Lies, damned lies and politicians - it's election time

If you believe that people in public life should, by and large, tell the truth, now may be a good time to give British newspapers, news bulletins and political discussion programmes a wide berth.

If you believe that people in public life should, by and large, tell the truth, now may be a good time to give British newspapers, news bulletins and political discussion programmes a wide berth. As you may have heard, a general election campaign has begun. Between now and May 6, we can expect streams of words warning electors of the dire consequences of voting one way, and how much better life would be if only they chose another.

But what do politicians mean by the things they say, especially when trying to sway the electorate? I knew I would find answers on the internet but decided to invent some of my own first. It seemed right to approach the task in an even-handed manner, namely by treating all politicians with equal disrespect. Thus, if a Conservative contender for office assures you Britain's healthcare body, the National Health Service, is safe in his party's hands, consider it time to worry that the most ferocious budgetary cuts in history lie ahead.

A Labour politician who vows to "fight, fight and fight again" for British national interests within the European Union has probably already worked out which further sacrifices of sovereignty he regards as inevitable. A Liberal Democrat, urging electors to abandon "the divisiveness of the two-party monopoly", means no more than this: "We haven't the slightest experience of running the country, but could we be any worse than either of the other lots?"

Pausing for a glance at the political headlines, I found the prime minister Gordon Brown refusing to rule out an increase in value added tax, which I instantly interpreted as confirmation that a rise would follow a Labour victory as surely as night follows day. When a Conservative candidate in Wales, Rene Kinzett, declared that his party would "protect the most vital, front-line jobs" despite sharp spending cuts, I felt certain no job was safe.

Any of the parties, confronted with promising opinion findings, will adopt a smug "told you so" attitude and praise the electorate's self-evident good sense. Inform them they are trailing by a clear margin and you will be told polls are invariably misleading. At least with the extremists, from those peddling the racism of the British National Party to champions of the dated idealism of the far Left, translation skills are not quite so indispensable.

I mentioned my intention to surf the internet. Predictably, there were variations of my own offerings and plenty of partisan comments berating politicians or parties about unfulfilled promises or downright lies. But one anecdote was new and entertaining to me, though some may find it familiar. It concerned the findings of a genealogical researcher said to have examined the ancestry of Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state.

The researcher discovered Mrs Clinton's great-great uncle, Remus Rodham, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in 1889, leaving a picture of him on the gallows as the only known photographic record of his life. When Mrs Clinton's office was approached for comment, "professional image adjusters" replied enclosing a biographical sketch. This cleverly massaged Rodham's criminal activities - "his business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets" - and concluded: "Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honour when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed."

It already looked suspicious when I saw it in an item by a Canadian political blogger, Ken Chapman. Onward links took me to sites where it became clear that the story was not only false but had been told, presumably by internet pranksters, about George W Bush, Al Gore and a host of others. And it was of a football manager that I recently heard it said: "You can tell when he's lying: his lips move."

Politicians, it transpires, have no monopoly on the art of taking liberties with the truth. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and can be contacted at