When Bill Clinton spoke these words in 1998 at the time of the Lewinsky Inquiry what it really meant was ‘I may have splashed semen all over my intern’s dress but because no actual penetration took place my lawyers will probably be able to get me off on a technicality’.
When wealthy individuals and chief executives say ‘we always pay all the tax we owe’ we know that what they really mean is ‘we have employed some brilliant accountants to manipulate the numbers in order to ensure that little, if any, tax is due despite the vast sums of money rolling into our fat bank accounts’.
When Osborne says he is likely to meet his target for a budget surplus in the 2019/20 financial year, having already failed on all his other targets, the electorate tends to shrug it off and give him the benefit of the doubt, even though the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) says there is barely more than a 50:50 chance that he will, and if he does it will only be because of some pretty extensive fiddling of the figures.
The public has become so bored by the frequency of this kind of deception that hardly anyone even minds it any more. Michael Crick has uncovered underreporting of election expenses in recent by-elections. This underreporting was not small or accidental, it was deliberate and extensive. The Conservative Party tried hard to conceal the fact that it has grossly exceeded the legal limits on spending by the central office on local election campaigns. The response so far has been muted.
In response to the seven-year delay in the report of the Chilcot Inquiry the public has grown very cynical about costly investigations that drag on for years, investigations that end up looking like little more than a series of expensive smoke screens. Perpetrators of serious (alleged) crimes are often either exonerated or ‘dead and dying’ by the time the reports emerge.
Not long ago to describe the situation in this way might have been considered a cynical and conspiratorial way of looking at things. These days to expect transparency and integrity from our politicians is considered to be quaintly naive.
Surely it is possible to conceive of a scenario in which deliberate and obvious distortions of the truth are described as fraud and held severely to account. Bill Clinton got away with it, and why not, who cares about all that now?
However, unless we take action against overt and obvious dishonesty, we will continue to perpetuate a climate of doublespeak, obfuscation and deceit. Democracy cannot function well in such a climate. Democracy is delicate and must be nurtured. If we believe in democracy we must uphold transparency and integrity, and expect nothing less from the politicians elected to represent us in parliament.