Lying is an interesting phenomenon in politics and diplomacy.
Oscar Wilde had various thoughts on the subject of Lying from a high aesthetic point of view. I can not recall encountering an example of outright lying in my time in the civil service. British people including bureaucrats use all sorts of euphemisms to wriggle out of giving straight answers, but as we all know what they mean (even if foreigners sometimes miss the nuances and term us perfidious) the quality of deliberate blunt dishonest lying is not really there. British politicians can not afford to be caught lying. Or have standards slipped?
My best ever professional lie experience was in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in the mid-1990s. We were having a tetchy bilateral exchange over some visa issues. A few days earlier I as Embassy Political Counsellor had sent a fax to the MFA with our latest position. I turned up for the meeting as arranged to discuss it all.
The Russian head of department and I had some inconclusive exchanges. It dawned on me that he had not read my fax. So I asked him if he had read it. He denied flatly all knowledge of it. I said that that was impossible – it had gone through as usual days before, and he must have seen it. He again denied having seen it.
Then, a miracle. His friendly young diplomat assistant unsteeped in Soviet ways could not resist being helpful and chipped in: "I saw it on your desk this morning!"
Bluster and annoyance. My heart went out to the assistant – the ensuing one-way cattle-class train ride to Siberia would not be much fun.
Yet I misjudged things. The assistant stayed and flourished – last sighted in the President’s office. His boss did not care that he had been exposed lying, and that I knew he had lied, and that he knew that I knew he had lied. In post-Soviet bureaucratic terms it did not matter – lying was a deliberate technique for State Purposes which might work, or it might not – nothing else.
It was even worse in actual Soviet times, of course. On a Glasnost-era visit to Moscow in 1986 with my boss of FCO Planners Pauline Neville-Jones I sat next to an MFA official at lunch and the subject of Romania came up. I said that our Embassy was reporting pitiful conditions for people there as Ceausescu’s regime decayed – almost no pressure in the gas system to boil a kettle and one light-bulb per household. "We are not aware of any problems with energy supplies in Romania." So much for sparkling communist conversation.