Liar, know thyself

by Eric Joyce

Upon reading the dozens of bitter and bileful comments below Peter Watt’s thoughtful Uncut piece on the Phil Woolas episode, I was struck by how many people there are around of unimpeachable personal integrity, their lives un-marred by a single personal error of any significance.

As a pure person who has never done anything I later regretted, I felt among kindred spirits. Indeed, if you check out the letters page of any newspaper, you’ll see that such virtue is commonplace these days. While, at the same time, recent research (at shows that most people are pretty sure that most politicians are lying most of the time.

So why is it that all politicians, apart from me, are such lying liars? Why are they all, with the same caveat, such cowardly cowards? What’s so wrong with democracy that it only elevates to public office scoundrels and never the pure (me aside)? It’s a puzzle.

It occurs to me that, just for laughs you understand, it might be worth taking a look at these questions through the other end of the telescope. What if it were the case that our democratic system does not systematically and dysfunctionally send just the scum of the earth to Westminster? What, instead, if it were true that many people were living lies and using politicians as a means of exorcising their own demons of guilt and frustration; politicians the vessel for their own imperfections?

Politics is basically about raising and allocating resources according to a broad set of values. Most people want the best for their families and do all they can to achieve that end, and it’s inevitable that articulate and intelligent people do better in their struggle for their own share. Labour exists to combat unfairness, of course. Yet, regardless of their politics, most folk are decent moral agents and as well-educated, better-off people see their own kids doing better than those from less well-off backgrounds, they construct their own narratives upon which they lay the sanitised stories of their familes’ relative success.

Some people see virtue in a naked “only the strong survive” philosophy; most don’t. Thus many people, aware that they’re in the hunt for the best deal they can get for those they love, even if that’s just themselves, avert their eyes from the reality that if they win some others will lose in what in tough times is often a zero-sum game. They put together ropey arguments whose main function is to mitigate their guilt.

For example, many people have a much lower tax-pain threshold than they let on. That is to say, they lie about how much tax they’re prepared to pay. They want good public services, but also to pay as little for them as they can. At the ballot box, they know that there will be competition involving losers.

Take the example of medical students. A relatively few years after qualifying, they will routinely, and justifiably, earn a six-figure sum – putting them within the highest percentile of earners in most constituencies. A small number will earn a lot more. Yet, at present, the BMA is taking to the airways to argue that higher university tuition fees will dissuade some of the highest performing school students from becoming doctors. Their argument runs that a child with 6 A* A-Levels will be less likely to make a rational choice than a child from a better-off background. Of course, that argument is fatuous, patronising and without any foundation in research or the experience of teachers. Yet it is put by some of the most highly educated people in our society. It is, if you like, a lie in pursuit of naked self-interest.

Or think about many people’s attitudes to drugs and alcohol. Of course, alcohol does immeasurably more societal and personal damage than ecstasy; but it’s available on tap, literally, while ecstasy’s an A-class drug. And many people support “the war on drugs” knowing that hard-drug prices make it clear that it’s completely ineffectual, while doing their own impressive bit for the treasury down at the pub. So they feel OK for their pain-free opposition to “bad” substance abuse by the generation behind them while indulging themselves on the stuff their own generation deems OK.

And what about, say, child abuse? How much does “stranger danger” dominate public discourse, when the overwhelming majority of it takes place in the household?

And racism? Well, luckily there’s no racism around at all now. I’ve asked a lot of people if they’re a racist and they’ve all said they’re not. So perhaps when desperate politicians in some tightly-fought marginals are tempted into grey areas of language and insinuation, they’re barking up the wrong tree. But on the other hand, perhaps they’re not.

Here’s the truth. It’s hard to lie as a politician because everything we say is subject to enormous scrutiny – we’ll get found out even if we wanted to lie in the first place. But politicians know the lies a lot of people live and they pitch to you accordingly. There’s a lot of lying going on, for sure. The letters-page paragons are right in that respect. But they might want to reflect on who is really doing the lying.

Eric Joyce is Labour MP for Falkirk and a shadow Northern Ireland minister.

