‘A dreary and tacky lot of politicians tried to bribe floating voters with the fantasy of “government money”’
Politicians’ promises are the lowest common denominator of public life. They tend to be forgotten almost as quickly as they are given, particularly by the losing parties in elections. But, even when they survive for more than a few weeks after an election result, they are often despised and usually end up as an embarrassment. Nevertheless, Britain’s politicians multiplied promises in the weeks leading up to May 7. The seemingly neck-and-neck character of the race may be partly to blame for its tawdriness.
The thinking seemed to be that, with the two main parties’ vote shares roughly equal in the opinion polls at about 33 or 34 per cent, bribing another one or two per cent to vote Conservative or Labour could be decisive. Unhappily, every party indulged in the bidding. The Labour Party started out long before the election campaign itself, with a pledge in autumn 2013 to freeze household energy bills. The Conservatives gave a commitment that housing association tenants could buy their accommodation at discounts of between 35 and 70 per cent. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto said that they would give higher pay to public sector workers, in an open bid for votes.
Of course, everyone knew that the direct personal cost to the politicians making these promises would be nil. In that sense the electioneering of spring 2015 was a quest for power without personal accountability. Cynicism of this sort may be an inevitable characteristic of modern societies with a universal adult franchise, since a proportion of the electorate pays little or no tax, and a high proportion receives benefits in excess of tax. Politicians’ promises may add nothing to national output except hot air and bribing voters with their own money sounds daft. But bribing a crucial group of floating voters with taxes paid by a minority may be “good politics”.
Cameron’s “retail offer” to housing association tenants was widely condemned, even from his own side, as opportunistic and unprincipled. Housing associations are non-profit and could be seen as part of “the Big Society”, as Cameron interprets the phrase. But they do not belong to the British public sector, and in law are not at the beck and call of politicians and civil servants. As several of the Prime Minister’s critics have noticed, if the Conservatives can meddle in the private sector as arbitrarily as this, what are the limits to state action? Cameron has a quick and easy defence of his handout, that he won the general election. But the worries here are twofold, the long-run debasement of political debate to the worst kind of bread-and-circuses populism and, more fundamentally, the potential threat to basic features of any constitutional order. All written constitutions in serious nations define certain principles (such as the independence of the judiciary) and defend the rights of minorities. These principles and rights cannot be overturned by governments, no matter their success in elections and regardless of majority attitudes.
Winning elections is therefore not the only thing that matters. Handing out bribes to some groups (housing association tenants) at the expense of others (people who have paid off mortgages in full, without state subsidy) may not sound all that shocking. But change the words a little bit, and we see what might be at stake. Handing out government money to some people (Old Etonians, Nazis) at the expense of others (disabled people on benefits, Jews) would be very shocking. Britain does not have a written constitution, but that has been possible only because certain constitutional understandings have been long been implicit in our public life. Governments cannot steal capriciously from a particular citizen or group of citizens. By the same token, they are not supposed to dole out significant sums of public money to a particular citizen or group of citizens.
In his 1983 The Role and Limits of Government Sir Samuel Brittan coined “the Wenceslas myth”, which he defined as “the myth that there exist tiny handfuls of people known as ‘governments’ who could so act as to increase the supply of satisfactions enjoyed by the population if only they chose to do so, but through malevolence or inefficiency do not”. In the background to the general election of 2015 were troubling uncertainties (immigration, Scotland, the European Union) about national identity and the meaning of citizenship. The British public may be more anxious about their country’s position in the world than at any time since 1945 and even about the very meaning of the country to which they belong. But a dreary and tacky lot of politicians could not lift the tone of the national debate, and instead tried to bribe floating voters with the fantasy of “government money”. Brittan was right to describe as “infantile” the belief that “the government ought to be able to manage the totality of our affairs so that we can all have more of something without less of something else”.