Tuition Fees: Power and Promises


3. What’s in a Promise?

Promise: In a general sense, a declaration, written or verbal, made by one person to another, which binds the person who makes it, either in honour, conscience or law, to do or forbear a certain act specified; a declaration which gives to the person to whom it is made, a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of the act. (Webster’s Dictionary, words emboldened by the author).

If a promise is enforceable in law, legal recourse is open to those who belive they have been let down.

But, many promises that matter – and promises on national education policy matter a great deal – are not readily subject to legal sanction if broken.  In these cases, what enforcement mechanisms are we left with? Being bound in ‘honour’ and ‘conscience’, together with a ‘right to expect performance’ on behalf of the promisee.

So the main imperative for keeping promises that are not legally enforceable is essentially moral or ethical.

At this point the pragmatists may be scoffing. Honour? Conscience? Morality? These are not material considerations. Breaking these bonds does not usually imply any material disadvantage, and the consequences of doing so are always negotiable. 

Idealists will object. But even the most fervent idealist will concede that it is difficult to frame objections which pass the materiality test. It is hard to identify the adverse material consequences of breaking a bond of honour, at least in the short term. Idealists are left to fulminate – breaking promises is just plain ‘wrong’.

3 thoughts on “Tuition Fees: Power and Promises

  1. On matters in general I am an idealist. But on tuition fees I am one of Spincop’s pragmatists. The political ‘system’ (of which we are all a part in one way or another) expects political parties to make election commitments, to simplify and avoid nuance, and not to hedge their bets with ‘ifs and buts’. Parties know that they need to win power if they are to achieve anything. So, they make promises to garner our votes. But the public should take election manifestos with a pinch of salt. If the LibDems had been elected to govern, perhaps the critics would have a point, but the Conservatives won the election. The Government is a coalition, with LibDems a minority. All parties to a coalition cannot have their way. Compromise when it comes to Commons voting means that one party or another is going to be open to the charge of breaking a pledge or principle, not sticking to its guns, etc. Politicians would be wise to resist making pre-election promises. The public and media need to grow up. Instead of singling out the big fish to blame, see and understand that the fishtank (aka the system of attaining and exercising political power) is “fearful, stressful, murky, confusing and insecure”. Cleaning up electioneering (as Phil Woolas found to his cost) is necessary, but political fish will never shine as brightly as we’d like them too, because the water is always going to be somewhat dirty. Not just here but in the Middle East too. It’s easy to see and blame the sharks in Sharm el-Sheikh’s blue waters, but it’s people who dump food waste in those waters and feed fish to get nearer to them and take better pictures. A few days ago I passed a road sign saying ‘Don’t complain about the traffic: you are the traffic’. Well, we are all a part of a politician’s environment: they sometimes feed us promises because they know that is what we want to hear them say, and then we reward them. So stop feeding them in return. Vote for the ‘no promises’ party! Most of them are really trying to do their best in the circumstances. That all we should hold them accountable for.

    1. Bill – this is a good, robust response to the post, much of which I’m in agreement with. I am critical of Clegg, but I accept your point that he’s been swimming in filthy water for some time! I would just like to see a leader (of any political persuasion) make a start, no matter how small, on cleaning it up.

      My particular concern here is that people in high profile leadership roles (in public life and in business) are undermining the credibility of leadership when they act in this way. A classic example is calling for restraint, belt-tightening and sacrifice. This only has any real power if your own record on these matters stands up to scrutiny.

      When it doesn’t, you just water the seeds of cycnicism. How many more percentage points can the ‘I never trust a politican’ score increase by before the whole system is in terminal disrepute? There are some pretty unsavoury political movements swimming in the waters already; people in power should be careful not to provide them with a food supply. Thanks again for your excellent feedback.

  2. I’d have some sympathy with the cry of ‘we didn’t know how bad it was until we were in power, and so that is why we are going back on our promise’ if they didn’t all read the same briefings, walk down the same corridors, and drink in the same bars. In business, if you are externally recruited this cry washes, if you are promoted or transferred from another unit it does not. I suggest that Clegg has been promoted or perhaps transferred from another unit.

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