Politics is a dirty job

Why do politicians lie? One explanation is that they have two horns on their head and a forked tail, because they belong to a race separate from the rest of us. Another explanation is that there really is such a thing as the greater good and sometimes it is necessary to lie to achieve it – in other words, they lie for the same reasons as we do.

In November 1993, John Major said to sit down and talk to the IRA and Sinn Fein would turn his stomach. He would not do it. In fact, he was doing it. He was lying. But he had good reasons to lie. He was engaged in a peace process in order to end by political means what military means alone hadn’t done for nearly 25 years. He could not, at that time, tell the truth and admit he was talking to the IRA. Less than 10 years before, this organisation had tried to murder his predecessor. In fact, they tried to murder him just two years before. In March of that year, 1993, the IRA had bombed Warrington and murdered two children. Had he told the truth, he might have risked political suicide. So he lied. But, so what? By lying, he kept the peace process on track and avoided even worse violence. He could justify what he did by the ends he was seeking.

I use this example to show how politics is a continuation of ordinary life, and not a radical departure from it. We all have lied. Sometimes we lie for good reasons and sometimes for bad reasons. But politicians, like us, are consequentialists. We assess our actions, the means we use, in relation to their ends, the goals we want to achieve. The ends do indeed justify the means.

Now that does not end the argument. If you think that the IRA was the epitome of evil, then you will not accept this. Lying about talking to the IRA was not acceptable; not because the lie was unacceptable but talking to them at all was unacceptable. You might have thought that the right thing to have done was use force to defeat them. You achieve peace by ensuring your side wins. But you would still have used the argument the means justify the ends. You might have justified the extra-judicial killings of IRA operatives or their leaders – shoot to kill. If that is what it would have taken to win peace, then so be it. Others would have disagreed. Others would have considered that murder. You, however, might have seen it as self-defence. If you condemned Major for having lied about talking to the IRA, you would not have been condemning the lie but what it was he was concealing. If Major had pursued a different policy, such as a no-holds-barred, shoot to kill policy, you would probably would have defended him, if he stood up lied to parliament about the existence of such a policy. You would have accepted that a lie was necessary because the policy it served was necessary.

Now, the issue here is not the debate between means and ends that have occupied moral philosophers for centuries. It is that we, in our moralistic condemnation of politicians, we hold them to higher standards than we expect of ourselves. When we condemn others for their uses of ‘newspeak’, the obfuscation and euphemism of the means others use to attain what they think are noble ends, then we are often condemning the ends which they seek and not so much the language they use.

This is not to slide into moral relativism. Some ends we can all agree are worth pursuing. Personally, lying to parliament about talking to the IRA was fine. Lying to parliament about non-existent Iraqi WMDs was not. It is not the lie that mattered; it was the end being pursued.

Politicians, in their day-to-day work, often have to deal with situations with limited time, information, and resources with which to make a decision. But don’t we all? That means they and we temporise, put off difficult decisions, kid ourselves and others that we really know what we are doing, or reach for messy solutions and compromises that fail to satisfy everyone. This does not mean that both the means they and we use and the ends that they and we pursue are immune to criticism. But let’s just cut out the moralistic crap that pretends that politics and politicians are a cut below the rest of the human race. Politics is often a dirty job. Someone has to do it. Not just politicians. So do the rest of us.

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