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34 Responses to “Liar, know thyself”

  1. gwenhwyfaer says:

    Sweetie, I think most of those letter writers can be fairly confident of not having libelled an opponent in the course of an election campaign.

  2. Tom Miller says:

    Dear Eric,

    With the greatest of respect, this post misses the basic context, which is firstly that people expect conduct somewhat better than their own from candidates for public office, and secondly that this is probably quite a laudable state of affairs when it comes to running a country…

  3. randompunter says:


    I suppose you also might think it’s pretty much lying to deliberately make some uncontroversial points and non-sequitur to the conclusion that the oprobium directed at Phil Wollas was unfair.

    I work in the private sector and although I compete hard for business I’ve never felt the need to lie about my competitors to provide a service to my customers. It’s for the same reason sports teams are polite about each other. We all play on the same field and we realise that denigrating each other in the end just makes us all worse off.

    Phil Wollas deserves all he gets (and more). Just because some equally morally bankrupt people think he’s a good bloke, doesn’t stop him being a nasty piece of work.

    And yes, I would probably make the case that politics does attract (and develop) people who are prepared to do/say anything to win.

  4. Eric Joyce says:

    Gwenhwyaer, to be fair I wasn’t really writing about Phil Woolas. What do you think of what I was writing about? Tom, that would just be hypocrisy wouldn’t it?

  5. Eric Joyce says:

    Random, is that first line suggesting that my whole article is a lie? If so, that’s litrerally hilarious.

  6. AnneJGP says:

    As I read it, Eric is merely pointing out that all MPs are drawn from the population. Therefore MPs will tend to have the same standards as the population. They are us. They hold up a mirror in which we see our own reflection.

    It would do us no harm to consider this seriously. Thank you, Eric.

  7. Forlornehope says:

    So MPs are now becoming so utterly shameless as to defend being dishonest. Throw all the rogues out and just select 650 people at random. It cannot be any worse than the lot that are in there at the moment and it would be a damn sight cheaper than holding elections. Oh, and by the way, as any numerate person will understand, there would be no problem of achieving gender and minority balance with a random choice.

  8. McCackle says:

    You know, I sympathise, I really do. Politicians have it hard, what with the changeable public mood and the ravenous media. Except let’s look at the examples you give of how you noble politicians are let down by a hypocritical public.

    Tax: When in government, your party could have made a strong argument for higher taxes to provide better services, but you never did. Instead there was the stealth tax approach, and the position that you were “intensely relaxed about people being filthy rich”.

    Tuition fees: so you will be supporting the rise in tuition fees, then? Excellent. I shall let the government know. Or will Labour be ducking this one, too?

    Drugs: Wasn’t it was a couple of your Home Secretaries that consistently disregarded the independent expert advise of the Drugs Advisory Panel for ‘political’ reasons? Led to many of these experts resigning in despair at your government’s “pain-free opposition to ‘bad’ substance abuse”.

    Child abuse: How much does “stranger danger” dominate public discourse, you ask? Too much, and lord knows your government left no stone unturned in condemning tabloid fearmongering and spreading the message that most abuse happens in families. Oh no, wait, that’s not right.

    Racism: exploiting racial tensions is obly possible if people are racist; so it’s not the poltician’s fault, it’s the fault of the racists who swallowed it? WTF. How about standing up and saying exploiting racial or religious prejudice for electoral gain is unacceptable in a major modern political party, and you’d rather lose seats than compromise basic democratic principles and, lest we forget, break the law.

    You blame the public for being hypocrites, but Labour have been no better and you know it. It’s dishonest to look to the mass of the public for some clear policy direction that you can sit back and implement without opposition, rancour or dissent. Sometimes, Eric, you have to take a stand. Otherwise (to paraphrase the West Wing) you’re like the French radical who said “There go my people – I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them”. Stop crying into your taxpayer-subsidised pint and get on with the job of opposing this government in a reasoned, principled manner. And stop blaming us for your shortcomings.

