Friday, 20 May 2016

Hypocrisy Or Not Hypocrisy? That Is The Question!

So I guess many of you have seen this doing the rounds - it's a 13-year-old letter from George Osborne calling tuition fees “a tax on learning” and promising that when the Tories next get in they will scrap them. It was his Nick Clegg moment a few years before Nick Clegg's actual Nick Clegg moment, and many people are now calling the Chancellor a 'hypocrite' on the basis that he is now presiding over tuition fees while in government.
Are they right to call him a hypocrite? Perhaps, but perhaps not. The first thing that needs to be said is that quite a few people need to look in the dictionary to find out what the word actually means. Take the filmmaker Michael Moore as a good example.
Cast your mind back to 2004. In his all-round pretty disingenuous film Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore thought he would appear clever if he confronted various members of Congress and demanded they enlist their own children to fight in Iraq on the grounds that those who support a war but do not send their sons to fight in it must be hypocrites. George Galloway tried the same thing a few years later in reference to Tony Blair.
Both Moore and Galloway were confused about what hypocrisy is. Hypocrisy means publically being for/against x but then privately not-doing/doing x - it's one rule for themselves but another for everyone else. If I say eating meat is morally repugnant, but have a sneaky bacon sandwich on Saturday afternoons I am being hypocritical.
A politician that votes to send our armed forces to intervene in a conflict but wouldn't want his son fighting out there is not a hypocrite. Using Michael Moore's logic, a politician is hypocritical if he supports the NHS but doesn't send his son to be a doctor, or if he supports taxi driving but doesn’t get his son to drive a cab. Those situations don't even look a little bit like hypocrisy.
Sometimes, though, things do look like a little bit like hypocrisy, even though they aren't. Suppose a head of State was opposed to LSD, cocaine and heroin, but there was an electoral pressure to get all three legalised. Would it be hypocritical for our head of State to strive to get LSD legalised even though he was opposed to it?
Not necessarily. While he would prefer all three to remain illegal, he may sense that severe lobbying could bring about the legalisation of all three drugs, whereas a compromise of legalising LSD would be a more realistic goal for him. Instead of being hypocritical, it's more a use of ingenuity, and opting for a lesser of the evils.
So what of George Osborne then, is he being a hypocrite over tuition fees? The truth is, we're not sure - possibly only he and those that are close to him actually know. It could be that he used to be against tuition fees and then wised up once he thought about the arithmetic a bit more, and came to understand what balancing a budget is actually like in government. He may have simply had an epiphany about the prudence of price signals related to degrees, and that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Or it could be that he is sullied with that quandary known as being a politician, whereby when you're itching to be in government you find yourself saying all sorts of sly and guileful things in order to get elected. George Osborne is simply going through the same kind of criticism we've seen levelled at Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and David Cameron in recent times - making promises they later went on to break in government. Doubtless, had they been elected instead, the same would be said of William Hague, Charles Kennedy, Michael Howard and Ed Miliband.
The upshot is, there is a real discontinuity between what politicians can promise out of power and what they actually have to deliver in power under the economic constraints of being the party controlling the purse strings. If you haven't learned the lessons by now, I'll summarise with succinctness. Take what elected politicians say with a large pinch of salt, but take what unelected, aspiring politicians say with a whole shaker full of salt.