Politicians being economical with the truth is the price of a healthy democracy

May 18, 2003

Democrats should accept that some political deception is not only inevitable in a democracy but can be legitimate where it is conducted by elected politicians in the public interest where they have the tacit support of the electorate.

That is the key conclusion of Dr Glen Newey, a reader in politics at Strathclyde University, in his new research which is published today. The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

"There has been a lot of concern in recent years about political deception and spin under successive governments. But the more the electorate expects from the politicians they elect, the more likely it is that politicians will be economical with the truth," says Dr Newey. "Such deception where it is in the public interest may be the price of a healthy democracy."

Dr Newey reached his conclusions after analysing material from the Arms to Iraq archive and studying key American political events including Watergate, Iran-Contra and Bill Clinton's impeachment.

"We try to apply different moral standards to the public and to politicians, yet the more we do so the more likely it is that politicians resort to deception," he argues. "Demands for openness and accountability create a culture of suspicion which makes it even more likely that politicians will resort to evasion and misrepresentation.

"These demands often arise because of increasing alienation by voters from the political process that they democratically control. Yet the greater the demands for truthfulness, the less autonomy we give to our democratic institutions and the harder it is for democracy to function effectively."

Dr Newey adds that the electorate will decide in the end whether deception is justified: "In a democracy, the popular will is sovereign. The only general way to determine that will is through democratic procedures which must decided whether the people have willed a given course of action. They can make clear their support or opposition in subsequent elections.

"But the public interest must flow from this understanding and we should accept that where democratic bodies such as the electorate retrospectively sanction deception as being required to secure certain public goods, then that deception is in the public interest. It is in the nature of deception that the legitimacy of some acts of deception cannot be made public at the time since their efficacy depends on keeping the fact of deception out of the public realm."

However, Dr Newey argues that there should be a tougher standard as to whether or not public officials are lying. And there should be a stricter understanding of mendacity imposed on public servants. Ambiguity should be as frowned upon as straight lies. He explains: "If a speaker states the black is white, while believing this not to be true, but intending to deceive his audience, he is lying. Intent would be assumed where an audience could reasonably be expected to deduce that black was white from what the speaker said, and there are no strong independent reasons to assume he meant something different." And democratic procedures should include scrutiny bodies, such as public inquiries, to assess politicians' claims that given acts of deception are in the public interest.

"Discontent with democratic politics is both the cause and the consequence of political deception," he concludes. "Deception brings politics into disrepute, while politicians in their efforts to assuage popular disaffection impose on themselves unsustainably demanding standards of truth-telling. Unless we are more honest about this, we are in danger of causing lasting damage to our democracy."
For further information: Contact Dr Glen Newey on 44-141-548-2974 or 44-182-862-7955 (home) or 44-781-083-6735 (mobile) or email glen.newey@strath.ac.uk. Or Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds at the ESRC Press Office on 44-179-341-3119/413122.

1. The study "Truth and Deception in Democratic Politics" was conducted by Dr G.F. Newey at the University of Strathclyde Dept of Government in Glasgow.

2. The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.esrc.ac.uk.

Economic & Social Research Council

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