  9. Angry says:

    I see you were the top-claiming Member of the House of Commons for the 2005–06 Parliamentary Session, claiming £174,811 in expenses, of which 62% was for staff and office costs. After the 2005–06 Parliamentary Session you made a public pledge to cut your expenses. Subsequently, during the 2006–07 Parliamentary Session you moved down to 11th on the list of MPs’ expenses and allowances.However, you once again rose to the top of the expenses list for the 2007–08 Parliamentary Session with £187,334. you were also the first MP to claim more than £1 million cumulatively in expenses. In October 2007 you claimed £180 for three oil paintings. When asked why you had used taxpayer’s funds in such a way you replied “because they look nice.”In May 2009, tabloids reported you were seeking advice from HM Revenue and Customs regarding £40,000 in unpaid capital gains tax on the sale of your London home, which you had designated as your second home under the Second Homes Allowance scheme. The tabloids wrote that when asked what you would do were you asked to repay the money you stated that you would “suck it and see.”
    Well Mr Joyce as far as I am concerned you are clearly a liar.

    this post has been slightly edited.

  10. eric joyce says:

    Hey, forlorn and hackle, aren’t you struck by the irony of your letters? Full of irrational hate and bile. It’s not everyone, guys (and you are both guys, right?). But it is you. And thanks, Anne. Very kind and wise too.

  11. Martin says:

    I guess that Eric Joyce must be looking at the Phil Woolas episode, mulling over how Woolas and his election team decided that they needed ‘to make the white folks angry’ in a constituency that has been the victim of race riots, and thought to himself “There but for the grace of God go I”.

    It’s nice to know that Phil Woolas isn’t the only person in Labour who’d say or do anything to remain an MP, no matter what the cost to their constituency.


  12. Steve Paul says:

    Of course people want decent services and they are not prepared to pay the world for them. Why? Because they believe that the money being collected doesn’t go towards that service. Instead it gets funnelled into some murky channels and someone high up benefits raking in unjustified salaries for nothing.

    All that WE, the public, see are fat cats being drafted in to head bloated departments to incur more cost without any perceivable benefit. The politicians are at the wheel of a huge unaccountable empire which squanders wealth and as a result, to keep their hugely inflated salaries whilst minimising council tax increases, the local council chiefs usually reduce services.

    If you want to change public attitudes, show where the money goes, be transparent. After all, the money which is taken from us in tax is OUR money, hard earned and shouldn’t be squandered. If you want an extra penny in the pound for education, take it. But SHOW us that this is going on modern schools, new books, better teachers – show the receipts for books and buildings, for additional salaries.

    If you want an additional penny for NHS, take it, but show us it is for more doctors who care, nurses who want to comfort and aid people, not middle managers to fiddle figures in order to claim bonuses whilst patients lie in agony and their own faeces, left uncared for by an NHS chasing targets.

    If you want another penny in the pound for the police, take it. But make sure the police target the criminals and not the middle class who place their rubbish outside of their house a day early, or try to protect themselves from yobs and vandals. Make sure the police work protecting the people who pay the taxes, not stuck in an office doing paperwork to allow a police chief to collect additional bonuses.

    If you want another penny in the pound for more jails, take it. But make sure more jails are built and show us the stark reality of these jails. Get rid of the luxuries within jails – no x box, play station or the like. Plenty of working families can’t afford these, why should they be available inside prison? It’s supposed to be a punishment, the prisoners should feel they are being punished, not on an extended holiday. Make sure violent offenders are dealt with, not given three or four “last chances”. Make sure the sentence they get reflects their crime.

    But don’t take another penny in the pound claiming to do all of these things and instead waste it on “diversity”, “human rights” or similar. We want our country back from the distorted truths and lies that a criminal is, in reality, a good decent chap and should be let off no matter what their crime, that more bureaucrats in the NHS means a better service, that PCSOs will enforce law and order as Dixon of Dock Green did in the 60s, that there are no incompetent teachers. Once you address these, show US – honestly and openly – where OUR money is going, I think you will find we are more than willing to pay more.

    This is the issue. Politicians, irrespective of party, put personal popularity over truth. Then he puts party before personal principles. As long as this continues, no politician will be truly trusted. Don’t try to shift the blame to us. Look to your conscience and I am fairly confident that you will see that you too have made populistic speeches rather than state the truth, that you have put the good of the party before your own principles.

