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Why won’t politicians say “Yes” or “No”?

By Richard Pooley

Ian Blackford

Photo: BBC Parliament

Something minor but bizarre involving a senior British politician happened last Sunday morning. No, for once, the wretched charlatan, Boris Johnson, was not the culprit. Well, not directly.

Let me explain. The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the House of Commons (the real ones are all in Edinburgh fomenting secession from the UK) is a man called Ian Blackford. The member of Parliament for Ross, Skye and Lochaber was until last week chiefly known for driving 600 miles from his rented accommodation in London to isolate at his house on the Isle of Skye on 26 March, 2020, three days after the British people were told to “stay at home and save lives”. A few weeks later he was castigating Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s then evil genie and chief adviser, for driving half that distance to test his eyesight in Durham. Now Blackford is better known as the MP who was ejected from the chamber of the House of Commons last week for stating the truth: that Johnson had lied inside the chamber. What he said was that the Prime Minister “has wilfully, wilfully misled Parliament”. Amid cries of “Shame!” from, presumably, Tory MPs who find nothing shameful in Johnson’s behaviour, Blackford went on: “It’s not my fault if the Prime Minister can’t be trusted to tell the truth.”

To say inside the Chamber (but not outside it) that a minister or any member has “misled Parliament” has been deemed for centuries to be unparliamentary language and, if not withdrawn, will result in temporary eviction. To suggest that a fellow MP commit suicide, as one Tory did to Blackford a few months ago, is, however, not considered unparliamentary language. Blackford feels strongly that these arcane rules need to be changed. By the sound of some of his recent statements on the matter, the Speaker of the House of Commons – its referee – agrees.

I too agree with Blackford. However, I’m not sure that allowing MPs to accuse each other of lying is going to make the quality and effectiveness of debate in Parliament rise from its current abysmally low level.

In fact, there is no need for an MP to accuse another in Parliament of lying. Just state the facts. For example: “On 1 December, 2021, the Prime Minister said in this House the following: ‘What I can tell the right honourable and learned gentleman is that all guidance was followed completely in No 10’ [Downing Street].Sue Gray makes clear in her so-called ‘Update Report’ that the Covid guidance was not followed completely at No 10. She investigated 16 separate gatherings, Mr Speaker, of which 12 are being investigated by the Police for Covid-rule breaking. Will the Prime Minister resign if he is found to have misled the House?”

As well as hypocrisy, another Blackford vice is the inability to say one word when ten are available for him to spout. This was in evidence last Sunday when Blackford appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House. He was being quizzed by Paddy O’Connell, one of the most charming and, hence, most effective of interviewers of politicians to be found on radio or TV. O’Connell allowed Blackford to argue his case for MPs to say whatever they like in Parliament and for trust in politicians not to be undermined by a congenital liar such as the Prime Minister. His frustration with the blathering* Blackford was palpable. The interview ended with the following exchange:

O’C: “One straightforward question: as a human being you’ve told a lie, haven’t you?”

B: “Well, look…, I try to be as truthful as I can be and obviously there are, there are shades of these things but what you’re really. But look”

O’C: “No, no. Just answer. Just have a go. Have you told a lie?”

B: “Look, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head but”

O’C: “But in your life, young Ian, baby Ian”

B: [nervous laughter] “None of us”

O’C: “Teenage years, Ian”

B: “I’m sure”

O’C: “Try, try the word Yes. Have you told a lie?”

B: “I’m sure I have, yes, of course but look the point is”

And on he went. I wasn’t listening. I was astonished at his inability to give an honest answer to the simplest question to which there is, in truth, only one answer. Yes, Mr Blackford: in truth.

Have you never lied? Really? I can’t imagine there is anyone anywhere who has not. You can dress it up as a white lie, as saving face or trying to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. It may make you feel better. But it’s still a lie. Honest.

What I find most odd about Blatherford (sorry but I’ve wanted to call him that ever since listening to the interview) is that he thinks it is wise not to say “Yes” to “Have you told a lie?” After all, to say “No” or anything other than an honest “Yes” is, well, a lie. And anybody listening will know that. How can we trust you, Mr Blackford or any other politician, when you refuse to give a one-word answer to the simplest question?

If you think I’m being too hard on one man, only the next day I heard a female Labour politician do exactly the same thing as Blackford. She was on the radio attacking Johnson for refusing to apologise for his slander of the Labour leader and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, in the House of Commons. Johnson had accused Starmer of “failing to prosecute [the paedophile] Jimmy Saville, as far as I can make out.” Again the woman had a strong case to argue. It is indeed a baseless claim. Yet she undermined her argument by refusing, twice, to say “Yes” when asked: “Do you want the Prime Minister to apologise?” Instead, she blathered on about how important for our democracy that he did so. I switched her off.

My message to all politicians: Say “Yes” or “No” more often. Then shut up and wait for the next question. We who are listening will then listen to what you have to say. And you may be invited more often to speak on radio and TV. I doubt if Blatherford will be a guest again on Broadcasting House any time soon. He only has himself to blame for being cancelled.

*There is one reader who has told me that she hopes to learn a new word every time she reads an article in Only Connect. I’ll try to take that as a compliment. I’m sure she knows what blather means: to talk for a long time in an annoying way. It comes from Old Norse blathra, meaning nonsense. A Scottish friend tells me the Scots prefer blether; so perhaps Blackford was blethering.


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