Yesterday, the House of Commons agreed to a motion calling for an investigation of Boris Johnson. That investigation will focus on whether or not the Prime Minister mislead parliament when responding to questions about alleged parties at Downing Street during the lockdowns.
The debate both inside the House of Commons and wider in the media and on social media has been fascinating particularly as it touches on two important issues, truth and forgiveness. In this article I would like to talk about truth and lies
The usual convention in parliament has been that MPs do not accuse one another of lying or being liars. There are good reasons for that convention and one of them is that it is actually very hard to prove that someone is a liar. What we are looking for when accusing someone of lying is first that they have said something that is untrue and secondly that they knowingly/intentionally said something that they knew to be untrue. So, for example it is possible for the Prime Minister to argue that he was not lying when he said that there weren’t any parties and that the law was broken because he genuinely believed that the events he attended were within the law and that he was ignorant of other events.
This point is important because it has been suggested by some that a new law is brought in that forces politicians to tell the truth. I’m not sure exactly how you do that but it would be very difficult to prove the law broken, certainly to the criminal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt.”
However, there are two things to consider here. The first is that when we are looking at the behaviour of the Prime Minister and making judgements about his character and competence for high office, we are not attempting to make a criminal conviction, nor are we doing so on the basis of one isolated incident. So the question being asked of Boris Johnson right now, is not “Can we prove beyond reasonable doubt that Boris knowingly said something that was untrue about attending a party.”
Rather, the general public are assessing Johnson’s character based on his behaviour and demeanor over time. We are building up a picture of what he is like. Further, because the question isn’t “Should the man go to prison?” but rather, “should he stay in his job” it means that “beyond reasonable doubt” isn’t the only burden of proof. We may rather ask “on the balance of probabilities, does it strike us that Boris Johnson is instinctively truthful or untruthful?”
This takes me to the second point and this is perhaps of even greater importance for us as we think about our own lives and character. I’m talking now to fellow believers and I think that there are standards that we should, through the Holy Spirit, commit ourselves to and hold one another to account on.
When we say that it is wrong to lie – or to use the term found in the ten commandments “Bear False Witness” we are stating the negative counterpoint to what godly character looks like. One of God’s characteristics is that he is the God of truth and so we are meant to be truthful as well. Being truthful is more than just “not telling lies” it is about seeking to tell the truth. This means that I seek to be diligent in what I say. I won’t make claims that I’m not able to verify and back up ith hard evidence. Actually, Parliament gets that when it sets the standards in terms of “misleading the House.” There is recognition that someone can inadvertently mislead by speaking in ignorance. That is why the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd had to resign over the Windrush Affair. She answered questions in a manner that was misleading even though she did not realise that she was doing so.
Returning to politics and the example of Boris Johnson, we might go back to the Brexit referendum. Now I don’t know how you voted or why you voted the way yo did but I’m sure that even people outside of the UK are familiar with the bus advert controversy. The leave campaign which Johnson was instrumental in plastered this phrase on the side of a campaign bus.
“We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund the NHS instead.”
Now were the people who put that advert out lying. It’s actually difficult to say confidently they were. You see, our total EU bill at the time was around £350 million per week. So, technically it was true. Furthermore, for the campaigners to be lying we would also have to prove that they were intentionally seeking to deceive. Were they really claiming that if we left the EU that we would have an extra £350 million per week to spend on healthcare? Well, there is some wiggle room in there isn’t there. They haven’t said that all of the money would go on the NHS.
However, was the statement truthful? Can we hand on heart say that the campaign team, including Boris “told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”? That’s where we start to feel a wee bit uncomfortable. You see, we know two things. First, we know that whilst the gross sum paid to the EU came to around about that, once you’d taken into account our rebates and momeny spent back into the EU it was substantially less. And then when you remember that the NHS only covers England but the whole of the UK was leaving, when you think of other potential demands on the public purse and when you factor in the other costs that we would accrue, it become very clear that the NHS wasn’t going to be getting £350 million. Now, whilst politicians may claim that they never intended to communicate that this would happen, they should have been able to easily foresee that many people would understand the advert in that way.
We see another example in the Conservative’s commitment to recruit an extra 50000 nurses at the last General Election. The reality was that many of those nurses were actually already in the profession and would be retaining their jobs.
If it sounds like I’m picking on one party, the frequent claim by Labour that the Tories will privatise the NHS intentionally brings to mind the selling off of British Gas and the water boards but Labour know that there is no intention by anyone to sell shares in the NHS to the highest bidders. This is another example of carelessness about the truth. Or, even this week, Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions claimed that the PM had attacked the BBC for failing to criticise Putin enough. His accusation was based on hearsay from a meeting of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. In other words, it was a meeting that Starmer was not at. He had no way of knowing if the claim was true and yet he was quick to make it. It later transpired that it was false. Additionally (as we are trying tob e even handed here), one might comment that Starmer’s conflation of criticism of the BBC’s commentary with contempt for frontline journalists reporting is rather underhand and frankly ridiculous. This is another example of being careless and reckless with the truth.
People in glass houses should not throw stones and politicians may do well to remember that many people think that on the balance of probabilities all politicians have a dysfunctional relationship with truth. However, this does not mean that we have to accept it from the Prime Minister. My own view remains unchanged from when I said that he lacks the character and competency required to lead.
The point is this. Being truthful means that I value truth and so do everything within my power to ensure that I communicate it and do so fully.
This is important for us as Christians. I’ve seen a couple of examples in terms of the wider church scene over the past few years that I’d like to remind you of. First of all, there’s been the recent controversies around the Trinity. As I’ve explained many times, there are problems on both sides of the so called “EFS” debate. However, neither side has stepped across the line into heresy. Yet, some Christians have been free and easy with their accusations against others. Now, they may not be intentionally slandering others, not least if they genuinely believe their claims. Yet, I don’t think this is good enough. We of all people should work to a higher standard. We should be careful about what we say, not reckless or negligent with our words, seeking to be truthful.
Similarly, I’ve seen people throwing around all kinds of accusations in the light of recent controversies and scandals to do with racism and abuse. In particular, some have been quick to accuse Christians who have spoken out on these issues of being wedded to Marxist philosophies and therefore adding to or abandoning the Gospel. Rarely do such claims come with even the most meagre attempt at providing evidence. Yet the consequences are that the reputations of others are trashed. This is not good.
Now, you and I are unlikely to get involved in parliamentary politics anytime soon and nor are most of us likely to be involved in the major fallouts on the international evangelical stage. However, we still have a responsibility within our churches to the truth. This is not just about saying “I didn’t intentionally lie.” Rather, it is about showing a love and concern for God and others which involves a treasuring of the truth so that we take care both in what we do say and what we don’t.