U-turns and the truth

 

by David Moss
April 2008
 

 

Sofas. How does the UK government make decisions? Under Tony Blair, we are assured, decisions were made on sofas. This move into soft furnishings worried Lord Butler, who preferred the older model of decision-making, based on Cabinet tables.

Whether made on sofas or around tables, there is a persistent hope that decisions are based on evidence and logic, guided by manifesto pledges. The picture is muddied by the rise of lobby groups, sumptuous entertainment and the promise of post-Cabinet jobs, but even that has a sort of rationality about it – self-interest.

What we avoid, like nature and vacuums, is the abhorrent thought that there is no rationality at all. We would rather there was a sinister conspiracy theory to explain our government's often perverse initiatives than no explanation at all.

And so to the 10p issue. What could possibly explain the 2007 Budget's abolition of the 10% income tax band? It had to be abolished to help pay for the reduction in the basic rate of income tax from 22% to 20%? Maybe.

And now, a year later, there has been a U-turn. Or at least, a U-turn has been outlined. Cue standard comments thereon, e.g. 'No harm in being wrong, sometimes' and 'There's nothing wrong with U-turning when hurtling towards a brick wall'.

We know about U-turns. We know that Denis Healey had to turn back from the airport when the IMF came on the phone. We know that Margaret Thatcher initially had to back down from confrontation with the NUM.

But there's something different about this latest one, the 10p U-turn.

Martin Kettle, writing in the Guardian, has gone into the matter in some depth. Why, he asks, did Labour MPs make relatively little fuss about 10p last year? Answer:

"... it is too easy to lump all the blame on backbenchers. Much of the real blame lies on Treasury ministers. They did not tell the truth within the Labour ranks about the 2007 budget. They pretended it said one thing when in fact it said another. But this was not a mistake. It was deliberate."

"did not tell the truth"? I.e. "lied"? Apparently that is, indeed, what he means, he names the Treasury ministers – Gordon Brown and Ed Balls – and he goes further.

Tony Blair, Mr Kettle says, asked Gordon Brown a few days before the 2007 Budget how many losers there would be from 10p:

"My information is that Brown replied that there would be very few losers indeed – I am informed that he told Blair that the number would be about 25,000."

A few hours after the Budget, according to Mr Kettle, the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimated the number of losers at 3.5 million and we now commonly accept a figure of 5.3 million. That's quite a difference. How to account for it? Mr Kettle attempts three explanations and then concludes:

"The gap between what Brown said to Blair and what is now acknowledged is so great that it appears fairly clear that Brown gave Blair false information. My information is that Blair thinks this is the case."

And only last week, as he flew back from the US, Mr Brown was telling journalists that there would be no losers from 10p.

Is it prissy to demand that government decision-making should be based on truth-telling? Should we be more grown up, should we acknowledge the reality of Realpolitik?

Here's a thought. From Professor Sir Michael Dummett. He is a Professor of philosophy and of theology and of mathematics, all three, at Oxford. And in his book on Frege's philosophy of language he advances the following hypothesis. He can't prove it, he would like to be able to, he suspects that it is true.

Meaning and truth, he suggests, are connected in the following way. Only if the vast majority of people intend to speak the truth the vast majority of the time can language have any meaning. Without that prevailing intention, language is meaningless.

Which could explain how some politicians can say that what is manifestly a Constitution is not a Constitution. And could explain how decision-making has got into its present parlous state.


David Moss has spent five years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

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