat) are as casual with truths as Boris Johnson and no less sanguine about it.

And here’s the thing Dear Readers – we know this. We have always known it, and appear to accept that the political cadre is somehow living outside the Pale, exempt from the usual norms and standards that we hope to exercise ourselves and inculcate in our children. If there is no expectation of truth in one segment of society why should the rest of society be held to that which may be uncomfortable? Lies are good, truth is bad and the Orwellian doublespeak has a smile on its face.

Telling the truth was a value drummed into me as a child, and I have never ever been comfortable with dishonesty even on the very rare occasions when I have told a lie, usually in protection of another. Lying does not come naturally to me as is observed by those who know me and say that they can immediately tell if I am being economical with the verite. That said…on the occasions that I have voted I have knowingly endorsed men and women that I know for a fact are serial liars. Both to my face and the wider populace. A conundrum inside a paradox. In all likelihood the Brits are going to get a dissembling schemer as their next Prime Minister. And does it matter? Seemingly not…seemingly not.

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