As I write this, the headlines are all about parties at Downing Street. Regardless of what you think about the character of the current incumbent at No.10, I think there are some observations about recent events that question the value of truth. Or are we all so inured to dissembling, and disillusioned about our leaders to expect any better? I would hope the answer is, surely, that our expectations are higher than that.
The ‘parties’ news is still fresh in our minds. Tactics employed by those seeking to duck responsibility include hoping the issue goes away, denial, pointing the finger at others, claiming ignorance, then maybe accepting some minor indiscretion to save your bacon over the bigger mistake. Worst case, make a public apology-not-apology and tell all your mates you don’t mean it.
Haven’t we all seen this type of behaviour amongst our own leaders, at work? Perhaps we have even been guilty of some of the above, in extremis, in weak moments. We all have to do better, be better than this.
I find dissembling is particularly distasteful. By this I don’t mean, say, a privileged tennis player claiming the moral high ground over a visa, whilst playing down the fact (after being found out) that he’d broken multiple visa rules. What irritates me is if someone tries to explain away a problem by selecting small truths and half-truths. It’s insulting to our intelligence and doesn’t help overcome and learn from the problem.
OK, so we all do this from time to time - a bit - and it is just as annoying to others when we do it, as such behaviour is to us - to me - when on the receiving end.
Two other examples: COVID test kits and petrol. In both cases, the Government said, there’s no problem here - there are plenty of kits/no shortage of petrol - it’s just an issue of getting the kits/petrol to the consumer. Obviously, this cut no ice with us, the consumer - we were queuing and panic-buying, to protect ourselves and our families.
How much derision would a local council face, if it said, we know your bins haven’t been emptied for a few weeks, but it’s not a problem with our workforce or lorries - we’ve just got nowhere to dispose of it because we forgot to renew the waste disposal contract?
How many times over the past two years have council staff found a way, through innovation, flexibility and sheer hard work, to carry on delivering services to our customers?
Anyway, back to the truth. There is, of course, a potentially huge financial price to pay for a leader/organisation in not being truthful. And invariably, continuing to defend the indefensible. But when it is our leaders doing it - whether local or national - it is corrosive. People stop believing or giving the benefit of the doubt. And it takes many years to regain public trust in leaders, in institutions. The Metropolitan Police may not have been well regarded by black people even at the time of Stephen Lawrence’s death in 1993. But the force has, and continues to have an ongoing battle to regain trust, decades later.
I remember once having a conversation with a council leader. He was committed and diligent, but he wasn’t sure how to manage some bad news. I blithely tossed out the biblical quote - The truth will set you free! I think he took it to heart. He took my throwaway comment and showed that once the truth is said, it’s out there. No-one can use the knowledge of it, against you. You come across to the world as a truthful person - because you are! And it stands you in enormous good stead in difficult times - you can count on support from people who give you credit, and people will give you the benefit of the doubt.
So my hope is, at least most of the time, we can stop being prisoners of the truth, and instead, own it. It shows true leadership, it breeds trust, sets a good example, and helps with clear communication. And helps us sleep at night.
Tim Willis is a local government consultant