Magazine article The Spectator

Focus on the British System of Government: Pledge-Ocracy

Magazine article The Spectator

Focus on the British System of Government: Pledge-Ocracy

Article excerpt

It was God who started this dreadful pledging business. 'I do set my bow in the cloud,' said the Lord, `and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.' Or so records Genesis. `And the waters', said the Lord, `shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.' The rainbow is our token.

Even as a child I thought that demeaning. It suggests we might not quite trust God - one of those types who look you in the eye and say, `Trust me; here's my card.' I agree with the Quakers' conscientious objection to swearing on oath, for if to swear on oath adds veracity, then that must imply that an unsworn statement lacks it. Jesus's exasperation with His followers whining `Give us a sign', and the beautiful simplicity of His remark, `If it were not so, I would have told you,' said all that needed saying. Yet here was the Old Testament God reminding us that he was a pretty straight sort of a guy. A proper God should have no need to offer undertakings; a proper respect for God should require none.

But now Tony Blair and William Hague are promising, vowing and covenanting too. We are becoming a pledge-ocracy. God did it in rainbows; the Prime Minister does it on coffee mugs. God's covenant was forever; the Opposition Leader offers a ten-year lease (renewable) on his Euroscepticism.

Labour's coffee mugs form a set of five, each in a special colour yet adding up to something less than the rainbow. They were on sale at Labour's last conference. Each reminds us of one of five pledges: 1) not to increase tax rates; 2) to reduce NHS waiting lists; 3) to reduce class sizes for children aged five to seven; 4) to be tough on crime; and 5) to provide more jobs for young people.

This manner of discourse with the electorate creates two difficulties, of which the first is presentational. There is something cringing in a leader assuring those he is supposed to lead that he absolutely promises to take them to the land of milk and honey, `and here's a checklist to assess my performance mile by mile: the first honey should be ready for tasting by mid-August 1999; milk will be in sight by Christmas. And do complain if we don't deliver.' This is undignified. Manifestos begin to resemble those miracle cures for baldness: money back if we fail to please, letters from satisfied customers available for inspection.

Then Mr Blair commissions `focus groups' to discover what people are saying about what he is saying - the better to trim his sails to what he takes to be the wind: like a commanding officer asking the infantry whom they want him to fight. Reaching for a referendum every time the clock strikes risks the same tentativeness: ambivalence on the nature of leadership, a half-abdication of authority.

You may argue that a prime minister is neither a warrior nor a prophet, but servant of the people, a sort of elevated employee taking instructions from his democratic masters. That is one approach to the job, but a leader who sees it thus should forswear the use of the charismatic, saintly or heroic styles of command. Mr Blair leans heavily on all three. `Can I be your hero? Now, what do you want your hero to do? Score me out of ten on this performancesheet' - a craven populism, demagoguery pandering to a herd which cheers but mistrusts its leader.

Or so a psychopolitical scientist might speculate. …

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