Brian Monteith: Never trust a politician, much less a manifesto

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How often have you heard the phrase “Never trust a politician”? I was prompted to ask myself this after a friend sent me a funny e-mail, one of those that go round and round the world forevermore because they are not just funny but timeless. I had seen it before but after this week’s launch of general election manifestoes it was particularly apt. Here’s how it 
goes . . .

A politician is run over by the Clapham Omnibus and his soul goes up to the Pearly Gates. He demands to go to Heaven but Saint Peter says he will be given a choice only after he has visited both for a day.

First he goes to Hell where he meets all his old political friends, plays a round of golf and carouses into the wee small hours wining, dining and womanising. He meets the Devil who is charming and great fun.

Then he goes to Heaven where he twiddles his thumbs relaxing on clouds while people he doesn’t know play the Lute and are very polite to each other. It’s pleasant but hardly the best party he’s ever been to.

He then sees Saint Peter who asks for a decision. The politician admits he thought he would have preferred Heaven but has changed his mind and wishes to go to Hell, whereupon he goes down the escalator and steps outside.

Suddenly he enters a barren roasting desert with his old political friends in rags raking the wasteland for scraps. He sees the Devil and asks what has happened to all the lovely food, wine, women and golf that was on offer? The Devil replies, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted.”

It made me chuckle and reminded me of all the past promises made by politicians that I have heard betrayed. Breaking a pledge is bad enough, but the worst are when the politicians make them without any intention of ever delivering them. The consequence of never trusting a politician is never trusting a manifesto.

As a naive youngster one of the reasons I never cared for Harold Wilson as a Prime Minister was that he repeatedly made promises that he would then break. Cutting inflation, reducing strikes, those and other issues were not made better but actually got worse.

Ted Heath was no better. He abandoned his manifesto within his first year as premier. Margaret Thatcher was more careful and did not make promises she believed that she couldn’t keep. It was for her often spineless colleagues to betray her and the voter.

Indeed, in those days you could read a Tory manifesto and go through it four years later ticking off the measures she said she would take that had indeed been delivered.

Now we live in modern times defined by Edinburgh’s own Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. His first great broken promise was when he introduced tuition fees for university students. There had been a review of the idea before the 1997 election but the Conservative government had rejected the proposal – and Blair declared against it too – only to make it one of his first measures on becoming prime minister.

Students issues are often a graveyard for betrayals; the broken promise of Nick Clegg not to increase tuition fees in England and Wales in the 2010 general election has holed his party below the waterline – possibly to sink forever. E-mails released after the Coalition was formed showed he had already agreed to give up the pledge in the event of negotiations while he was still making the vow before election day. One one word sums that up. Unforgivable.

Almost forgotten but in the same league was the SNP’s pledge to write off student loan debt in the 2007 Holyrood election campaign. It is hard to believe it was ever a serious promise and Alex Salmond used his lack of a majority to drop it – but when he won an outright majority it was never raised from its grave.

The same went for the SNP promise to abolish council tax and replace it with a local income tax. Nicola Sturgeon could do this tomorrow but keeps kicking it into the distance.

And Cameron? Well there was that vote-winning promise to raise the threshold for Inheritance Tax to a million pounds, after Gordon Brown had let it slide while property values soared. Another promise jettisoned.

Now they are all at it again – in 
particular promising to reduce the public deficit whilst promising all sorts of new bribes that will cost money – the two pledges are mutually exclusive.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance campaign group has been particularly coruscating in its criticism of the political parties for offering no detail about how promise to cut public spending. It has produced its own, more detailed research showing the stark measures that would need to be (and in my book, should) be taken to reduce spending enough so that taxes of ordinary people can be cut and greater economic growth encouraged.

As day follows night, the morning after the election the first politicians’ promises will be broken.

So as you walk into that polling station on 7th May I suggest you remember the words of the Devil, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted.”