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Not long ago, a solicitor who has recently started attending Quaker Meetings for Worship told me that over a lifetime of practice, he had on many occasions been impressed by Friends who would put themselves at a legal and financial disadvantage by strict adherence to the truth. Although this is by no means a virtue confined to Quakers, its absence is perhaps more common than its presence and has in recent weeks, come into sharp political focus.
Where there is misrepresentation of facts for political gain, mistrust and cynicism is entrenched. It becomes less and less likely that voters will take politicians as anything other than self-serving rogues. The very notion of both honourable service and the essential democratic principle of adjudicating with integrity between conflicting interests falls out of our expectations, and eventually, even out of our knowledge. This diminishes us all.
In January, David Cameron said that the government was “making progress in paying down Britain's debts” - an argument upon which both condemnation of the previous government and continued support for his austerity programme depends. It being vanishingly unlikely that the Prime Minister does not understand the difference between debt and deficit, it would seem that he chose to blur the distinction for his own purposes.
Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the of the UK Statistics Authority – which is charged with overseeing the work of the Office for National Statistics – wrote to the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff to remind him that “it is clearly important for all the parties to public debate in this area to understand the relevant statistical definitions and to distinguish changes in the level of debt outstanding from changes in borrowing per period and to reflect these in their communication of the statistical trends involved.”
An unchastened Prime Minister was at it again last week. In a speech given during a visit to an engineering firm in Keighley, he claimed that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) had shown that the coalition's austerity measures have not harmed growth and were not to blame for the UK's economic stagnation. Robert Chote, head of the OBR, wrote to Cameron to put the record straight: “For the avoidance of doubt, I think it is important to point out that every forecast published by the OBR since the June 2010 Budget has incorporated the widely held assumption that tax increases and spending cuts reduce economic growth in the short term.” He added: “We believe that fiscal consolidation measures have reduced economic growth over the past couple of years.”
More was to follow. During last week's Prime Minister's Question Time, Cameron – on the back foot over mounting opposition to the 'bedroom tax' - announced that families with severely disabled children would be exempt from any sanction. Within a day, not only had Channel 4's 'Fact Check' blog exposed this as untrue and pointed out that 10 families with disabled children were currently challenging the government in the courts on this very issue, Grant Shapps, Conservative Party co-Chairman and former Housing Minister, had made it clear that although “discretionary payments were available in certain circumstances”, families with disabled children were "not exempt."
This level of deception from the head of our government is deplorable. In looking into David Cameron's previous career, I found this Daily Mirror article by Brian Reade http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/the-tories-unspun-brian-reade-uncov...) which described Cameron in 1992, then a “key member of the Tory election machine”, as trying to re-jig a doctor's testimony to the advantage of John Major's government. It was only the integrity of John Wakeham, then the Energy Secretary, who “bawled him out” which prevented this cynically dishonest treatment of an independent witness' text taking place. It appears that there has never been a denial of this occurrence.
We cannot afford to let the currency of our common life be debased in this manner. Disagreement over policy is one thing; cavalier disregard for what may be inconvenient is quite another. If you feel the same, please join the Twitter conversation at #TruthFromPoliticians We can do better if enough of us demand change.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet