Time was - at least in the UK - when politicians caught deceiving the citizenry automatically tendered their resignation. No longer. A seminal discovery of the Blair - Bush era was that, in the world of high politics, the truth doesn’t matter. All that is required to secure public acquiescence is to paint the world in the colours of Party prejudice, to mould the facts to suit the argument and - herein lies the key - to do so with unflinching confidence. Simple and remarkably effective, the tactic succeeded in conjuring weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, fabricating the defeat of the Taliban in Helmand, and transmuting NHS privatisation into something called ‘patient (consumer) choice’.
Only later do we learn the truth, by which time the original deceptions somehow lose their potency and capacity for arousing indignation. Even if we do not forget them, we tend to forgive the politicians who uttered them and, all too often and notably in the run-up to elections, we make ready to swallow more salvoes of meretricious nonsense from those who harbour ambitions to run the country.
As we approach another election, it is worth while glancing back at some of the UK government’s pre-electoral assurances in 2010:
- No top down reorganisation of the NHS. On the BBC’s late-night This Week Programme former Tory minister Michael Portillo admitted that the Tories had lied about this because they knew that if their plans were known they would have had no chance of winning the election.
- Tories would run the greenest government ever - an ambition about which we have heard nothing of substance since Cameron stepped over the threshold of 10 Downing Street.
- The UK’s AAA credit rating would be defended at all costs. The UK was downgraded to AA in 2012; and although Standard & Poor restored the missing A last summer, its temporary loss proved oddly unimportant.
- The UK’s fiscal deficit will be eliminated in a single parliament. As the present term of office comes to an end, Government is nowhere near to achieving this ambition. In fact it has borrowed more - far more - than the previous Labour administration. More important, however, than simple references to pubic borrowing is the ratio of public sector debt to GDP. If there is anything alarming about Osborne’s patent medicine of austerity it is in the unceasing upward momentum of this ratio.
- We’re all in it together. Another mantra about which we have heard little, as the realisation has dawned that the wealthy - Tory front bench included - are not in “it’ at all.
- We will cut net immigration to the tens of thousands. Net migration for April 2013 - March 2014 was just under a quarter of a million.
What of the promises made at this year’s Tory Party Conference?
Osborne is committed to an additional £25 - £30 billion of savings from government departments, a policy that will inevitably fall disproportionately on the disadvantaged because they rely more on public services than the rich. On the other hand, Cameron has announced tax cuts all round and the Tory claim is that, despite the cuts, everyone will be better off.
Are these statements of intent mutually compatible? No.
Osborne’s expenditure cuts are to commence as soon as possible, which means an estimated three to five years before the tax cuts, by which time it will have become clear that reducing the deficit to zero from its current level of £70 - £80 billion is easier said than done. Nevertheless, he has once again promised to reach ground zero in a single parliament. Predictions are a hostage to fortune in economics as in other kinds of soothsaying, but we have seen that Osborne’s track record so far suggests he probably won’t make it. And therein lies a perfect excuse for postponing the promised tax cuts. By 2018, two years before the next election, the government will be able to say that though their intentions were ever honourable, the ‘conditions for a tax cut’ aren’t quite right.
Of one thing we can be certain, no serious economist would claim with a straight face that she knows how the UK economy will be performing in five years time. Predicting even a year ahead seems to be a crapshoot. Too many imponderables are at play - among them the performance of the US and other European economies as well as those of China, India, Brazil etc. Osborne and Cameron know this perfectly well. Their assurances, therefore, amount to no more than vacuous rhetoric. Cameron has now loosely hinted that the tax cuts ‘may’ come sooner than 2018. Their value? An estimated £7 billion. How will they be financed? So far, like the carpenter’s question to the oysters, answer came there none. If the tax cuts come early, Osborne’s deficit reduction headache will likely turn into a debilitating migraine.
Cutting benefits to the poor and the disabled is one promise the Tories might be able to keep. They will likely do this by additional privatisation of public services and a concomitant reduction in government responsibility for delivering them. Companies have to be paid for their work, so there will inevitably be a transfer of public funds to private corporations, especially when it comes to performing unprofitable tasks like caring for the elderly, depriving the disabled of support by reclassifying them as work-shy idlers, and clearing the indigent off the streets. Frustratingly, such transfers attenuate the expected fiscal benefits of privatisation. An alternative ploy would be to delegate services to local councils so that the national government no longer has to bother with them. Expect more of this in the name of devolution. Certain other services - tertiary education is already there - will have to be paid for by users which, along with inflation, will help to consume the proposed increase in the tax threshold.
On the subject of Europe, we are given to understand that Cameron will revamp the Union single-handed. He has told us so with a steady, unwavering stare at the camera lens. What are his minimum objectives? He won’t say. What if the rest of Europe refuses to do his bidding? Answer: the British people will decide. Yes, but what will he recommend? Answer: recommendations are not required because Europe will bend its collective knee to him - no doubt just at it did in the matter of Juncker’s election as President of the European Commission. It is hard avoid despair at the absence of any semblance of intelligent reflection from Cameron & co. on the European Union.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor should be just a little concerned that a 2017 in-out referendum might impact negatively on his plans for economic recovery because it could create deep uncertainty precisely among those denizens to which he especially likes to defer: the markets. Moreover, if the referendum results in a vote to leave the EU, we can forget all about tax cuts because it will almost certainly trigger a flight of capital and an accompanying economic downturn, with the added disadvantage that - like the Scottish referendum - there will be no going back.
What about human rights? Cameron apparently wants to reduce the European Court of Human Rights to advisory status and to make our own courts responsible for observing what would be a new UK Bill of Rights. Despite what theTories and their splenetic, tub-thumping friends in the gutter press would have us believe, the ECHR’s decisions rarely affect the UK negatively. There have, of course, been one or two questionable rulings - such as the long-drawn-out deportation of Abu Qatada who, perhaps not irrelevantly, was then cleared of terror charges in a Jordanian court even though he had been convicted here by the media and imprisoned by the government without trial. Theresa May led the official hysteria on this one. Cameron worked himself into a similar froth because the ECHR came down against the UK’s refusal to allow prisoners the right to vote. To some it may seem sensible to treat prisoners on remand differently, for example, from those serving a life sentence for a serious offence. Be that as it may, we should note that ultimately Parliament remains sovereign, which is why it can decide to replace the European Convention with one of its own.
In any event, the whole bag of complaints against the ECHR consists of a tiny number of cases. Why therefore does Cameron not want to modify the way the ECHR works from within so that it applies to the EU in general? Because that is not the purpose of the intention to withdraw. Cameron's and May’s aim is to repatriate HR legislation so that Home Secretaries can use parliamentary majorities to modify the law whenever judgments go against them. The aim is not better justice but an enhancement of power. Put simply, it is to help ministers repress whoever they want to repress, whenever they want to repress them.
Tory plans to dispense with the ECHR more than anything resembles the fury of babies throwing their toys out of the pram when they don’t get their own way. Except that what they are discarding are not baubles but the protection, afforded by the ECHR to all citizens, against wayward, unethical, and undemocratic decisions of their own governments.