Comment: When is a U-turn not a U-turn?

By Dr Matthew Ashton

When is a U-turn not a U-turn? The answer to that lies in whether you're in power or not.

If you're Her Majesty's loyal opposition then the party in government is always performing U-turns because their previous policies were a complete disaster. However if you're in government then what you're doing is making a principled change in policy after carefully reviewing the evidence. It's like one of those Yes Minister irregular verbs: "I have an evolving position, you change your mind, he performs U-turns".

David Cameron is no stranger to this painful process. A few years ago he had to admit that despite offering a cast-iron guarantee, he wasn't actually going to give the British public a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Cameron had to do a round of TV interviews where he explained that circumstances had forced him to break his pledge but that this was in no way a U-turn.

The reason I'm talking about this is that many of the newspapers today taking are accusing George Osborne of performing a U-turn over the new £20 billion (or £40 billion according to some reports) fund to lend to small businesses. Commentators are arguing that it demonstrates that Osborne's plans to force banks to lend more aren't working and that all his talk about the private sector creating the jobs to replace those being lost by the public sector has been proven wrong. Therefore he's performed a U-turn and should be publicly humiliated for it.

I've always been slightly sceptical about these arguments. Surely if you've been stating all along that Osborne was wrong then wouldn't it make more sense to celebrate him changing his mind rather than publically castigating him for it? The ability to change your mind in response to rational arguments and new facts is normally taken as a sign of good leadership. However the moment politicians perform a U-turn everyone usually starts attacking them for their inconsistency.

As a result of this politicians very rarely admit to changing their minds about anything. Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that "the lady's not for turning". However if you look at her record objectively she changed her mind on several issues over the course of her career. As a result of this rhetorical flexibility, politicians have evolved a range of different tactics to defend themselves when they do have to perform a policy climbdown.

One is to claim that the policy you just announced wasn't actually a policy but a metaphor. A couple of years ago Tony Blair announced a particularly badly thought out plan for police officers to force offenders to cash points to pay on the spot fines. Police chiefs immediately told him it was unworkable and Blair was forced into a U-turn. After this debacle home secretary Charles Clarke tried to defend his leader by claiming that "the prime minister was using a metaphor and figure of speech when he was talking about frog marching young hooligans to cash points". I don't think anyone watching was particularly convinced.

Another strategy is to argue that the public misunderstood your past policy and it's entirely consistent with what you're doing now. Chris Huhne of the Liberal Democrats recently used this excuse when his party changed its position on nuclear power upon entering the coalition. Previously he had described nuclear power as "a tried, tested and failed technology". A year later he declared that it was vital that they build a new generation of nuclear power stations and the public simply misunderstood his past comments.

Other possibilities include dropping the policy when you hope no one is looking. A good way of doing this is to set up a committee to examine it in more detail. By the time the committee reports back in a few years time, hopefully everyone will have forgotten about it. Another way of doing it is to simply postpone the decision and hope people don't mention it. Gordon Brown did this with regards to the proposed sale of Royal Mail when it looked like it might be defeated in the House of Commons.

A riskier strategy is to claim that the U-turn was your idea all along. Labour did this over the Gurkhas a few years ago. In reality it took several years of hard campaigning and court battle for the veteran soldiers to win the right to settle in this country. When the Labour government finally gave into public pressure and changed their mind on the issue they tried to present it as if this had always been their position.

In all of these examples governments and politicians went to great trouble and effort to make it look like they're weren't changing their minds. Surely in a grown-up democracy they should be able to do this without quite so much subterfuge?

The economist John Maynard Keynes once said: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

It would be a welcome change if politicians were more honest when they changed their mind. However I suppose that admitting that you're wrong is a trick you can only perform so many times in politics before people start to question your judgement.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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