  13. Iain Gill says:

    “british jobs for british workers” lie lie lie

    “immigration cap on none EC workers” lie lie lie

    the Indian outsourcers continue to swamp the country with intra company trasnsfer visas, totally uncapped, subcontracted into other companies and displacing Brits from the workforce, they brought THEIR racist bullying practises with them, the clog up the schools, and the nhs, pay less tax than Brits due to extensive tax dispensations, steal UK intellectual property, engage in slave like indentured servitude practises

    many go on to get indefinite leave to remain and citizenship, even now when that was “supposed” to be being stopped, most come in as occupations which are most defintitely not on the official shortage occupation list

    and your man Woolas setup this nonsense, and pretended to his electorate that he was firm but fair on immigration, and the current government promised to sort it out but are back tracking after pressue from the very bosses who control these slave labour empires

    in a mad rush to the lowest pay and with no regard for a nation like the UK to protect its leading Intellectual Property to pay the bills in the future

    frankly anything Phil Woolas gets isnt good enough, he should be replaced with a body shopped worker from India like the rest of the British population and he can see how much his mates in Tata, Cognizant, Infosys, and the rest support him then

    this post has been slightly edited

  14. RichieP says:

    ‘Mr Joyce was elected to Parliament in 2005 and achieved notoriety as the MP with the largest expenses.’

    Need we say more. Hypocrisy eh?

    (Editor’s note: Eric Joyce was first elected to Parliament in a by-election in 2000).

  15. bally says:

    Well Eric, it’s an interesting theory that the public are all moral hypocrites. To a limited extent it’s certainly true. However your rather anodyne phrase “desperate politicians in some tightly-fought marginals are tempted into grey areas of language and insinuation”

    doesn’t really match up with the published judgement of the Electoral Court, based on evidence from the Woolas campaign, on how they implemented their strategy to “make the white folk angry”.

    “In an election address entitled The Examiner, the respondent (Mr Woolas) made a statement of fact, the meaning of which was that the petitioner attempted to woo, that is to seek, the electoral support of Muslims who advocated violence, in particular violence to the respondent.

    “In a further election address entitled Labour Rose, he made a statement of fact the meaning of which was that the petitioner had refused to condemn extremists who advocated violence against the respondent.

    “We have concluded that both of these statements, although made in the context of an election and said to arise from a political position adopted by the petitioner, were in relation to the petitioner’s personal character or conduct.


    now does it?

    Nor, just as a matter of interest, does it match up with these wise and measured words from the then Minister – Phil Woolas – for local government, in 2006, when Frank Field made some similar comments about public anger over immigration.

    “Of course there are illegal immigrants in a modern society like ours, but we have to base this debate on the facts and not to do so is irresponsible and actually raises the sort of problems with the far right Frank is warning against.”


  16. Surreptitious Evil says:

    Interesting comparing this article with the Daily Hate rant about it.

    “Middle class voters are liars and hypocrites says top Labour MP”

    Don’t see any mention of class in here (except the “well-educated, better-off people” – which, as any Marxist will tell you is no indicator of ‘class’). Don’t see any mention of paedophiles – most child abuse, unpleasant though it all is, is physical and mental abuse, not sexual.

    Alcohol does cause more harm than most drugs – partly (I’d argue ‘mostly’ but it’s an unnecessary distraction) because of its availability.

    Anyway, I think the fundamental point that both Mr Watts and Mr Joyce are missing is that it is incumbent on our law-makers – MPs or Lords – as well as our law enforcers (judiciary, lawyers and police) – to take particular care about obeying the laws they have created and, when they clearly breach it, honourably accepting the punishments they have decreed.

    I’d also argue, although it isn’t necessary, that they should take especial care with those laws about their rights and responsibilities – election law in particular. I wouldn’t necessarily expect an MP with say, an SP30 (or even a DR10) to resign, or one with family difficulties (which are rarely illegal anyway). But one who commits an election offence?

  17. Michael says:

    Child? When they finish their A’levels, they are 18 years old; they are supposed to be adults.

    I agree with your position on the hypocrasy of the ‘war on drugs’. We can imbibe a mind altering drug at Christmas, on birthdays, funerals, Sundays, whenever. Other mind altering drugs are banned because they are not socially acceptable.

