Making Irresponsible Policy Decisions

Politicians can seek support by making irresponsible policy decisions that attract people in the short term, but which are imprudent

Some wily politicians can sense what people want, and can articulate it, yet might not be able to deliver beneficial results.  They can mislead the public, either by misrepresentation or by failure to explain the consequences of their decisions.  This is particularly tempting in economic policy:

●  They can mortgage the future by borrowing: they can offer unaffordable (but popular) public services without raising enough tax to pay for these. Public debts must be repaid ( – so future taxpayers bear the costs.

●  A similar strategy is to offer tax cuts without a credible plan for balancing the books. The infamous Liz Truss ‘mini-budget’ in September 2022 tried this tactic, but it created financial mayhem (3.3.8).

●  Politicians can try to bribe the electorate with its own money, by offering ‘pork’, as in examples already quoted ( It seems that people are unaware of their contribution to its cost.

●  The British government imposed austerity for several years after the Great Recession in 2008, telling the population that this was necessary.  It was actually trying to shrink the size of the Welfare State for ideological reasons – despite a warning by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) that the cuts reduced economic growth.  The resentment this caused contributed towards Britain’s decision to leave the EU in a Brexit (

●  Unfortunately the OBR is obliged to use the Chancellor’s forecasts for future government spending, regardless of how unrealistic these are. Simon Wren-Lewis describes this as a sad joke played on the electorate, quoting this example of a deception that has been practised regularly for the last decade:

“The government pretends that it will, in future years, uprate fuel duty in line with inflation plus a bit more. This increases OBR forecasts for future tax revenue, giving the Chancellor what the media calls extra ‘headroom’ to cut taxes. Then when each budget comes along the Chancellor announces they are freezing fuel duty, but just for this year.”

●  Some politicians tell outright lies about their economic plans in order to win an election, as in an example published by the BBC in 2006: We lied to win, says Hungary PM – referring to an election. Although riots followed, he did not resign.

Sometimes the intrinsic complexity of economics enables politicians to play such tricks without being detected, and without people understanding which policies caused economic damage, as described earlier (

There is also scope for making irresponsible policy decisions in other aspects of political responsibility:

●  Politicians sometimes make impromptu policy commitments without reflecting upon the consequences. For example, Ex-Tory chancellor Philip Hammond claims Theresa May had no clear plan for Brexit when she committed to leaving the EU Single Market and the Customs Union in a speech in October 2016, just three months after taking office.  This commitment to a ‘hard Brexit’ pleased her party’s hardliners but left her no room for compromise, led to her failure to reach agreement in Parliament and ultimately led to the disastrous Brexit trade deal with the EU.

●  Politicians can use legislation as a political tool, just to make themselves appear to be doing something, even if they could have used existing legislation (

●  As in examples which appear later in this chapter (, they can try to exploit ethnic divisions to gain support – even though this can lead to horrific outcomes for everybody.

●  They can consciously incite people’s fear and indignation, to gain support for going to war. As described later, both George W Bush and Tony Blair adopted this technique to gain agreement to invade Iraq in 2003 (8.7).

●  A failure to take warnings seriously, or to react quickly enough, is irresponsible. The British government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic is now coming to light with the UK Covid Inquiry, for example.  As reported by Timothy Garton-Ash, “it is clear the government led by Boris Johnson made two catastrophic mistakes during the pandemic of 2020. The first was to do virtually nothing until late March. The second was to encourage a second wave in the autumn, and again fail to take effective action to stem it during the rest of that year.”

●  Tactical policies to advance political party interests are a form of irresponsibility. David Cameron was worried about losing votes to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), so he pledged to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership to win the support of those who wanted to leave – despite having been warned by the UK’s top civil servant that he might not win it and that he would “open up a Pandora’s box of problems he couldn’t solve”.

●  Although climate change is clearly a serious problem (, the short-term costs of adaptation and mitigation are sometimes challenged by politicians in search of popularity. Donald Trump promised to “bring back coal”, for example, during the 2016 presidential election campaign – to win the support of coal-miners who were “alienated and angry” at the loss of their jobs, after President Obama’s “war on coal” to protect the environment and reduce global warming.  (Trump was unable to bring back coal though: “The president vowed to help the industry, but it continues shrinking despite his cuts to regulations”, according to a Guardian report in January 2021.)

It might be hoped that holding politicians to account, as described later (6.8.5), might prevent them from making irresponsible policy decisions.  Unfortunately, voters have short memories and few people monitor politicians’ performance carefully.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6422d.htm.