In defence of U-turns (mostly)

There’s been a growing amount of talk about government U-turns as a succession of Cabinet Ministers have changed tack and gone back on previous policy positions. We’ve had a number form the budget – the pasty tax, caravan tax and the much celebrated scrapping of the charity-giving tax cap – plus lots more on education, health, welfare….I forget what else. There have been a large number….but are the government falling apart at the seams? Probably not.

It’s not often I find myself sticking up for politicians, but I think there’s a danger of regarding changes in policy as a sign of weakness and ineffectiveness. I was keen to hear what others thought and so I posed the question on twitter and facebook a couple of days ago – when was a U-turn ‘flip-flopping’ and when was it ‘responsive policy making’. It seems to me that we want our politicians to listen to citizens and responding to the public mood isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s not that straightforward. What if the public mood is that it’s a good idea to persecute a particular community or to remove the welfare support for a particular group? Is following that a good idea? Many of us would (I hope) say that wasn’t a positive mood. Sometimes public opinion isn’t sensible to follow. It’s interesting that the public’s view on the charity tax cap was not very closely aligned to the views of charities and civil society. I saw and heard far more people thinking it was a good idea to cap the tax breaks of the super rich through the cap than I did those bemoaning the impact on charities.  You might be forgiven for thinking that everyone was talking their opposition to the cap and support for #giveitbackgeorge…but that’s not been my experience in the world outside of Charityville.

Margaret Thatcher immediately springs to mind when one thinks of U-turns and her famous “you turn if you want to; this lady’s not for turning” speech. But if you look back at her record and that of the other notable conviction PM, Tony Blair, they were often happy to change their minds – even after PR disasters of the highest magnitude….remember the Poll Tax? But on other issues – Iraq and the Miners’ Strike spring to mind – there was no change in direction despite huge protest.

What I think Blair and Thatcher had, which prime ministers like John Major did not, was a strong sense of vision and direction (mostly…they both ‘lost the plot’ towards the end of their premierships in my view. I didn’t always/ever/usually [delete as you like] agree with what Thatcher and Blair were doing, but I generally understood why they thought it was the thing to do. Contrast that with Major’s term as PM – I can’t remember anything he did, apart from his ‘back to basics’ concept and taking the UK out of the ERM. There was no strategy or core narrative.

I don’t know really what the difference between a bad U-turn and a good U-turn really is. I don’t even know whether it’s possible to determine what the design principles or characteristics of responsive policy making are – though I know the Institute of Government have had a go. I’ve heard some people say that responsive policy making would have been realising earlier (or even at the outset) that this wasn’t what people wanted…but that’s about policy formation. What happens if public opinion changes? What then?

I think the best answer to my question was given by the Leader of Lambeth Council, Steve Reed, who said it “depends whether you are doing it or the other lot are! And if it gets you to the right place it’s better than obstinately doing wrong”.


Oh and let’s hope there’s room for one more U-turn – on the returning of £425m of Lottery money that was diverted to the Olympics, to support good causes. Check out the Big Lottery Refund campaign for more info on that.



One thought on “In defence of U-turns (mostly)

  1. One explanation for the flurry of U-turns in the face of popular/media pressure is that the policies were never well thought out in the first place, hence their proponents’ inability to mount a serious defence when the going gets tough.Now if we had a more participatory approach to policymaking they could come up with the decisions after the debate, rather than announcing them and seeing what survives the storm. Just a thought.

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