    Very hard to do anything about domestic abuse because it takes place behind closed doors; but you won’t find anybody crying out for the banning of net curtains anytime soon.

    There is a lot of hypocrasy in society and in the world in general, on all sorts of levels and in all sorts of contexts.

    This however, does not mean that it is hypocritical to make the joke ‘how do you know when politicians are lying? Their lips move’.

    It doesn’t mean that it is hypocrasy to find Wollas guilty of lying if a tribunal has indeed found him guilty of lying. If it is a miscarriage of justice then the accusation and the consequences of that accusation would be tragic; but there is a flip side to this coin.

    We do not want to end up having ridiculous and slanderous propaganda on our TV screens, websites and on our radio waves with political parties and their politicians calling each other criminals, deviants and perverts every time there is an election.

    If Wollas did lie about a fellow politician, intentionally, then such behaviour needs to be nipped in the bud now.

  18. Nicky says:

    Very good post, well argued and well written.

    The Daily Hate Mail’s take on it is really beyond a joke. To describe this post as a ‘an astonishing rant’ is clearly at odds with its actual content, which is rather considered and coolly ironic. I think the phrase ‘astonishing rant’ is meant to sneakily and subliminally compare Eric with Adolf Hitler (a politician whom the Mail were, at one point, quite in favour of – back in the 30s). And they managed to shoehorn in the suggestion that it must mean Labour is anti-aspiration, something clearly not in the post, or indeed in anything Labour actually stands for. (In reality, it’s the Tories – by their destructive policies – who are anti-aspiration.)

    Unfortunately for the DM, a lot of the readers’ comments are supporting Eric’s argument. Incidentally, I think the DM is really the natural home of some of commenters on here, who however seem compelled to pointlessly troll on Labour websites. What an utterly futile thing to do.

  19. McCackle says:

    Oh, Eric. Hatred and bile? Please. I will admit to irritation and indigestion, but hatred and bile??

  20. Tom Miller says:


    I don’t think it’s necessarily fair on politicians, but I think healthy societies treat their politicians harshly. The epochs show that they need reminding of their place as servants.

    In terms of hypocrisy, we choose people with maths degrees and six packs to go into space, normally people that are several levels above most of us in many respects.

    If honesty is a key quality for politicians, a decent proposal in my book, it follows that we should elect the most honest among us, as well as the most hard working, biggest believers in policy x or y.

    We demand the best behaviour over that which is relevant to politics simply because we are picking politicians. I wouldn’t mind it if my bus driver was a pathological slanderer… I do care if my MPs consciously breach the line just once.

    Even then it doesn’t justify the courts in particular removing them. But outright slander is a far better reason. A company would dismiss someone if one transpired to be in a job application, because there is a duty which borders on the fiduciary, and this cannot be taken as a matter of interpretation or political relativity, the facts being so stark.

    All MPs are on job interview whenever they are in the public eye. I personally am willing to live with that unfortunate circumstance as a price for quality representation. An before I am asked to put my money where my mouth is, I stood in the last election, albeit in, er, a rather ‘difficult’ seat.

    Aware of the appearance of sanctimony, I did manage not to slander my opponents at the time.

  21. Tom Miller says:

    The word ‘and’ does of course include a ‘d’ at the end. Apologies.

    Thanks for your reply Eric.

  22. James says:

    A nice piece with just enough cheek to cushion the barbed tongue so as not to upset too many people (except in the Daily Mail), which achievement in itself, is testimony to the old addage, “the truth always hurts”. A bit more truth and plain speaking would do the (No longer New) Labour Party a world of good. Don’t worry about the Whips, I’m sure there will be enough supporters to rub ointment into the wounds.

  23. Observer says:

    An interesting article, but did you consider the potential for the Daily Mail etc to rip it & you to pieces. It’s a tad too clever by half.

    And YOU bring in Phil Woolas – most of the electorate would not in fact tell professional lies which could result in them losing their jobs as they need their pay packets at the end of the month.

    If you had skipped any reference to Woolas & just made the point that pushy middle class electors are just as much hypocrites as the political class ( who are also middle class & pushy) you might have got away with it.

