Business leaders have a long history of lamenting that politics should be run more like business. Indeed, a few of them have even tried to demonstrate the ease with which things could work if only they were put in charge by crossing over into the political field.
Notably, those who have tried have almost all failed. There’s a reason for this – politics is a different market. No businessman would assume that someone who is good at running a supermarket would automatically and instantly be good at running an insurance company or a record label. They would acknowledge that different skills and sector-specific expertise is required; things that can often be learned, but aren’t simply innate in every business leader. Those who have succeeded in switching lanes – like Heseltine – have realised the challenge for what it is, and carefully studied the conditions in their new field before adapting their approach. But others still try to do with politics what they would never consider doing in their day jobs: leaping into a completely different industry as though it was exactly the same as their home turf.
There’s a good example of this in today’s Sunday Times. Lord Sugar wants political dishonesty to become a criminal offence:
“As the chairman of a public company, if I told lies in a shareholders’ statement that resulted in the crash of the share price or the increase in the share price which caused traders to go and buy lots of shares or not to buy lots of shares, I would be put in prison.”
He claims the same punishment should now be applied to politicians, adding: “If they lie, which results in massive decisions like leaving the European Union, or gaining votes in a general election, then this should be a criminal offence as it would be in a public company if I lied to my shareholders.”
The practical problems with this ought to be immediately obvious. How do you prove something was a lie, rather than simply an ideological disagreement? Labour claimed their manifesto was ‘costed’, based on their mistaken belief that tax rises don’t reduce revenues or hobble growth. Is that a lie, or a legitimate alternative view of the world to pitch to the people?
How do you prove what was the deciding factor in “gaining votes”? How many voters would have to testify, after the fact, that a particular promise had swung their decision in the booth? And how would we know they were being honest and fair rather than exercising political revenge for one reason or another? Since the referendum, a series of bogus civil cases attempting to punish ‘lies’ have shown that such truth litigation is a refuge of the desperate, seeking to win through sophistry what they could not win in open democratic debate.
But more important than these objections is the fundamental one. Do we really want a society in which a specialist police unit and a series of judges are charged with determining political truth? Great as our police officers and judiciary no doubt are, the prospect of them deciding which model of economics or social policy is true, and which should be criminalised is nightmarish at best. How much would economic circumstances have to change after an election before a politician would be free from arrest for changing their fiscal plans to borrow or tax more than they promised?
Then there is the final test of any idea: is the current system so broken that it needs to be replaced? We all know that politicians and political parties sometimes stretch or even break the truth. We all tend to believe that those with whom we disagree are mistaken in their analysis of the world and their views on the best way forward. But we also know that the whole point of democracy is to expose the former and debate the latter. We learn by the battle of ideas, and by sometimes bitter experience – but our system allows people to experiment, and to improve their thinking. Should Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have been thrown in jail for adapting to circumstance and voting for tuition fees? No. Should they have been punished at the ballot box for breaking a flagship promise? On balance, yes. And they were – that’s sanction enough.