Speaking truth to power

This originally appeared on Peter’s blog on 2nd February:

I feel that we have reached the stage where both reader and author would benefit from a respite, however brief, from the mental labours involved in unravelling the complexities of HS2 noise policy. So, in the words of the Monty Python announcer, “and now for something completely different”.

“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.”

(Noam Chomsky, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, an article in The New York Review of Books, 23rd February 1967)

That it is imperative that those who hold positions of power over their fellow citizens should seek out, and take due heed of, informed advice before making a decision is hardly a new idea – the seeds of the concept were sown in the teachings of Confucius. However the ancient Chinese sage would have been well aware, from his own experience of the machinations of public administration, that it is easier said than done for a ruler, or in these days a minister, to be sure that s/he is being given the best advice, without any applied bias. Those of you who were fans of Yes Minister will be all too aware of the possibility of a real-life Sir Humphrey Appleby filtering the information that gets to the minister to ensure that s/he sees nothing that might cause “distress” or risk undermining departmental policy. So successful was Sir Humphrey as an editor that he was able to reply, when asked if there was anything that his minister didn’t know, “Well, I hardly know where to begin”.

Even if this is too pessimistic a view, the bumph generally put out by Whitehall in defence of policy decisions hardly qualifies as the unvarnished truth – too often it appears that ministers or civil servants deem it essential that a thick layer of shellac be applied in order to avoid any potential to challenge, or otherwise undermine, government policy. When making public unfavourable evidence is unavoidable, a favourite stratagem appears to be to delay publication long enough to nullify, or at least considerably reduce, the impact.

The complementary doctrine to the above advice to ministers is Chomsky’s exhortation to the intelligentsia that they should speak truth to power, reproduced at the head of this blog. In the same article, Chomsky also says:

“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.”

Chomsky’s appeal to intellectuals was made on behalf of the 20th century anti-war movement, but the need for intellectuals to speak out on matters of government policy should not be confined to issues of war and peace. And that leads me, as I imagine you expected it would, to HS2, where the cross-party coalition of support for the project has effectively stifled any real debate about whether HS2 achieves its aims or whether there may be a better way. Surely this is a case where the intelligentsia has an important role in attempting to level this uneven playing field.

I am obviously not alone in thinking this, because last May a letter was sent to the Prime Minister signed by thirty-four of the UK’s most senior “engineers, transport planners and economists” calling on the Government to “look again at alternative ways of tackling the problems that HS2 is supposed to address”. This letter refers to the report The Economics of High Speed 2 that was published by the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords (Lords EAC) and advises that the letter’s signatories “share their Lordship’s concerns” that “the case for the HS2 project had not yet been made”.

I suppose that it is right to question whether the “truth” expressed in this letter has any better claim to veracity than views from other experts that are more inclined to support the HS2 project. Indeed, a thread that runs through the Chomsky article is that experts are just as susceptible to bias and moral corruption as the rest of us. However, looking down the names at the foot of the letter, I see no obvious vested interests or political allegiances that suggest that these experts are motivated by anything other than a genuine and disinterested desire to speak truth to power.

The reason that I raise this letter is that I have just been made aware of a proposed workshop, organised by three of the signatories to the letter, that is “designed to clarify and consolidate the arguments for a review” of the HS2 project. The preamble to the published programme of the workshop claims that “there is continuing doubt [about the HS2 project] among professional engineers and economists and among experienced railway people”. The veracity of this claim is something that I can testify to from the views expressed by the railways aficionados that attended the HSUK meeting in Birmingham last December; it was clear that, admittedly based on that small and possibly unrepresentative sample, that HS2 is not supported throughout the railway industry.

The organisers of the workshop, noting that last year’s letter “received only a superficial response” and that the Government “has been similarly dismissive” of the “sceptical” Lords EAC report, propose to utilise the outcome of the review that the workshop will provide to “produce a short, evidence-based report to be presented to the Government”.

I wish them well in this enterprise; it is surely much needed. However, I do not rate their chances very highly of obtaining the “impartial and thorough re-evaluation” of the HS2 project that they are seeking. After all, speaking truth to power is unlikely to be a very fruitful exercise when power has its fingers plugged firmly in its ears.

Somehow, I don’t think that Confucius would have approved of the way that ministers go about their business today.

I will grant the final words of this blog to Sir Humphrey Appleby:

“Government policy has nothing to do with common sense.”

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