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Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth," wrote Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist. Friedrich Nietzsche had got there four years earlier. In Beyond Good and Evil he declared that "every profound spirit needs a mask". To our present way of thinking, these are profoundly shocking statements. As soon as we spot a mask, we feel honour-bound to rip it off. We value above all else the qualities of openness, sincerity and authenticity. We demand direct, unvarnished contact with our leaders.

In modern politics, humbug is the most conspicuous vice. As the late, great political philosopher Judith Shklar wrote, "For those who put hypocrisy first [in the catalogue of vices] their horror is enhanced precisely because they see it everywhere." And in this overheated climate of suspicion, she argues that "it is easier to dispose of an opponent's character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show his political convictions are wrong". We are keener to track down an environmental campaigner clocking up air miles than to examine his arguments that jets are a significant cause of global warning. Ditto with a Tory leader's claims to be green, when he cycles to the House of Commons with a chauffeur-driven car ferrying his papers behind him.

Our great political scandals are all about concealment and deception. The cover-up is the real crime. In the Arms to Iraq scandal, which convulsed the House of Commons in the early 1990s and produced Lord Justice Scott's gigantic report, it was never claimed that any lethal arms had actually been exported to Iraq. The question was whether ministers had surreptitiously altered the rules for the export of defence-related equipment after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, while repeatedly denying that they had done so. Had they been "economical with the truth"?<--pagebreak->The phrase has a long parentage, traceable to Edmund Burke's assertion of 1796 that "falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever: But as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth". This in turn goes back to Francis Bacon's essay Of Simulation and Dissimulation, the distinction between telling lies and holding back the whole truth - between suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. Or, as John Morley put it later in his essay On Compromise (tremendously influential with his fellow Liberals, like Herbert Asquith, Richard Haldane and Sir Edward Grey; in fact, described by his biographer as "a Prince for Victorian liberalism"), between "wise reserve" and "voluntary dissimulation". But it is not so easy to keep up that reserve in the heat of an election campaign or when John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman are on your tail. For, as Bacon pointed out a good deal earlier, "They will so beset a man with questions, and draw him on, and pick it out of him, that, without an absurd silence, he must shew an inclination one way; or if he do not, they will gather as much by his silence as his speech."

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