Apologies and Promises
Political Apologies seem to be hitting the headlines again. Two years ago we had the British Prime Minister being cheered in (London)Derry for his apology following the Bloody Sunday Inquiry (The Saville Inquiry). Then this month we had him again apologising in response to the Hillsborough report (The Hillsborough Independent Panel). Yet he was not responsible for either event, so in some respects, the apologies (sincere though I believe they were) are a bit odd.
Nick Clegg’s “broken promises” apology (in respect of tuition fees) is a slightly different beast.
Hearing an apology can be cathartic – I suspect in both the Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough cases it has been. The fact that the apology came from someone who was not responsible probably makes it more palatable. The apologiser can be sincere without incurring any personal obligation for reparations. It does however create an expectation about the apologiser’s future behaviour – which has to be consistent with the apology. Will Cameron take steps to avoid future cover-ups and delays in obtaining justice? The instincts of many in the agencies of law and order seems to be for secrecy (e.g. secret inquests, secret trials etc.)
For Clegg, the acceptability of his apology is more difficult (despite it being more appropriate) because he has dirty hands and many want reparations. Unlike Cameron, he could hold his hands up, take responsibility – and resign, but clearly won’t. Pragmatically that line of action will not improve the situation, tuition fees will remain, the coalition may collapse and Clegg’s former supporters will be worse off.
So if he won’t resign, how should he modify his future behaviour? This is where it gets interesting. In his statement he indicates he will not make such promises again. This is probably where it gets complex! Nick Clegg said:
“There’s no easy way to say this: we made a pledge, we didn’t stick to it – and for that I am sorry,”.
“When you’ve made a mistake you should apologise. But more importantly – most important of all – you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. And that’s what we will do.
“I will never again make a pledge unless as a party we are absolutely clear about how we can keep it.”
Vince Cable’s comment is more revealing (my emboldening):
“I was sceptical about the pledge but we agreed collectively to do it and I take my share of the responsibility,” … “I signed the pledge on the basis that had we been in government on our own, which was the commitment, we would have put through that policy and we would have done so.
“It was an unwise commitment to have made and we regret that and that was the basis of the apology.”
Most parties’ manifesto pledges are made conditional on being elected to majority government (and the world not changing). On this basis, the Conservatives are also breaking promises and Labour is breaking even more of the promises made in its last manifesto. Should they be apologising? Cameron and Miliband appear not to share Clegg’s need to apologise for not fully implementing their manifestos. Was “tuition fees” such a specific (and small scope) promise that the breaking of it is more toxic than other more complex and vague promises?
So should all parties carry on as before – making promises, seeing them broken if they do not get elected to majority government, and feeling no obligation to apologise? We the electorate should grow up and just accept that all these promises are just aspirations and should have no expectation that they will be implemented – which reduces the “accountability mechanism”.
Or, (as Clegg seems to be promising to do) do we move to a more mature (but difficult) process, where manifestos are seen as statements of political philosophy, and candidates indicate “broad support” for a manifesto but put themselves before the electorate and invite the voters to assess their “political character”? We have to ask “do I trust this candidate to adequately represent me over the next five years” understanding that until the outcome of the election is known it is not possible to know the complexion of a future government. We then expect our representative to pragmatically attempt to represent their constituents – and then stand on their record.
Any promises should be made at the personal level and then only if the candidate feels sufficiently strongly about an issue to tie themselves to a pledge – whether that is the Liberal Candidate in Cambridge saying “I will vote against tuition fees”, or a Conservative Candidate in Richmond (on Thames) saying “I will not permit a third runway at Heathrow”. However, that will make life very interesting for the party whips – and possibly lead to more resignations and by-elections!
Two other takes on the apology:
(Nick Clegg has apparently give permission for the second to be released as a single – with proceeds to Sheffield Children’s Hospital.)