Economy of Truth

The death of Robert Armstrong, the former career civil servant and Cabinet Secretary from 1979 to 1987, who, not incidentally, served as Secretary to the Board of the Royal Opera House from 1968 to 1988 and was chairman of the trustees of the V&A from 1988 to 1998, has caused me to look up the origin of the phrase ‘economical with the truth’, for which he is – somewhat unjustly – best remembered. The answer is, as I had suspected, much more complicated than the presumption that it was used as a synonym for mandarin evasion – not telling the whole truth when he should have done and for which he was made to look a fool in court. It goes back to Edmund Burke who used the phrase in his Letters on a Regicide Peace, published in 1796, as follows: ‘Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an œconomy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it the longer’. In the court in Australia, where Armstrong used the phrase, he prefaced it with the reference to ‘As one person said’, assuming that his listeners would know that it was a reference to Burke and would also know that it was a reference to a form of dutiful reticence, of which Armstrong was a master, the opposite of wilful evasion. It was a total clash of intellectual and verbal cultures, which Armstrong lost.

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7 thoughts on “Economy of Truth

  1. marinavaizey says:

    partly because of the assumption that others know what you know. Every day I realise that there is more and more and more of what I don’t know but I also assume that everyone knows what I do know, which one should never do; my editors when I wrote for newspapers told me that I always had to signpost, even when I said but ‘everyone knows….’ NO they said everyone doesn’t so I was taught to give clues. Why would the courts know quotes from Edmund Burke? a natural assumption but wrong….

      • marinavaizey says:

        He was such a highly intelligent, honourable man all the virtues but the sad fact is that such assumptions are both totally understandable and harmful in terms of communications and the results were damaging, not just to Lord Armstrong but in terms of what he could effectively do. that is what is so sad, the kind of quotation that is perfect in discussion one assumes among one’s peers – but not in the wider world without the ‘signposting’. I have had endless lessons myself in my inadequacies in explaining what I foolishly thought to be self evident; my only virtue mayhap is in knowing how woefully ignorant I am! I remember as a foolish adolescent being shocked that my incredibly knowledgeable biochemist aunt did not know about St Augustine, well she flattened me – did I know about the second law of thermodynamics, I did not even know what thermodynamics was…..

  2. Maurice Davies says:

    A small number of readers might remember a long-gone diary column in Museums Journal written by the Newt. The first of the diary columns discussed Armstrong and the V&A and this gave Newt his name, as an acronym for Notoriously Economical With the Truth

      • Maurice Davies says:

        With pleasure, but there’s quite a lot of it, so only an extract.

        One highlight is Martin Kemp’s resignation as a V&A trustee. He is quoted as saying ‘Members of the board were presented with a very limited opportunity to perform their proper functions of scrutiny on the public’s behalf. Alarmingly few of my fellow trustees seem to be concerned about this.’

        Another item in the column quotes Brian Sewell from the Evening Standard predicting ‘the death of our museums’ and attacking the V&A’s infamous ‘Ace caff with a museum attached’ adverts as ‘frivolous’ and ‘unworthy’. The diary goes on to claim that this is hypocritical because ‘in one of his media superstar roles Brian Sewell narrated the ace caff tv commercials’. That may or may not be true: the diary signs off explaining ‘This month’s diary was written by the Newt who, as is is appropriate for anyone mentioning Lord Armstrong, is Notoriously Economical With the Truth.’

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