by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 18
August 2021
Off grid
10:40

It’s impossible to stop politicians lying

A petition is seeking to ban untruths from the House of Commons — it will fail
by Peter Franklin
Boris Johnson in the House of Commons earlier today

If lying in court is a criminal offence — i.e. perjury — then why shouldn’t the same apply to lying in Parliament? That’s the argument behind a petition launched by the vlogger Peter Stefanovic that’s already gathered 120,000 signatures:

“The Government should introduce legislation to make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence. This would mean that all MPs, including Ministers, would face a serious penalty for knowingly making false statements in the House of Commons, as is the case in a court of law.”


Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in


OK, let’s think this one through. For a start, we’d have to put our MPs on oath. But that could be done: when they take the existing Oath of Allegiance they could also swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.

Of course, there are circumstances in which MPs — especially ministers — are duty-bound to lie. Reasons of national security, for instance. But if we carve out some sensible exemptions, what’s wrong with criminalising the barefaced ‘political’ lie?

Well, there’s the sheer impracticality of it. If rigorously enforced, half the Commons and most of the Government would be arrested within the first week. Just imagine: “I welcome the Minister to his new role…”,  “Having read the report carefully…”, “My honourable friend…”. There aren’t enough police cells in London, let alone Westminster. 

But let’s assume we can draft a law that ignores the petty untruths of politics. In theory, that would just leave the misrepresentation of important facts.  

I think we can guess which ‘facts’ the supporters of this petition have in mind: the sort of claims one might find painted on the side of a bus or featured in a dodgy dossier. But that gets us into the weeds of context — not to mention interpretation, rhetoric and fair comment. 

Who gets to hand down judgment on that? Remember that a criminal offence of lying in Parliament wouldn’t just require a fact-checking operation, but the ability to distinguish a deliberate falsehood from an honest mistake (or a stupid one). This would mean developing a whole new branch of criminal law, upheld by a specialist police force and prosecution service.  Any such apparatus would become the most powerful actor in our national politics — a ‘ministry of truth’ beneath which our elected representatives would cower, afraid to open their mouths.

The fact is that some truths — and some lies — are just too big for the law. The only court in which they should be judged is the court of public opinion. 

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
9 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

I completely agree. In a time when dissent is being weaponized as conspiracy theory or far-right rhetoric, the last thing we need is a political body that dictates truth to us. This is just as bad as Ibram X Kendi’s plea for an unelectable federal Diversity Taskforce designed to stamp out systemic racism across the nation.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 year ago

I suspect that it wouldn’t be as hard to distinguish lies in the chamber as you suppose: a motion sensor aimed at their mouths should suffice.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

I say make them personally liable for any spending which exceeds revenue.

Open civil law of Liability to Parliamentarians – ‘Lost your Business to Lockdown? Call us at 01495859344XX and we will sue which ever MPs voted for the Lockdown. Six figure payouts possible, no cost to you unless you Win!’

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
1 year ago

Instead of making a lie a criminal offence I suggest that an MP be entitled to ask the Speaker to require the MP they accuse of lying to swear to truth of the statement they have made failing which it is deleted from the record.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
1 year ago

“I always lie”. Apply that to the title of this article.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

Why should we expect the truth? Politicians have always told lies but today we have greater access to what they say, so we are more critical. To succeed in politics you have to tell lies – what else?

Suppose a politician appeared today and said, “I don’t believe in BLM.” How many votes would he get? The others would smell victory and gang up on him to try to push themselves forward. Who would pay for his speech writers, researchers, etc? I’m afraid that lies are the only way forward.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

I remember an interview where Nigel Havers recounted asking his prominent politician father, Sir Peter, why politicians lie so much. The answer was, “If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get elected.”

Max Beran
Max Beran
1 year ago

Politicians don’t lie or tell the truth, they just “aspire”. What matters to them is what they aspire to, and having aspired to something, that in their minds takes on a sort of reality that transcends the lesser reality that ordinary mortals consider to be objective fact.
The grandees of Titipu (in the closing scene of G&S’ Mikado) understood this perfectly when they convinced the Mikado that his demand for a beheading had been fulfilled (when it hadn’t) by simply reminding him that the mere expression of his command was tantamount to it having been carried out, such was the mightiness of his will.

Sarah Johnson
Sarah Johnson
1 year ago

I strongly disagree with the conclusion of this article. Let’s give some examples of actual lies told by politicians and see if anyone really wants to defend them.

– Boris saying he paid for the Downing St refurbishment himself. He didn’t and lying about it looks an awful lot like trying to cover up corruption
– Matt Hancock saying that elderly patients were being tested for covid before being discharged from hospital into care homes. They weren’t, and thousands of people are dead because of it.
– Multiple claims about the PPE procurement scandal including claims that there was no VIP lane for Tory cronies (there was), that details of all contracts had been published (billions of pounds worth hadn’t been), and that ministers were properly keeping records of all relevant discussions (they were communicating by WhatsApp). These lies are being used to cover up for billions of pounds of public money directed to chums for PPE at inflated prices, often unusable, while genuine suppliers were frozen out.

Lies matter. Letting politicians get away with lying means we are inviting them to do it again, worse. To cover up for more corruption and incompetence.

Making politicians tell the truth to Parliament is the very least we should do. Personally I’d make it a crime for them to lie to the public too.