When politicians speak in code

Sometimes policicians seem to inhabit parallel universes and it difficult to believe that the things which different politicos say, or the things which some people in parliament say and the experience of ordinary people, are describing things on the same planet.

There was an example today when I watched a BBC news item on which Michael Heseltine, Lord Heseltine as he is now presenting a report which the government have commissioned him to write about what more can be done to turn round the difficulties with the British economy and get businesses growing, providing more jobs and higher incomes.

Heseltine was shown saying that he supported the present government, that he congratulated them on what they have done to turn the economy round, that many of the actions he was calling on them to take involved doing more of what they are already doing, and it was a sign of strength, not weakness that they had asked him to prepare a report which might be misrepresented as a criticism of their policies.

At the very moment that Michael Heseltine was shown saying these things about his report, a red banner came along the bottom of the screen saying that the Labour party said that his report was a savage indictment of government policy.

Extraordinary isn't it - the author of a report is shown on TV saying that his report means one thing and at the same time the Labour party is quoted as saying his report means pretty much the exact opposite.

Part of the reason people think they can get away with this sort of thing is that politicians of all parties have too often talked in "code" e.g. saying one thing and meaning another.

Sometimes they were forced to do this by the law. For example, a planning guideline called the "Predetermination Rule" used to mean that councillors who served on a council planning committee were not allowed to say how they were going to vote on a planning application in advance because that could be held to indicate that by making up their minds before the meeting they had failed to take the necessary account of all the duly submitted evidence including what was presented at the actual meeting.

I don't think this rule was a bad idea in principle but it was sometimes carried to ludicrously petty lengths which were harmful to democratic debate and accountability to the electorate, and the present government probably did the right thing when they scrapped it.

Politics would be healthier if MPs, candidates, and other people involved, operate on the basis that they should say what they mean and mean what they say.

And where two people express completely different views on what a particular document or report means - as with the Heseltine report today - you probably won't go too far wrong if you assume that it is more likely to mean what the person who actually wrote it says it means rather than what his or her political opponents say it means.


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