“No other chancellor in the long history of the office has felt the need to pass a law in order to convince people he has the political will to implement his own Budget” – George Osborne, 2009
“We will legislate in the first hundred days to make sure these taxes can’t go up” – David Cameron, 2015
What kind of politician has to promise to enshrine their campaign pledges in law?
The answer, of course, is one who cannot be trusted – one who knows that their promises are quite unachievable, but desperately wants to portray a strong belief in their viability. And this is exactly the cheap trick now played by David Cameron and George Osborne, only five years after they mocked Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling for doing the same thing.
The Spectator drily summarised the Tories’ announcement in their Election 2015 Espresso bulletin:
The Conservatives would bring in a law to block rises in VAT, income tax and national insurance for the duration of the next Parliament, David Cameron said today. ‘Why can I make this pledge? Because I’ve seen the books, I know what needs to be done,’ the Prime Minister said. And evidently what needs to be done is to have a pointless law brought in by a leader who once promised to cut red tape. ‘If you trust me, vote for me,’ Cameron says – but his promise of legislation shows that he thinks the public don’t trust him to keep to his word.
Of course, the Conservative promise to place a legal restriction on government preventing it from raising the “big three” taxes will do no such thing. There is already a legal requirement in place committing the government to eliminating the deficit by the year 2015, and yet here we are, about to go back into the polling booths, and the deficit was not even cut in half – with the national debt continuing to soar upwards.
Will George Osborne find himself on the wrong side of a prison door for having failed to eliminate the deficit? Will the coalition cabinet all receive criminal records? Or will they or the government face civil penalties (raising the hilarious prospect of the government having to pay itself a fine for breaking its own law)? Of course not. These “laws” aren’t worth the paper that the party press releases are printed on, or the air that emanates from the Prime Minister’s mouth as he patronises the British people.
To turn workaday, unachievable campaign pledges into laws is to make a complete mockery of the British legal system. It reduces our code of laws from being the bedrock of our civilisation to being a handy PR weapon, there to be used by the parties as a prop in their endless battle to win the 24-hour news cycle, and nothing more.
The consequence of breaking one of these cosmetic laws is not any serious penalty, either criminal or civil; nor is it even a symbolic slap on the wrist. The only consequence of breaking these cynical laws is to grant the opposition another small piece of opposition research – the raw material for a future party political broadcast or a withering putdown at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Guardian’s Michael White is also spot-on with his criticism:
The simple reason why no political party should, or can, promise not to raise the key engines of tax revenues – income tax, VAT and national insurance – is that it cannot see into the future. Not even that truism is quite true because, as the IFS rightly points out, we can all see enough to know that, one way or another, most of us expect to be worse off in terms of tax and benefits in the years ahead.
How can it be otherwise when the sums don’t add up, but the nation’s accumulated debts do?
This week’s first quarter growth figures for January to March 2015, of 0.3% compared with 0.6% in Q4 of 2014, remind attentive voters that the government’s claim to have rescued the economic mess it inherited from Labour is as spurious as Labour’s cry that it has failed – or indeed as silly as the Tory insistence that it was Blair and Brown, not the bankers, who caused the 2008-9 crash and recession. Infantile really.
It is worse than that. Though you might not realise from the campaign rhetoric, the world has not stopped spinning because Britain is holding a general election. Bad things keep happening out there which may blow skipper Cameron’s vessel off course and on to the rocks of spiralling debt – and they cannot be ignored.
At a wider level, this taps into that destructive British instinct to make a new law for everything. Someone says something offensive? There should be a law against that! Someone puts up a poster you don’t like? Don’t just disagree with it, call the police or tear it down!
In this censorious, nanny-state climate where we routinely call the police on anybody who dares to hurt our feelings, perhaps it is not surprising that our politicians now want to apply the coercion of the state to themselves and their own work. After all, since using the law works so well clamping down on speech now considered unacceptable, why should politicians not also use the law symbolically to make a rod for their own backs when it comes to keeping their campaign promises?
According to this mindset, the law is simply a means of expressing approval or disapproval for a given action or situation – take the example of the 2010 Equalities Act, which was really nothing to do with overcoming discrimination or creating a level playing field, but was rather an overwrought means of virtue signalling, and nothing more.
We live in an age where what you do has become less important than what you say, or what you claim to support. It doesn’t matter that the Conservatives spectacularly failed to achieve their target of eliminating the deficit, they will still hoover up right wing votes because they talk a lot about fiscal responsibility. And it doesn’t matter that the Labour Party’s europhilia and support of unlimited immigration benefits their new middle class base but hurts the low-paid workers they claim to represent, because they will always be seen as the party of the poor and the disadvantaged.
Meanwhile, both parties, having completely lost touch with their roots and founding principles, shout ever louder about how committed they are to enacting their own policies – they must be serious, they claim, because if they win they’re going to pass a meaningless law forcing them to do what they already said they would do.
Ross Clark at The Spectator wonders why British politicians have developed such a fetish for publicly binding their own hands in this way:
It has become quite a fetish, governments passing laws to bind their own hands. The Brown government did it with the Climate Change Act, which sets supposedly legally-enforceable targets for cutting carbon emissions. It is now legally binding, too, for future governments to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid.
It isn’t hard to see how this could get out of hand. You can expect future governments heading for election defeat to pass lots of these laws as a political stunt to try to thwart the opposition. The opposition party, if it gains power, will then of course repeal any law which stands in the way of its programme – to cries of protest about ministers changing the rules to suit them.
The real test would be if a future government, say, fails to reach the legally-binding target for carbon emissions. Will the then climate change secretary be led off in chains to do a couple of years at the Scrubs? I can’t see it myself.
Of course not. The Tories’ latest vote-winning gimmick is nothing more than the vague threat of a non-existent penalty in the event that unbelievable election promises are (shockingly) not kept.
But what kind of politician has to promise the electorate that they will make their campaign pledges legally binding in the first place?
Certainly no politician who respects the voters, or who deserves their respect.