Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for October 23rd, 2011

Honesty and Politics

with 3 comments

Maybe you have noticed the quotation at the head of the right hand column of this blog. A number of events this week have come together to make me want to write about this topic. Firstly, George W Bush spoke at a $600 a ticket event in Surrey – and a lot of people protested that he should have been arrested for war crimes. The Iraq war was illegal, and so was the use of torture, but the reasons for the war’s illegality are what stick out in my mind since delivered a copy of the DVD “Fair Game” which I watched this weekend. Now it is fair to say that there has been some controversy over this movie and some of the claims it makes – but mostly it is about the importance of truth. The White House made claims about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which were shown to be untrue a few months after the invasion. Before the invasion  Joe Wilson, a former US diplomat, wrote a New York Times op-ed piece saying the claims – specifically about the use of yellow cake uranium from Niger to make nuclear weapons – were untrue. His wife, Valerie Plame was then revealed to be a CIA spy. Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and national security adviser “took the fall” for the leak, being found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice but did no jail time as Bush commuted his sentence. The film of course draws its drama from the tension between those who adhere to a higher standard and those who believe in expediency.

That also had resonance with a local story – at a much less dramatic level –  about almost the same thing. Doug Sweney was BC’s inspector of mines who did the right thing, coincidently about a uranium mine proposal – which the government of the day did not like. He lost his job and found getting another one difficult, and the mine’s proponent is now suing the government (something Sweney warned of) over the flawed process the government imposed over Sweney’s protests. He now wants his reputation restored.

Doug Sweeney doesn’t want money. He’s not even seeking an apology.

All he really wants is for the B.C. government to formally acknowledge that he was a good and competent civil servant who did the right thing in the face of extreme pressure to do otherwise.

Maybe the reason he is just seeking a good reference is that they can do that without anyone having to lose face, or go to court. As a well respected employment lawyer said to me, you may have a very good case but they have more money – and they can keep you tied up in legal disputes for years and ensure that it never gets to court. You will run out of resources long before they do.

When I left the BC public service someone remarked of me that I was “unusually candid”. I do not think that was necessarily meant as a compliment. Over the course of my career I observed a distinct fall in standards in public life, as spin and “optics” became more important than any concern for truth or integrity. Ken Livingstone, a famous left wing politician  in England, whom I worked for at the Greater London Council has recently published his autobiography “You Can’t Say That”. The Guardian’s interviewer seems to think he should have written about his private life: I agree with Ken, that’s is simply not her business nor anyone else’s. But he also says

“I’m never going to take the view that I should say whatever I need to say in order to achieve something. Because that implies a level of dishonesty.”

But it is a level of dishonesty that nearly everyone now seems to accept as part of what every politician has to do. It is commonplace to dismiss all politicians in the same breath. “How do you know a politician is lying? His lips are moving.”

“Livingstone’s politics have almost always been vindicated” – in other words he was truthful, often when the other side wasn’t. I directed the research programme that was used to support the GLC’s campaign against abolition. There was no doubt in my mind that we had the objective truth on our side. The claims that Mrs Thatcher and her minister Patrick Jenkin were not supported by facts or figures – and that was documented in official reports and a paperback aimed at the general reader (“Battle for London” by Francis Wheen) . But the winning the arguments does not matter if you lose the vote – which, of course with her majority in both houses Thatcher was not going to see happen. So what really surprised me was the following:

At a lunch to celebrate the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday (she was still sharp as a pin), Margaret Thatcher made her way through the crowd to say, “Stick to your guns. Everyone will be trying to tell you to do something else, but you must keep your resolve. You’re now the leader of the equivalent of a small nation. Resolute, that’s what you must be, resolute.” I thought this was a bit bizarre, remembering how she had greeted my election as GLC leader by comparing me to a communist dictator.

Well, I suppose you could say that she was a good political operator and encouraging divisiveness among her opponents was in her self interest. But I think actually she felt a sense of fellow feeling, for she was not at all a Tory insider at first – and she had her own ideas about how she should be presented. Her belief system was not at all like mine, but she was very much a person of integrity. And she recognized that in Ken.

In this blog I have tried very hard to stick to issues and not get bogged down in personalities. It really does not matter who I like or dislike, or even what people chose to believe or disbelieve. There always has to be room for disagreement: no-one has a monopoly on truth. There is always going to be a degree of subjectivity – a point of view, a preference for one interpretation over another, different ways of looking at the same things and coming to different conclusions. But then there are also now political operators who think that anything and anybody can be sacrificed to secure political power. In the movie, Joe Wilson relates a story of Saddam Hussein saying “I would rather see one of my friends die than allow an enemy to live”. The movie makes it clear that the decision to blow Valerie Plame’s cover was based on political expediency (to change the discussion from yellowcake to ‘who is Joe Wilson anyway’) and that cost the lives of her agents in the field – the Iraqi scientists who confirmed that there was no longer any WMD program. The people outside the meeting calling for George Bush’s arrest probably did not have that top of mind but they were right that he should be arrested and tried, given what we now know. Of course, he wasn’t .

Maybe Doug Sweney will now get what he asks for – but I would be surprised if he did.

Maybe Ken will once again be Mayor of London. I hope so, if only because he showed, with the Congestion Charge, that there is more to him than simply seeking to be popular. Not something one can say about Boris Johnson.

Maybe once again we will value truth instead of truthiness.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Posted in politics