I love Yes Minister. And its successor, Yes Prime Minister. One of my favourite bits is when Jim Hacker realizes he will have to go back on something he’d promised to do. His private secretary Bernard Woolley listens sympathetically, before offering these words, ‘They were only political promises Minister.’
‘What do you mean?’ asks a bewildered Hacker.
‘I mean, like your manifesto promises, people understand,’ explained Bernard.
It makes me laugh again when I think of it. But I was reminded of that sketch this week when some friends were talking about politicians.
‘It doesn’t matter who you vote for,’ said one friend, ‘Whoever gets in always forgets about their promises or says the previous administration have mucked things up so badly that they need to sort that out before they can start making new things happen. How can we believe a word they say when they never do anything they promise to?’
If you live in the UK, you cannot fail to notice that we’re now into the rush towards the election.
I’ve already found myself putting my head in my hands as I hear yet another politician explaining how their party will be the ones to sort out the economy, grapple with immigration, help the homeless, do away with the need for foodbanks, give compulsory days off when the sun is shining and unlimited chocolate supplies to writers of blogs.
I may have made a couple of those manifesto promises up, of course. But there is a feeling of cynicism that the political manifesto doesn’t contain real lasting truth. Just short-term promises that may or may not last the course.
And our distrust isn’t just limited to that.
Politicians. Estate Agents. Journalists. Three professions that people associate with spin and often accuse of bending the truth to suit their own purposes.
‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,’ is often bandied about as a joke in newsrooms. Except that sometimes it isn’t a joke. And sometimes however much we pretend otherwise by calling it a fib, a bit of spin or an exaggeration, it is – in fact – a downright lie.
I once said – not very kindly I admit and in a rush of frustration – to a friend whose relationship with honesty had always been at best sketchy, ‘You wouldn’t know the truth if it got up and bit you.’ But sometimes I wondered whether this person truly believed their own lies and whether the ultimate success of the untruthful person is to believe their own spin. Or – perhaps as we’re being honest and transparent here – they need to believe their own lies to justify their behaviour to themselves.
But what is truth? And how do we find it? How do we pick out the truth in the spin and skewed words that fill our ears and our minds every day?
I’m not sure these are the right questions. We believe what we want to hear. We search for a truth that we want to believe. Or as one of my friends – quoting his father – often says, ‘We can only be easily led in the direction we want to go.’
So where is truth found? I believe that truth is only really truth when it’s backed up with action. Let me explain: I wrote previously about my friend Alan and how he showed his love for his daughter by fixing her car (The Mechanics of Grace, January 2015). Alan might tell his daughter he loves her and I’m sure she knows that. But the truth of that love is shown through his actions towards her.
That truth of a father’s love is easy to unpick. The truth of a political manifesto is harder to find.
Also the perfect political party is like the perfect church or a seat on the Friday afternoon train service to where I live: impossible to find. Finding truth in the everyday whether it is in the workplace or amongst our friends is also a tough place to be. Avoiding lies and half-truths and fibs and spin is also tough. If you think I’m wrong, wait until one of your friends says, ‘I’ve had my haircut. What do you think?’ Or you have to fill in your next timesheet or tax return.
We should still search out the truth. We should still tell the truth in a society that’s made an acceptable habit of avoiding it.
It is said that many years ago a group of monks wrestled with how to make an anagram out of the question asked by Pilate when Jesus was put on trial before him. The question – ‘What is truth?’ – apparently translates into Latin as ‘Quid est veritas?’. It’s said that the monks worked long and hard to create the answer ‘Est vir qui adest.’ Those words translate as ‘It’s the man who is here’ or ‘The man who stands before you.’
Faced with that honest truthful gaze, lies would be impossible and more than once people walked away rather than face it and its gentle challenge. And he also pointed out that it was truth that would set us free.
And on a bleak Friday many years ago a hard-bitten centurion watched a cruel execution and was led to shout out a truth he had only just realised: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God.’
So by all means, let’s challenge our politicians, governments and business leaders to be transparent and open in what they say and how they work. But let’s also remember that a commitment to honesty needs to begin a lot closer to home.
Now… ain’t THAT the truth…