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Largesse: Politicians should not take Good King Wenceslas as their model (photo: Gryffindor)

Politicians’ promises are the lowest common denominator of public life. They tend to be forgotten almost as quickly as they are given, particularly by the losing parties in elections. But, even when they survive for more than a few weeks after an election result, they are often despised and usually end up as an embarrassment. Nevertheless, Britain’s politicians multiplied promises in the weeks leading up to May 7. The seemingly neck-and-neck character of the race may be partly to blame for its tawdriness.

The thinking seemed to be that, with the two main parties’ vote shares roughly equal in the opinion polls at about 33 or 34 per cent, bribing another one or two per cent to vote Conservative or Labour could be decisive. Unhappily, every party indulged in the bidding. The Labour Party started out long before the election campaign itself, with a pledge in autumn 2013 to freeze household energy bills. The Conservatives gave a commitment that housing association tenants could buy their accommodation at discounts of between 35 and 70 per cent. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto said that they would give higher pay to public sector workers, in an open bid for votes.

Of course, everyone knew that the direct personal cost to the politicians making these promises would be nil. In that sense the electioneering of spring 2015 was a quest for power without personal accountability. Cynicism of this sort may be an inevitable characteristic of modern societies with a universal adult franchise, since a proportion of the electorate pays little or no tax, and a high proportion receives benefits in excess of tax. Politicians’ promises may add nothing to national output except hot air and bribing voters with their own money sounds daft. But bribing a crucial group of floating voters with taxes paid by a minority may be “good politics”.

Cameron’s “retail offer” to housing association tenants was widely condemned, even from his own side, as opportunistic and unprincipled. Housing associations are non-profit and could be seen as part of “the Big Society”, as Cameron interprets the phrase. But they do not belong to the British public sector, and in law are not at the beck and call of politicians and civil servants. As several of the Prime Minister’s critics have noticed, if the Conservatives can meddle in the private sector as arbitrarily as this, what are the limits to state action? Cameron has a quick and easy defence of his handout, that he won the general election. But the worries here are twofold, the long-run debasement of political debate to the worst kind of bread-and-circuses populism and, more fundamentally, the potential threat to basic features of any constitutional order. All written constitutions in serious nations define certain principles (such as the independence of the judiciary) and defend the rights of minorities. These principles and rights cannot be overturned by governments, no matter their success in elections and regardless of majority attitudes.

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