As the general election campaign drew to a close in May, I wrote that the political parties were playing a game of bluff with the voters. They didn’t want to tell us the truth and we didn’t want to hear. All of them knew that the deficit was running at around £150bn and that this is represented an extinction level event for many public services. But they went right on and, well, lied about it. I have thought carefully about using that word, which is of course unsayable in parliament. But I can’t think of any other way of encapsulating the scale of the misrepresentation.
David Cameron promised not to cut child benefits, free bus passes and winter fuel allowances for old people. Well child benefit has gone and just watch the others go in short order. He also said the Tory plans “didn’t involve an increase in VAT” when they clearly did, for no sooner was Cameron in the door at Number Ten than he announced that VAT would rise in January by 2%. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg also promised not to raise VAT, which he called the “Tory tax bombshell”. Then he dropped it.
Yes, all politicians break promises, but the Coalition has set a new benchmark in infamy. “No more pointless and disruptive reorganisation of the health service” said David Cameron solemnly, before launching the most radical upheaval in English health care in decades. Next will likely be charges for “hotel” costs while people are in hospital. Then what about road pricing, legal aid, pension taxes...
However, all of this pales against the LibDem behaviour over tuition fees. Before the election, their MPs actually signed a pact that they would vote against any increase in fees, only Sir Menzies Campbell, the former leader seems willing to honour it. Vince Cable said upping fees would be a “disaster”. Not any more, for in the Browne report he is endorsing the biggest increase in university fees in modern history. In any other walk of life you would be able to sue people who behaved like this. And don’t tell me he changed his mind when he ‘opened the books’ - he of all politicians knew exactly how bad the books were. All that's changed is that he is in government.
What would Vince Cable be saying this week if he weren’t a minister? He would be castigating the government for ensnaring the next generation in the web of debt. He would be condemning the virtual ending of state-financed higher education after 50 years, with no consultation and no mandate. He would be lambasting Eton-educated political leaders for seeking to turn universities into the equivalent of private schools. But there he was in the Commons, saying that LibDem policy was “not feasible any more". And Vince was supposed to be one of the good guys.
Labour are just as bad. They’re attacking the Coalition for dumping the debt burden on students. But it was Labour who first introduced top up fees in England in 2004, in a flat contradiction of their own election promises. And it was Labour’s Lord Mandelson who set up the Browne commission on higher education funding which has now called for variable fees up to £10,000 and beyond. The hypocrisy is naked, shameful, scandalous, intolerable. And nor am I excluding the SNP from this. We know about their lost promises on student debt, housing grants and class sizes. But the Scottish government is now issuing promises about “ no up -front fees” when everyone knows they are actively considering a graduate contribution which could amount to much the same thing. English students won’t be paying “up-front fees” either, but a graduate contribution paid back at commercial rates of interest when their incomes rise above £21,000.
When the Athenians invented democracy what they didn’t expect was that politicians would end up habitually lying to the electorate, telling them what they wanted to hear, ignoring awkward truths, making promises they knew they could never keep. Actually, Plato did expect something like this which is why he proposed a form of benign dictatorship by a highly educated caste of “guardians”. He thought democracy would lead to government by demagogues, rabble rousers and charlatans. Democrats have spent the last couple of hundred years trying to prove Plato wrong and so far the record has been pretty reasonable. (Well, give or take Adolph Hitler) But in general, the spread of democracy has improved the quality of government, protected the rights of the minority and ensured that essential services like health and education are provided collectively by the state. Democracy is still in Churchill’s words, the worst form of government ever invented , except for all the others.
But in the 21st Century, something has rotted the moral fabric of democracy and left us with a caste of professional politicians who seem to regard public office as a career option and have no particular commitment to any philosophy or policy agenda. Everything is expendable. Everything is provisional. A promise, as Vince Cable more or less said this week, is only a promise in the moment it is made. Thereafter it is subject to revision in light of changed circumstances, unforeseen events. Yet the deficit was anything but unforeseen. All the political parties knew the scale of the challenge, but all of them, for their own reasons, avoided spelling out the consequences. Labour issued a ludicrous promise to pass legislation requiring the government to balance the books without identifying the cuts it would need to make to comply with its own law.
However, I think that student debt could mark something of a turning point in public tolerance, at least in Scotland. If there is any hint of variable fees, a market in degrees, or students being landed with mortgage-sized debts when they graduate, there will be fury across the board. It could ignite protest the like of which we haven’t seen since the poll tax in 1988. All the Scottish parties are hoping they can lie low on fees until after the Scottish elections in May. They’re playing the old game of bluff. This is intolerable. They should all be saying now what the intend to do - they know all the arguments, have all the evidence. The Coalition has made its pitch: now it’s time for the Scottish parties to respond. Or else this could be a broken promise too far.