I had thought of calling this post “Does honesty matter?” and then realised that what it is about is integrity - defined in the ‘Oxford Concise’ as ‘wholeness; soundness; uprightness, honesty’.
Thankfully for me, and to my great benefit, integrity was the hallmark of my family. My grandfather and father were both Fellows of the
My grandfather used to say that “A good name was rather to be had than great riches”. My father once offered his resignation to his colleagues on the board of the major industrial company of which he was Financial Director because he had inadvertently said something to my godfather – his closest school friend – which might have enabled the latter to make a profitable share transaction [even though he didn’t]. Such a high standard of business ethic seems quaintly old-fashioned in the 21st century, more’s the pity.
Of course, no-one is one hundred per cent. truthful and honest every moment of their lives. The ‘George Washington who never told a lie’ is an American folk myth [and he would have been a lousy general if it were true]. But deliberate and habitual lying on the assumption that anything is OK if you can get away with it is destructive of the social fabric, and even ‘white lies’ told with the best of intentions can be damaging to trust if discovered, as Sissela Bok points out in her book Lying: moral choice in public and private life 
Mutual trust between individuals, groups, organisations, and nations is the glue which holds society together. We erode it at our peril, as has become only too clear in this sombre first decade of the 21st century. Francis Fukuyama – he who famously proclaimed The End of History  and forecast that henceforth the only global problems worthy of attention would be economic ones – some soothsayer! – wrote another book entitled Trust , in which he defines that commodity as “the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and co-operative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community”. Our problem today is that the norms are no longer as widely shared as they used to be, and are certainly no longer universal. The most common operating principle – if one can call it that – of many people seems to be “whatever one can get away with is OK”.
In this climate of mendacity, it is prudent to pay far less attention to what people say than to observe closely what they do. I no longer set much store by the glib promises of service providers whose only concern is to tell you what they think you would like to hear, regardless of whether it is the truth or not. All too dependant as I am upon such people, I have lost count of the empty promises made to me about promptness of delivery, taxi arrival times, etc. And when I hear the dread words “No problem!” I know that I am most likely entering upon a quagmire.
This frequent, almost unconscious, lying is nowadays commonplace not only in the political and business worlds but also in the media, whom we used to rely on to keep us on the whole accurately informed about what goes on in the world. But this is no longer the case, and the rigorous checking of facts which was drummed into me as a junior sub-editor on a respected provincial daily newspaper has long been thrown overboard in pursuit of higher profits.
As for politics, a decade of Blairite New Labour spinning like a demented top has left us with a government whose rubric seems to be “never explain, never apologise, and above all never resign.” When they get unavoidably caught out, and have to make excuses it is done in a grudgingly dismissive way. Last week’s pathetic parliamentary performance by foreign secretary Miliband over the use of British territory for the refuelling of American ‘rendition’ planes [“Surprise, surprise! We had no idea…”] resembled the Victorian servant girl’s classic explanation of her illegitimate baby: ”Well, you see, Mum, it was only a very little one”.
All this is in painful contrast to the remote days when ministers took responsibility for their departmental failings, and occasionally even resigned, as Sir Thomas Dugdale did over the [in fact, trumped up] Crichel Down scandal in the early 1950s, John Profumo over the Christine Keeler affair, and Lord Carrington over Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands.
As long as people believe that ‘the truth’ is anything they wish it to be, I cannot see how we are going to recover from this moral landslide. In my recent Open Letter to Ibrahim Lawson, I said that my own working definition of ‘truth’ is that it is related to actual states of affairs which can be verified by relevant evidence and that it is also inextricably related to the honesty of the person speaking. That is to say, unless I genuinely believe, rightly or wrongly, that I am telling ‘the truth’, my words are insincere and I am being a humbug. I may be completely mistaken in believing that what I say is true, and my sincerity does not make it true if it is not. But an honest intention to be truthful is essential.
Until integrity is restored to its primary place in personal, social, political, economic, national, and international life our world and all our self-satisfied competitive civilisations will shrivel in mortal sickness and continue to slide into a chaotic abyss.