UK politics is failing the trust test.
In the run-up to the May 7 election, the public has lambasted leaders of the established parties for breaking promises and lack of candour. While the critique is healthy, Britain has yet to give birth to leaders who score highly on integrity. This is needed, not just in the United Kingdom.
One of the most striking moments of the British election campaign was the “non-debate” on the BBC on April 30 involving David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader of the opposition, and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister.
This was a non-debate because Cameron had refused a head-to-head confrontation with Miliband. While that looked cowardly, the format for the last set-piece television event of the campaign – three half-hour slots during which a sceptical audience grilled the leaders in turn – was riveting. Instead of the Punch and Judy show that would have resulted if the leaders had debated each other, they had to confront the unmediated voice of the British public.
What emerged was something which had already been clear from opinion polls: the electorate does not trust its politicians. At several points, members of the audience accused the leaders of lying.
The main criticism Cameron faced was that he would not spell out how he plans to cut the welfare bill. There were repeated suggestions that the prime minister knew exactly what he was going to do but was refusing to give details – the implication being that he was hiding his plan from the electorate because he thought it would lose votes.
Miliband came in for a torrent of criticism for failing to admit that the previous Labour government had spent too much money. If he wasn’t prepared to acknowledge past mistakes, how could his new promises to cut the deficit if he becomes prime minister be trusted? The Labour leader continued, unwisely, to maintain that his party had not overspent.
Clegg was given a rough ride for pledging before the last election not to increase university tuition fees, only to join a coalition shortly afterwards which did precisely that. The Liberal Democrat leader was asked why the public would ever believe anything else he said. Despite apologising, he was criticised again and again for this breach of trust.
The failure of politicians to display integrity is not, of course, limited to the United Kingdom. It is a problem further afield, especially at the moment in the rest of Europe.
In Spain, the electorate has lost faith in established parties, in part because of a string of corruption scandals. Italy long suffered from having Silvio Berlusconi, who was subsequently convicted of tax fraud, as its prime minister.
Meanwhile, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, is gradually having to face up to the fact that he made undeliverable promises before January’s election. In the next few weeks, he will probably either have to eat yet more of his words or default on the country’s debt.
There is a long-established cynical view that politicians need to lie, make false promises, compromise their core principles and in other ways display lack of integrity in order to get into power and stay there.
The classic exponent of this view was Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote 500 years ago in The Prince that: “Princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles.”
Although Machiavelli was writing before the age of representative democracies, his basic thesis is wrong. While many politicians have indeed climbed the greasy pole by breaching the people’s trust, doing so is neither necessary nor desirable.
In a democracy, elected officials are supposed to act on behalf of the public. Lack of integrity is normally a sign that they are acting on their own behalf.
So it is important that the electorate vigorously holds to account politicians who make false promises, lie, compromise on core principles and fail to practise what they preach. Like a dog with a bone, voters should not let up – at least until and unless the politicians apologise for what they have done and so start to restore trust.
The main beneficiaries of the sullied reputations of the established European leaders have tended to be nationalistic movements such as the Scottish National Party and populist parties of either the left or the right – such as the UK Independence Party, Greece’s Syriza, Spain’s Podemos and France’s Front National.
Although such parties are good at spotting problems, their proposed solutions would often cause more harm than good. If demagogues gain power, politics in Europe will go from bad to worse.
That said, the rise of populism is not the only new feature of the European political scene. In recent months, two European parties from what might be termed the responsible centre – Spain’s Ciudadanos and Greece’s To Potami – have made some headway.
Two swallows, admittedly, do not make a summer. But their appearance suggests a new type of politics that puts trust centre-stage may be possible. With luck, after the roasting a television audience gave its established leaders last week, British politicians can learn this too.