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Here is a Friday quiz question: What do tuition fees, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and the UK fiscal deficit have in common? The answer is that they all demonstrate the dangers of drawing thick lines in politics.

When in 2010 Nick Clegg and every Liberal Democrat candidate pledged to vote against an increase in tuition fees and then promptly broke the promise on entering Government, they placed an albatross around their neck which will stay there until at least the next General Election. Indeed, many young people may remain instinctively distrustful of the LibDems for life. Clegg may have won his party a few more votes by making the promise and just possibly a couple of seats, but I can’t imagine any Liberal Democrat strategist wouldn’t happily swap a slightly smaller Parliamentary Party for the return of lost trust and credibility among a key target group.

All parties break promises and all politicians say things they regret, but on tuition fees, against wise advice from some in his inner circle, Clegg made the disastrous error of drawing a thick line under his pledge. 

In his Cairo speech of June 2009 President Obama said: ‘The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements’. The statement was accompanied by briefings underlining that the President was drawing a thick line in calling for an end to new settlements. The implication was clear; if settlements continued the US would reconsider its long established position of strong support for Israel. Left and liberal media outlets – like, for example, the Guardian - welcomed this apparent ultimatum. But now many people – including those sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians - think it was a bad mistake.

The rights of settlers is an issue of enormous symbolic significance within Israel. To stop settlements is a much harder concession for Israeli leaders to offer than others of arguably much greater concrete importance to the peace process. In February this year the US vetoed a draft UN resolution condemning all settlements saying that while it was opposed to new house building in occupied territories the resolution was unhelpful to the peace process. Meanwhile taking Obama’s cue, the Palestinians have said no new negotiation is possible unless there is an Israeli agreement to halt settlements. In a conflict where symbolism is a massive impediment to the pragmatism necessary for peace, President Obama’s decision strongly to reinforce a symbolic dividing line may have been very unwise.

Finally, then, to George Osborne’s pledge to eliminate the structural deficit by the end of the parliament: with markets volatile and sensitive to any evidence of politicians backing away from paying down debt it may well be true that any move now by the Coalition to backslide on its pledge could lead to higher interest rates on UK debt. But in a sense this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Arguably, had the Coalition set itself a less exacting and precise target, or even not placed quite so much emphasis upon it, there would now be more scope for a little flexibility without it looking like U-turn or  panic.

A decision to extend the deficit target by one or two years would enable a vital injection of a few billion pounds which, if properly targeted, could make a real difference in key areas (see, for example, the youth unemployment plan I posted on earlier this week). Looking out on a worsening economic situation and the downgrading of every target set for UK economic growth, I wonder whether Mr Osborne doesn’t secretly wish he hadn’t drawn such a thick line under his deficit pledge.

With technocrats now running Greece and Italy and with our own politicians always keen to promise that decisions will be taken away from political interference, the standing of democratic decision-making seems in steep decline. When politicians constrain themselves through thick line pledges it is usually a sign of weakness: because the voters can’t trust their judgement they have to be seen to pre-empt that judgment.

Mistaken pledges with sometimes disastrous consequences are thus a sign of deeper problems of modern democratic discourse: I explored these problems in the context of new thinking about human nature in my 2009 annual lecture (if you’ve only a few minutes here is the RSAnimate version).


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