In today’s copy of The Times, Matthew Parris comments on the outcry that has followed the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer’s decision to raise a particular tax on small businesses. Under the headline, “When it’s right to break political promises,” he supports the rationale for breaking the Conservative Party’s 2015 commitment not to raise National Insurance Contributions (NICs) for the self-employed. At the same time, he criticizes what he sees as the inept manner in which the change in policy has been introduced.
Surely, though, there is a wider issue here. The real problem is not so much with what Philip Hammond has done in policy terms. Or the fact that the proposed changes break a promise in the manifesto. It is with the very notion of making firm manifesto commitments in the first place.
In the run-up to the 2015 election, candidates of all parties were constantly asked by interviewers to explain precisely what things would be like at the end of the five-year parliament, based on the pledges made in their party manifestos. In the main, they duly obliged (as politicians always do!).
As things turned out, of course, their inability to predict what would happen in the future was laid bare on election night itself. Politicians, pundits, and pollsters alike all expected the election to result in a so-called “hung parliament”, with a coalition between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties being the most likely means of forming a viable Government. In the event, the Conservatives gained an overall majority and a triumphant David Cameron put together his Government, with a seemingly unobstructed path ahead of him and his colleagues for the next five years. Eighteen months on, the rest – like David Cameron’s premiership – is history.
No, the issue is not with breaking manifesto promises but with making them in the first place. As Matthew Parris rightly suggests in his commentary, a manifesto should not be a list of specific commitments, but rather a “political compass bearing”. Recalling the verdict of a Times journalist from 1874, he argues that, “what a manifesto needs is ‘penetration — the ability to cut through complex areas of policy and set out a compelling argument’”.
This is the fundamental point. The world is too complex, ambiguous, and uncertain to be dealt with in terms of abstract promises that are detached from the real-world demands of day-to-day governing. A sense of direction: Yes. Specific commitments: No. Fitness to govern should carry with it acknowledgement of the ongoing state of not knowing - however inconvenient and humbling that might seem to be in the context of the dominant discourse that worships certainty, predictability, and control. Manifesto commitments imply a ‘false concreteness’ to the governing (and living!) of everyday life that does not match the wiggly reality.
Reducing anxiety - but at what cost?
I would concede that glossy manifestos and the like can help to reduce people’s anxiety, by providing a sense that ‘those in the know’, those formally in charge, are somehow ‘in control’ of events. However, like many other of the trappings of modern, managerialist approaches, these distort and misrepresent the actuality of national (and corporate) governance. As Parris again insightfully says, “What Hammond’s attackers are doing is what we British love best: ducking the substantive issue, of which our understanding is often hazy, and diving into a heated argument about process.” I would only take issue with this statement as regards the suggestion that it applies solely to “we British”. This tendency is much more widespread.
In reality, our understanding of virtually all of the issues of any significance in our lives is “hazy”.
Our politicians and their advisors are slightly better informed of the 'ins and outs' of some of these. At least we hope that they are. But that means that they should also be better informed about the uncertain, complex, and ambiguous nature of the issues with which they are grappling. Mismatches between one-time aspirations/expectations and the emergent reality is not a matter of incompetence (at least not usually so). It’s a fact of life.
Co-creating the future
Filling a manifesto with unqualified policy commitments, promises, and pledges, and then using these as the basis for assessing the rightness or otherwise of the ongoing governance of the country, is nonsense. It ignores the contingent and interdependent nature of events across the world, and of the millions of local interactions from which these emerge. It perpetuates the myth that, despite this, members of the Government (of whatever colour) are blessed with the ability to predict and control everything that happens ‘on their watch’ with accuracy and precision. In doing so, it also lets the rest of us off the hook, as regards the part that we unavoidably play in co-creating the future that emerges in practice.
Politicians don’t determine the future, we all do. And it’s this continuously emerging future with which we should be concerned. Not that which might have happened, if the real world had been kind enough to comply with the ‘cast in concrete’ assumptions on which the election winner’s manifesto was based.
P.S. Although I’ve written this in relation to the process of national government, the same patterns can be seen in everyday organizational life. And the same lessons for leadership practice apply.