1960s >> 1963 >> no-701-january-1963

Honour & Truth: Honesty in Politics

Recently a small storm was raised by Mr. R. H. S. Crossman, Labour M.P. for Coventry, by an article in The Guardian in which he wrote that it is hypocrisy to condemn politicians for their lies and deceptions; the condemnation should rest on their policy itself, not on the practices which surround the policy:


  The truth is that in politics there come occasions when honourable men are bound to practice deception and tell lies, and any hypocrites will impugn their personal integrity when things go wrong and they are caught red-handed. (The Guardian, 2/11/62.)


He took to task Lord Home, who had smugly claimed that the Russian deception over the Cuba missiles “showed that the Free World could not afford to take anything from the Soviet Union on trust.” Crossman recalled that just six years earlier Eden “was trying to conceal the concerted Anglo-French-lsraeli attack on Nasser from the Americans, under a fantastic mixture of evasions, half-truths, and breaches of solemn commitments,” and among those who shared responsibility for this attempt “to deceive our American allies ” was the present Prime Minister.


Of course, government and politics are riddled with lies and deceptions, but many people hate to accept it, like the reader of The Guardian, who could hardly believe that Crossman really meant what he said: “. . . have I misunderstood? I have always assumed it axiomatic that honour and truth are indivisible even in politics.”


A couple of other examples of lies in politics made the news within a few weeks of Crossman’s article. Mr. Sylvester, United States Assistant Secretary of Defence, admitted that news was “generated” by the American government during the Cuban crisis and “was used successfully” and that his government would continue to use “news” to further its foreign policy. “I think the inherent right of the government to lie to save itself when faced with nuclear disaster is basic.” (Times, 8/12/62.)


The other example concerned United Nations and its late Secretary-General’s statements and actions during the Congo-Katanga dispute. It cannot be doubted, said the Sunday Telegraph,


  “that the statement issued from Leopoldsville at the time, while Hammarskjoeld himself was there, was a complete fabrication. In trying to give the impression that the fighting was merely part of an attempt to complete the expulsion of ‘mercenaries,’ an imaginary story was concocted that was quite at variance with the only facts then known. . .”

(Sunday Telegraph, 18/11/62.)


The practice of public lying is so widespread that the readers of The Guardian can hardly believe that it does not exist, but he possibly does believe that it could and should be got rid of. What chance is there of this!


Speak the truth
Probably every child born into the world is told by parents, teachers and others that he or she ought to speak the truth. Certainly it is difficult to imagine any of them being told that it is their duty always to refrain from speaking the truth.


But they are also taught to be selective about it, and if not so taught, they soon discover it for themselves. They learn to dissemble, to keep their mouths shut on occasion, to put a gloss on things and generally to avoid the trouble that would ensue for them and those around them if they went about all day long blaring what they believe to be the truth. By the time they are grown up they will have found that it is a very tricky business to steer a safe course through the permitted truths and the compulsory lies. Though they will still be told by governments, employers, newspaper proprietors and church leaders that truth is sacred, they will be in trouble if, for example, as salesmen, they tell the customers what sort of rubbish it is they are selling, and that the owner of the goods simply wants their money and as much profit as possible. They will also have to realise that a passion for disclosing the truth will not save them from action for libel or slander, or from the Official Secrets Act. They will have it forcibly impressed on them that though some lies are punished as perjury, other lies are officially required of them.


In war-time the somewhat haphazard private-enterprise peace-time lying gets properly organised and comes into its own, as was entertainingly described by the late Lord Ponsonby in his Falsehood in War-time, a book published in 1928, dealing with the massive official lie- machines of the first world war. When a government decides to go to war lying to its own population about themselves and about the enemy is an important weapon of war. It helps to inflame patriotic passions and make them readier to kill and be killed. Ponsonby put on record a fascinating selection of the wartime “propaganda truths” subsequently proved to have been bareface lies and in some instances deliberate and coldblooded inventions—like the official story spread all over the world that the Germans were boiling down corpses to make lubricating oil and other products to serve the war effort. Most of the examples in the book were taken from the British and allied propaganda efforts, but Ponsonby had no illusions, he knew that war-time official lying is universal. He also knew that he could disclose these things only when the war was over. He would certainly not have been able to publish the book and get it widely circulated while the war was on.


Moreover, while war-fever was at its height most people would not have been in a fit state of mind to accept his disclosures. It was only in the somewhat more sober atmosphere after the war that they would listen. He quoted John Bright:


  You will find wars are supported by a class of argument which, after the war is over, the people find were arguments they should never have listened to.

Ponsonby also knew that “lying . . . does not take place only in war-time,” and he commented on the fact that while the habit of lying is common, man’s habit of lying “is not nearly so extraordinary as his amazing readiness to believe. It is indeed, because of human credulity that lies flourish ”


This credulity is the crux of the matter. How can the suckers escape being taken in by the confidence men? How can workers break out of the confusion of the social system based on their exploitation? Knowledge and understanding are the only sure answer, together with the cultivation of a critical attitude of mind to the unceasing streams of interested sales-talk and propaganda. Cut away the trimmings, the charms and oratorical skill of the speaker, and get down to a critical examination of the argument and evidence. Don’t accept assertions and promises on some supposed infallibility attaching to the source from which they come. Above all, examine the case against the propaganda of the governments, ruling class groups, and the propertied class. They are interested parties and the interests they are concerned with are not those of the working class.


Notice that, almost unique among propaganda bodies, the SPGB has open meetings, anyone can attend our Executive Committee meetings, conferences, etc., and anyone can ask questions and claim the right to put opposition at our propaganda meetings. This is our own safeguard, and yours—that what we say is true.


Lies, suppression, distortion and secrets do not serve the interests of the workers of the world but the interests only of their exploiters.


Edgar Hardcastle