Almost two decades ago, as a junior political reporter on the Evening Standard, I heard the cabinet office minister William Waldegrave tell a parliamentary committee that in certain circumstances it was right for a prime minister to lie. The words made no impression on the committee itself, but I nevertheless dashed up to my office in the press gallery and constructed a story around his observations, which duly appeared as the late edition Evening Standard splash.
The most enormous row followed. There were calls for poor Waldegrave’s resignation. The Labour opposition made out that his comment showed that no Conservative government could be trusted. This was terribly unfair. William Waldegrave, whatever his faults as a politician, is an exceptionally scrupulous man and his remarks reflected his painful and exacting honesty. There are indeed certain exceptional circumstances where politicians have a duty to lie to their electorates.
Today the argument continues to simmer, and the American political scientist John Mearsheimer has made a valuable contribution to the growing literature surrounding political lying. The strength of his book lies in the power and clarity of its examples. The professor lucidly summarises many of the lies deployed by British and American political leaders over the last century: the deliberately misleading statements issued by Franklin Roosevelt about the German attack on USS Greer in 1941 in an attempt to convince US public opinion to support war; Lyndon Johnson’s lies about North Vietnamese aggression in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964; Hitler’s deception of the West in the 1930s; Jimmy Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis; the host of falsehoods knowingly uttered by George W. Bush and Tony Blair in an attempt to shape public opinion ahead of the invasion of Iraq.