I've noticed in recent years that politicians will claim to have no recollection of their own words, actions or having known about facts that would implicate them in any wrongdoing. This happens when questioned by reporters, but also in parliament sessions and even investigations by committees, where the politician can be questioned under oath.

This convenient amnesia seems the default now in Dutch politics, but the US and UK also see a lot of this happening. It makes sense for the politician because in the digital age it's very hard to prevent evidence from leaking out, so a hard denial can come back to bite you. But it is my opinion that it is very damaging to the country's citizens if their politicians can't be held to account for their words and actions.

How would it be possible to limit this "defense" and hold politicians somewhat accountable for their actions. Examples of actual measures taken in other countries would be best, legal standards from (civil) law that could be adapted to political procedures would be second and alternatives (competency rules that disqualify amnesiacs) last.

Specifically not wanted are solutions that depend on per-case majority votes (like a vote of no confidence).

  • 18
    Stop voting for them. Otherwise I think you're out of luck.
    – Jontia
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 12:18
  • It is called "court".
    – alamar
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 12:20
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    @alamar There are two issues with that: First, politicians usually enjoy protection from many laws and lawsuits while on the job (parliamentary privileges). Second, it's very difficult and time-consuming to prove obstruction-of-justice or similar charges when there's almost no way to prove "I don't remember" was a deliberate lie.
    – Cyrus
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 12:36
  • 1
    Court is also the mechanism to figure out things that people can no longer remember.
    – alamar
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 14:01
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    @Cyrus But if people still believe Boris Johnson that he either didn't do anything wrong or that he genuinely can't remember, who is to blame for that? You cannot force people to incriminate themselves, but you can vote according to how people behaved in the past. And you can go for utmost transparency so that reliance on memories is reduced as much as possible. Last general election British voters voted a lot for Tories with Boris Johnson as PM and already back then his reputation wasn't the highest. They could have voted for someone else instead. Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 21:24

1 Answer 1


How would it be possible to [...] hold politicians somewhat accountable

There are two standards of accountability.

The first one is the legal. If the they need to be held accountable for something illegal they did, they may be charged and judged. Here they are as any private person, with the same rights, so in general in Western countries they are allowed to not self-incriminate themselves, if they chose to.

So in the end it comes down to what evidence there is for the accusation.

So, in the legal front, they are not that different than a burglar that, instead of recognizing that last night they were breaking in someone's home, claims that they were watching TV at home. No more rights, but no less (*).

Of course, it only comes into effect if what the politician did say or do would be cause for legal proceedings. Saying that he loves cats in front of a cat lovers club and saying that he hates cats in front of a cat haters group does not get to this level, even if you despise the cynicism.

The second one is the electoral one. In most countries you can post your opinion about the politician's sincerity (*1), and hope that it sways the vote so the politician is ousted from office. If there are recordings(which are almost ubiquituous nowadays), you will probably be able to refer to them or even distribute them(*2).

And in many countries, there are some procedures (recall election, for example) that allow for an elected official to be removed before its term is over. But usually those are exceptional measures that require a really scandalous situation.

Of course, it could be very well that you express your opinion that this or that politician should be not voted and that the people just ignores you and vote that politician into office. Welcome to democracy!

*: Yes, there are some protections that somewhat shield some elected officials from lawsuits, but those are designed to avoid people harassing these elected officials with the threat of baseless lawsuits. In general, if a lawsuit has a minimum of merit those protections are waived.

*1: Beware of expressing it properly to avoid defamation/libel risks.

*2: Beware of copyright issues, but those are very rare.

  • 2
    Yes. There is a right to be presumed innocent in a court of law. There is no right to be presumed trustworthy in the court of public opinion. The problem seems to be that decenvy has taken second place to partisanship.
    – o.m.
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 15:10
  • @o.m. presumption of innocence is something that only exists before any evidence (including testimony) is considered. The moment evidence is presented, it can be used to judge you. And judging someone as credible or not credible is part of the justice process.
    – wrod
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 17:22
  • @wrod, my point is that guilt must be proven to convict in a court of law, while untrustworthiness must only be believed to not-elect-again.
    – o.m.
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 17:28
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    Saying that you don't recall something is not the same as asserting your right to not incriminate yourself. In fact, you can be found in contempt of court (Andrews v. Holloway) if the judge thinks you are trying to avoid answering the question by claiming to not remember the answer. You can also be charged with perjury if you have signed a deal requiring you to answer questions and you claim to not recall their answers.
    – wrod
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 17:31
  • @o.m. and my point is that if a judge thinks you are b.s.'ing he can find you in contempt. Whether or not something has been "proven" in court is a judgement call. And not all judgement calls require a full jury to make.
    – wrod
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 17:32

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