Friday 3 December 2010


There has been a lot of fuss in the last few days about the communications between US government agencies that have been disclosed by Wikileaks, and that remain to be disclosed. I have no idea whether disclosure of any of the documents will in fact cause serious harm, but there is a light side to this. Those in government are shown to be sometimes rude, sometimes devious and sometimes foolish. We always knew that this was so, but the provision of concrete examples gets us excited.

Some unidentified, but presumably amply insulted, government apparently told the US, "Don't worry, you should see what we say about you". This reminds me of something that Bertrand Russell said, in The Conquest of Happiness (pages 76-77 of the Routledge Classics reprint). He wondered what would happen if we could all see one another's thoughts. He supposed that most friendships would end immediately. But after a little while, we would find life without friends intolerable, and would get back together again, on a new basis of honesty. We may hope, if perhaps not expect, that the same will happen in the diplomatic community.

Meanwhile, the most laughable, and most arrogant, response has come from the French government. Here are some words of François Baroin, on behalf of that government:

"Moi j’ai toujours pensé qu’une société transparente, c’était une société totalitaire."


No, M. Baroin. Only transparency can keep politicians in the service of the people, instead of the other way round. Privacy for people in general may help to keep totalitarians at bay. But those who have got themselves into positions in government need to work in the daylight (apart from a few security operations that really do need to be covert, and even they should be disclosed after the event). Otherwise, the governors will dig themselves in and do as they please.


  1. No, Mr Baron. There is a difference between calling someone a pig in one´s mind and saying it aloud. Some thoughts we regret and prefer never have had them in the first place.
    And: for reasons of mental hygiene we prefer not to know all the negative opinions that other people may have of us.

  2. In reply to Anonymous on 27 December at 18.53:

    I agree that we in fact prefer not to know everything that others think about us. I also agree that it is very helpful that we can have thoughts, then think better of them before uttering them. Russell's fantasy is an extreme one, and the effects of its coming to pass are unpredictable. He was making the point that no-one should assume that he or she is in fact any better than other people. Anyone who would be outraged on finding out other people's opinions of him or her, should realise that other people's outrage at his or her thoughts would be equally justified.

    The fantasy is not going to become reality. But the Wikileaks episode has given us something a little bit like the fantasy. Just like the people in the fantasy, the countries involved should get over it. On the basis of the files released so far, it simply is not the big deal that vain, self-important governments make it out to be.

    Perhaps your comment was directed at my last paragraph, in which I argue that governments need to work in the daylight. I stand by my view. Those who are in power should be there to serve us, not themselves. We have to keep a close eye on everything they do. We cannot trust them, however virtuous they are, especially since they are people who have chosen to pursue political power, and who therefore like to take charge and do things their way.

  3. 1. The art of diplomacy was invented because it was not good to say honestly what one thinks. Honesty can be hurtful. In a comedy by O. Wilde someone says that a girl believes in speaking her mind, which is considered an outrage.

    2. You are perfectly right that governments have to be controlled. But a ruler also needs some privacy in order to express his negative feelings about people or states of affairs. Rulers are weak human beings, like all of us, they are not saints.
    So how far should this control go ?
    Are we allowed to sniffle everywhere ?
    Are we allowed to sniffle in the bedroom of the ruler, for example ?

  4. I do not care what goes on in the bedroom, so long as it does not affect the conduct of government. It might do so, if a lover was appointed to a government job. But we can deal with that without going into the bedroom. We just have to require all the details of every government job application, and every stage in the process of deciding who to appoint, to be published.

    There is another point here, if I may broaden the discussion. In France, there is a strict law of privacy that frightens the newspapers. In England, some judges are slowly creating a law of the same sort. People can even get super-injunctions: injunctions that both prevent newspapers from reporting stories, and prevent them from mentioning that the injunctions have been issued. These laws will only benefit the rich and famous. I think that they are a very bad idea. They end up restricting free expression and free debate. We all want to keep some things private. But if they do become public, and if they are embarrassing, the only person to blame is oneself.

  5. Because every embarrassing detail about ourselves is our own fault ?

    A normal person may need some free space for expressing his honest disgust or rage, without the fear of the Big Brother watching him.
    Italians call it "sfogo".
    Psychiatrists or psychologists or priests are obliged to keep the secrecy, and for a good reason.

    That´s what privacy is all about, that you feel free to speak your mind to people whom you trust. Privacy is the normal everyday psychotherapy that you do with your family and friends.

    And if someone betrays your trust and exposes you publicly you may break down and never recover. Because you have lost your face for ever.

  6. Yes, space to express yourself privately can be very important, and if someone among your family, your friends or your professional advisers betrays your trust, you have every right to resent that. But if a journalist, who does not owe you any duty of confidentiality, finds out, that is just tough. I am thinking particularly about the example we have had in the past couple of weeks in England, of some members of the Government saying things against the Government to people they did not know were journalists. One has been outraged. He thought that he was talking to constituents, and he says this journalistic technique undermines the basis on which members of Parliament work with their constituents. What it really undermines is the technique of saying different things to different audiences. He deserves whatever the consequences may be.