  24. Ronnie Lewis says:

    Eric comong from Falkirk if you do, I think the deliverence theme is starting to cut in. My Grandfather who was at Galipoli as a 15 year old boy solider used to tell me “How do you know a politician is telling a lie – He opens his mouth to talk” this seems to suit you. How can you call any section of society a liar when you had Tony Bliar, Gordon Brown, sunk the ship under his own feet, Cambell etc. etc. etc. With talk like this you are telling decent people, the ones who work & pay their taxes, remember tem, that if the p[eople of the UK are stupiod enough to put your mob Libour back into government then we are really putting the lunatics in charge of the aslyum. My advise to you, which you will probably not listen to is STFU

  25. John Samuel says:

    I respect people who respect others and add value, you sir do neither.

  26. Jacobi says:

    According to the Daily Mail: “Sources close to the Opposition leader revealed that Mr Joyce will be disciplined by party whips.”

    I should hope not. Eric Joyce gave us his opinion as he sees it. Why should he be disciplined for being his honest self? I can just see Little Ed’s statement in tomorrow’s papers: To assuage the PC brigade Eric Joyce has been disciplined for giving his honest opinion – We in the Labour Party will not tolerate honest opinions that cause upset to the PC brigade.

    Those at the top of the Labour Party have become frightened little men (and women) who are too obsessed with political correctness. They are paralysed with fear at the prospect of losing a vote or upsetting some minority group or other. They forget that today’s headline is tomorrow’s chip wrapper. They also forget that nobody really takes the Daily Mail seriously.

    I thought Eric’s blog was a breath of fresh air in this PC run world. The PC brigade should be told to zip it and let our politicians give their opinions openly and freely. Could anyone imagine Winston Churchill bending to the puerile whims of the PC brigade. Tell them where to go Eric.

  27. JR Tomlin says:

    Well, I do agree that it is good to see a politician telling the truth. I just think it would have been nice if he had told his constituents BEFORE they voted for him just exactly how much he despises them. They’re all liars, drunks, thieves and paedophiles.

    Very nice to have THIS guy in Westminster. But then he is a warmongering spendthrift so why should his constituents expect any different? *shakes head*

  28. jacobi says:

    I don’t think it’s a case of him despising his constituents. More a tongue in cheek blog with a touch of cynicism and sarcasm thrown in.

    this post has been edited

  29. Steve Paul says:

    Of course, alcohol does immeasurably more societal and personal damage than ecstasy unquote

    Oh, how doth the mighty fall….. If this was so self evident, Eric, why did you not heed your own words and show restraint? Or are you just another of these sycophants and hypocrites who preach water and drink wine…..

    Just shows that Eric might think that we are to blame for electing people like him, but as for getting himself a criminal record and banned from driving due to drink driving, he can blame no-one but himself……

  30. Sane Sergeant says:

    Eric, of course people will do the best for those they love, using whatever advantage they have, intellectual or otherwise.

    Most would also, I believe, prefer to live in a country where they never had to pay inflated house prices to get their kids into a half-decent school, but could rely on universally acceptable standards to educate their kids. That’s my narrative, and the reason I stopped voting for the party that had 13 years to change things, but failed to.

    Just a shame that the second XI are even more useless.

  31. WIlliam Blakes Ghost says:

    Well it seems to me the lesson of the day should be:

    Preacher heal thyself!

    Oh dear, what a shame, never mind

  32. Son of McGonagall says:

    Shame on ‘Wreckless Eric’ Joyce,
    So beloved of his braying voice,
    Opinion on the middle classes, foist,
    With his own petard, has been hoist!

    Now do the decent thing sir, and stand down as an MP. And don’t you dare claim a penny of expenses for taxi, bus or train fares for the next year. This is your punishment, not the taxpayers.

  33. Dino says:

    Saw this on the DM comments, seems that Eric has got like minded friends there:

    Drink driving and speeding is serious crime which need to be cracked down on…. oh I forget, they are also crimes popular with middle class DM readers and Tories so it will never happen.

    Wow, where do you start with this? Middle classes love drinking and driving over and above other classes? So do Tories over and above other political persuasions?
    Did I miss out on that survey? Do these people actually believe what they say?

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