Final Word

Where does confidence begin and where does faith end?


There has been a lot of hoo-ha in the South African parliament lately about motions of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma proposed by opposition parties, claiming the nation has lost faith in him and his government.

Those who claim – and there are many who do – that it is much ado about nothing, should maybe contemplate the words of Confucius, the wise Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher, on the subject of confidence.

Confucius, who lived between 551 and 479 BC, once said – and he really did: “There are three elements essential in the matters of the state, food, military equipment, and confidence of the people in the ruler.

“Of these three, military equipment is the least important, food being the second most important, and confidence of the people being the most important.. Lacking in confidence from the people, a state cannot survive.”

Before we unpack the origin of ‘confidence’ and the accompanying notion of ‘no confidence’, let’s first look at its present-day dictionary definitions and its meaning in the political context.

The definitions in contemporary dictionaries can be summarised as: having full trust; belief in the powers, trustworthiness, or reliability of a person or thing, as in having faith in someone, group or entity to be successful. ‘No confidence’ can then be described as the lack of, or the loss of, faith in such a person, group or entity.

‘No confidence’ in parliaments throughout history

The truth of Confucius’s dictum was illustrated early in the history of the world’s first parliament in 13th century Britain.

In 1240 King Henry III’s so-called Great Council became known as ‘parliament’ for the first time.

In 1258 English barons, led by Henry’s brother-in-law, the earl Simon de Monfort, rebelled against the king’s misgovernment. This led to the king signing the Provisions of Oxford, limiting royal power – only to repudiate it three years later in 1261.

Then in 1264 The Barons’ War broke out and De Monfort defeated the king, but did not capture him.

De Monfort summoned the first directly elected parliament but then in 1265 lost the support (confidence) of some influential earls, who under Prince Edward killed him at the Battle of Evesham and restored Henry to the throne, who in turn annulled the Provisions of Oxford.

Reforms of local government were, however, retained. When the prince became King Edward I in 1272 he continued to summon representatives of the shires and boroughs to parliaments.

During the first decades of the fourteenth century, these representatives of the community came to be distinct from the Lords, and the Commons became a recognisable feature of the English parliament, as it remains today.

The first modern-day motion of no confidence would only come in February 1782, against then Prime Minister Lord Frederick North to end the colonial war in America. North lost the confidence of parliament and the vote, resigning before the end of March that year.

It took 48 years, until 1830, for the next motion of no confidence to be moved in the British government, with 15 more before the end of the 19th century. But not once was a prime minister and his government defeated during that period.

The first time it happened again was in 1924 when the government of Stanley Baldwin lost a no confidence vote, one of only three such votes in Britain during the whole of the 20th century. The last was 36 years ago in 1979, lost by the government of James Callaghan, followed by, as happened in 1924, a general election being called.

In the 233 years since 1782’s first one there have been only 20 motions of no confidence in the British parliament and a paltry three successes for opposition parties.

Importantly, since the United Kingdom of Great Britain came about in 1707, there has been no occurrence of anything approaching civil war in the country. Although it has seen some serious civil unrest, especially at the time of industrialisation in the 19th century, there has been nothing on a national scale.

Democracy’s success and failure

This history illustrates how successful democracy can be in managing civil discontent if it functions properly.

On the other hand, as has been proven in many countries, if democracies do not function properly and leaders, parties and systems lose the faith and confidence of the broad population, they can quickly disintegrate.

On our own continent the so-called Arab Spring is still fresh in the memory.

From the roots of the word ‘confidence’ and the term ‘no confidence’, or ‘self-confidence’ for that matter, it is clear that ‘faith’ or ‘belief in’, is at the heart of the matter.

The word ‘confidence’ arrived in Middle English around the turn of the 14th century via the Middle French word confidentia from the Latin confidentem, meaning ‘firmly trusting, bold’, and its present participle of confidere, meaning  ‘to have full trust or reliance on’.

The word ‘trust’ itself is based on ‘faith in an object or thing being true’. The key element at the heart of confidence is ‘faith in something being true’.

The main element of the word is the Latin fides, meaning faith or loyalty, originally from the Greek verb pitho, for persuade and trust. The prefix ‘con’ meaning ‘with’, in this case acting as an affirmative.

Confidence and faith are one, as the song about love and marriage goes, “... like a horse and carriage – you can’t have the one without the other”.

Final word

For those leaders, politicians and parties who are confident that they have all the answers, we want to give the conventional wisdom from an unknown source: “Confidence is the feeling you have before you fully understand the situation.”

by Piet Coetzer

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