  7. You are right up to a point, Mr. Baron.
    It depends, however, HOW a journalist finds out and if he is allowed to find out whatever he pleases.
    The journalists who wanted to find out where princess Diana and Didi were going had no right to find out, it seems to me.
    When an MP talks to constituents he may do it in a confidential way, sort of private way, wanting to figure out what the real problems are and how to tackle them.
    Making an official statement to the press is something different, because you watch your words and try to sound politically correct.
    So I think that this MP was right to be outraged and the journalists in your example behaved like sneaky moles or rats.
    Why is it so objectionable according to you to say different things to different audiences ?

  8. I take your point that some journalistic practices are dubious. But how are we to draw the line? If it is enough for someone to say that they regard something as confidential, we will not find out anything. Take for example the report on Trafigura, which they thought should be confidential, but which got leaked. Trafigura went to court to get a super-injunction. I cannot imaging why the judge thought they should be entitled to one, but that is what happened. I regard it as an overwhelmingly good thing that the report promptly appeared on Wikileaks

    The problem with Vince Cable, the MP who was caught out, is that he was proclaiming loyalty to the Government in public, and also hinting in private that he might bring it down (not that he could). He did not help himself when he talked about relationships with constituents, because any confidentiality there is meant to be for the constituent's benefit, not for the benefit of the MP.

    You mention the need to be politically correct in public statements, while needing to be more honest in private. I disagree. People should not be politically correct unless they really mean it. If not being politically correct means not having a successful career in politics, then the career should be sacrificed to honesty, not the other way round.

  9. You cannot be an Englishman, can you ?
    The English are world-famous for their diplomatic skills and we should learn from them.
    What´s the point of being honest if people cannot take it without feeling attacked and resentful ? Especially in politics diplomacy is crucial. You are free to read between the lines or from the tone of the voice of the speaker and everyone does.
    You seem to oversee one problem: when elected you have to pursue some line of politics not necessarily chosen by you and you have to make compromises. The problem being that everyone can have a different opinion on lots of topics and lack of compromise would lead to total lack of action.
    It´s one thing to express your honest views in Hyde Park and another thing to find a majority in the parliament, so that a decision can be taken and things get done.

  10. Ja, ich bin Englander.

    If you are in a government and you disagree with some policy, you should say so. If all MPs, including members of the Opposition, spoke and voted according to what they really thought, there would be no problem. The Government could still get a majority for most of its policies. But in the UK, party discipline means that very often, all of the Opposition will vote against each policy. So the Government must require all of its ministers, and most of its supporters, to vote for the policy. It is an arms race. If one side forbids dissent, and therefore requires hypocrisy, the other side must do the same. MPs could change this immediately, simply by saying that they will ignore instructions from their party bosses. But they do not seem to be interested in doing so.

  11. But what you suggest would result in chaos.
    An MP may disagree in one point, important to him, and say so. Another MP may disagree in the same point, but for different reasons, and say so. Why should two MPs agree on anything ?
    Why should anyone agree with anyone on anything ?

    The traditional political instability in Italy is probably the sad result of the utopia that you seem to promote.

  12. I do not think it would be that bad. Each time a law is proposed, Parliament must decide for it, or against it. Even with a wide range of views, there will still be a decision. I do not think that Italian chaos would be a big problem in the UK: the culture is different. A bigger problem would be the pork barrel politics that you get in the USA, where the votes of senators and congressmen are bought by putting all sorts of stupid support for particular industries or regions into bills. One possible remedy for that would be a constitutional ban on special concessions for particular groups - a very strong form of the rule that there is one law for everyone. Another possible remedy would be to say that if someone (the Government or anyone else) introduced a law, it would only need a simple majority to pass in the form in which it was introduced, but that amendments would need a two-thirds majority.

  13. Yes, if you have just two parties in the Parliament then it is easier. But if nobody is supposed to be loyal to his party he can disagree with the bill anytime it contains something unacceptable to him and just vote "no". What makes you think a bill would be drafted that could get a majority ? A more possible scenario is that no bill at all will get simple majority. Every bill will be picked to pieces and that will be it.

    It is easier to criticize everything and you CAN criticize everything. In order to get something going one has to overcome one´s criticisms.

  14. I don't think it would be as bad as that. Even without party discipline, MPs would have general policy inclinations. That would allow some legislation. Look at what happened in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Even major legislation that was highly contentious, such as Catholic emancipation and the reform of the franchise, got through.

    And would it really be a bad thing if Parliament found it harder to pass laws? We have too many laws, not too few.

  15. Maybe it is easier to look at a decision-making process in a family. It may be a difficult thing to decide where to spend a vacation or what food to buy for Christmas dinner. If no decision is taken there will be no vacation and no dinner.
    Some decisions (or laws) are essential and if not taken then there is trouble afoot.