Sunday, 21 November 2010

Vince Cable's denial of tuition fee betrayal is a gift for political dissemblers

Vince Cable yesterday added to the sophistry of his boss Nick Clegg.  First, stung by the virulence of the student anger, Clegg declared, in an unashamed display of political duplicity worthy of a Lib Dem election leaflet, that

At the time I really thought we could do it. I just didn't know, of course, before we came into government, quite what the state of the finances were.

Within days, Cable too had to delve deep into Aristotle's toolbox of rhetorical devices (spin to you or me) in order to declare, with a straight face no less, that

We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour.
Of course, he can hardly say what most intelligent observers would think to be nearer the truth, i.e. that his party knew it was highly likely that they would have to countenance increasing tuition fees but the temptation to secure a sack-load of student votes in marginal constituencies trumped the danger of holing below the water the Lib Dems' repution for straight-talking (many in the political world knew this particular vessel had long been sinking). 

Not only can we now say that the Lib Dems' hitherto successful tactic of assuming the moral high-ground is dead, but it is fair to say that Cable has single-handedly re-crafted the much cherished tradition in Britain that politicians ought to be held accountable to their manifesto commitments (not least to explicit pledges signed in the full media glare to buy-off a particular constituency of opinion).  Or to put it another way: if you promise something at an election, then do a U-turn months later, don't be surprised to find the voters manning their U-boats.

What Cable is essentially saying is that once the Lib Dems assumed office in May, they discovered that the conditions on the ground had changed (as Israeli generals routinely say about Palestinian land) and therefore all previous promises can be annulled forthwith and without the necessity for the politician concerned to take any moral or practical responsibility.  The annulling of such pledges is therefore not in the slightest the responsibility of the politician doing the the annulling.  The moral power of a promise can thus be swept away without any feeling of guilt or remorse.  No apology need be offered.  Thanks to Clegg and Cable, politicians in future any future will feel less need to defer to convention when tempted to promise one thing to parts of the electorate, in order to secure their support, while knowing full well that the promise cannot or will not be kept.  As long as he or she is able to say that the changed material conditions they discovered at some time in the future were unanticipated, they should, in the Cable/Clegg view of politics, be home and dry.  Ahh the sweet smell of New Politics.  Next you know, a Tory adviser will have to resign for telling the country that they've never had it so good.

This is a highly dubious development not just for the Lib Dems but for our politics as a whole.  It is important that we prevent this Lib Dem-inspired contagion  from nfecting the age old principle that politicians be held to account for the promises they make at elections.

1 comment:

  1. A promise to the electorate ceases to apply because it might have prevented him increasing his power still further in a coalition? I like Cable's logic.

    I have often observed that a promise to pay a debt leaves me less wealthy and powerful when I keep my word.

    You can see where this is going, can't you?

    Surely it's even more defensible to break my word to avoid a loss of power than to gain power.

    Yes, that's right. People who don't pay their debts are a moral notch or two above Vince Cable and the Lib Dems.

    So when students refuse to pay their whopping, life-long, banker originating debts dumped on them by Cable, they will be able to take comfort. They, like Vince, are only doing the right thing.


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