The price of a promise

The Liberal Democrats always intended to break their promise not to raise tuition fees. This has made a lot of people very angry indeed. At the time of publication, already over a thousand comments have been made on the Guardian page where the story broke.

Why? Because Nick Clegg’s party has brazenly broken its pledge to students. Moreover, they planned to break this promise two months before the ballot votes were counted. The pledge has turned out not to be a sincere message to students. Instead, it was a cynical campaign ploy to steal votes from those who were concerned about their future and the future of higher education.

This had us wondering… Why do we make such a big deal out of people going back on their promises? What is so sacred about a promise that if a politician breaks one, it enrages us? Is it just that we don’t like being lied to? Or does it hold some deeper significance?

The word ‘promise’ comes from the Latin verb ‘promittere’ meaning to send forth, to fortell. (If only someone could have ‘fortold’ what a cock-up the Lib Dems would be in government.) In the Islamic religion, God forbids Muslims from breaking their promises after confirming them. All promises are regarded as having Allah as their witness and guarantor. A Muslim prophet states that people must make an act of atonement for breaking a promise.

The Bible is peppered with stories about covenants and vows, the most memorable all them all at the end of the Noah’s Ark story. God creates a rainbow in the sky which symbolises his promise never to flood the earth again. A ‘promise’ then, has a moral significance attached to it that.

But what about if morality and junk don’t matter to you? What if you don’t give a shit about the moral significance of a promise? What if your game is lies, deception – or worse – politics? Is there a shrewd, calculating reason as to why a political party should not make such a high-profile commitment to students and then make plans to wriggle out of it two months before an election?

The answer is yes, there is a reason. A big fat vote-losing reason. A reason to do with the public’s confidence in politics.

If the Lib Dems are allowed to get away with voting through the Conservatives’ proposals then what does that say about the validity of a promise? How are we ever supposed to trust them ever again? More than that, how are we ever going to trust any politician who makes us a promise in the future?

Not that many of us students vote nowadays. For the minority of us that still do, our faith in the political system cannot afford to be undermined even further.

The value of election promises has never been that high, but the Lib Dems have lowered them to a new level. Lowered and stamped on them.

Constituencies where Lib Dem MPs abandon their pledge to students should have a by-election triggered in them. It’s only fair. It’s the only way to hold them to account. And it’s the only way that we will be able to restore the value of a promise.

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