nick clegg

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Hypocrite? Me?

With the increasing round-the-clock scrutiny of those in public life, recent decades have shown that the gap between politicians’ words and actions may have been greater than earlier generations liked to believe. ‘Saying one thing and doing another’ has two possible dimensions: (1) the manipulation of the electorate based on manifesto pledges that are never delivered; and (2) the hypocrisy of politicians publicly standing for a policy that they privately repudiate. Is it mere cynicism that drives politicians to act in these ways?

Let’s look at two examples from recent political history. The most glaring recent example of the first type of hypocrisy is the Liberal Democrats’ reversal of their 2010 Election Manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees in England and Wales. This caused many party members to leave, and was followed by a series of embarrassing apologies from senior Liberal Democrats (BBC 2014a). It was felt by many that the Liberal Democrats had betrayed one of their central principles. But this view demonstrates a lack of sophistication in understanding how democratic government works.

The Liberal Democrats may have been honest in their intention. But once they came to power as part of the Coalition government, one of three things happened: (a) they may have realized there was not enough money to pay for the policy; (b) they may not have had enough political leverage within the Coalition to deliver the policy; (c) they may have had to trade the policy for others that were felt more important. It is possible that, rather than being evidence of cynicism, failure to deliver was simply a lack of political clout (or perhaps ability) in government.

The best example of the second type of hypocrisy was the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign, begun by John Major’s Conservative Party in 1993. The campaign aimed to promote traditional values, honesty, and the centrality of the family. Subsequently, Conservative MPs were caught in a series of scandals such as extramarital affairs, homosexuality (which the Conservative Party discouraged at the time), auto-erotic asphyxiation and so on; these publicly undermined the policy (Ward 1994).

It is easy to assume that these individuals were being disingenuous. But it can also be an indictment of a certain sort of party system that compels its members to go along with policies that they themselves would never personally have formulated. Unless we are willing to say that politicians are people who can have no genuinely private existence that is not penetrated by their political commitments, we must accept that there will be conflicts of this type between party commitments and private life. And if not, perhaps we can take heart that in a true representative democracy, our politicians are just as hypocritical as we ourselves.

BBC, 2014a. ‘Senior Lib Dems apologise over tuition fee pledge’. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19646731

[Accessed on 9th November 2014]

Ward, S., 1994. “MP was worried over tarnished television image: Coroner records misadventure verdict on Milligan”. In The Independent, 23rd March 1994. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/mp-was-worried-over-tarnished-television-image-coroner-records-misadventure-verdict-on-milligan-1430950.html

[Accessed on 9th November 2014]

Image from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26338661

[Accessed on 9th November 2014]

Joy Ejiofor

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