A government admitting when it is wrong should be something to applaud, not score points with.
Sometimes, you almost have to feel sorry for governments. They are constantly told that they don’t listen, that their decisions are wrong and misguided and dangerous, and that they should rethink. But if they do that, they are then mocked and called weak and indecisive, even by – especially by – the very people who were demanding that they change direction. ‘U-Turns’ are never celebrated, only sneered at even when they give people what they have been asking for. Naturally, we expect opposition parties to jump on any opportunity to humiliate the government, and the media too is ever keen to deliver a kicking – but it still seems a hugely unhealthy thing to do. Gloating that a government has been ‘forced’ into changing policy does little to encourage them to do so again, and there is such a thing as a bad winner.
Surely, we want governments that can admit to being wrong – to follow evidence and change direction when the evidence suggests that the current direction is the wrong one. But instead, we mock a government as weak, as floundering, as directionless if it changes tack on anything – no wonder they are so reluctant to do so. It’s depressing to think that even Margaret Thatcher’s most vocal opponents will reference her famous “you turn if you want to” speech as an example of her single-minded determination – her bloody-minded self-belief seen as a sign of strength rather than of a blinkered tunnel vision.
Of course, constantly flipping and flopping is not always a good thing – we have a current government that seems to change its mind to placate what it (often mistakenly) thinks is the public mood – which usually means the loudest voices on social media and a cynical press. This is not remotely admirable – not only is this often not following the evidence, but it’s a misguided attempt to curry favour with the sort of people who would never, ever give the government credit for anything. Politicians have long been scared of the press – and as the influence of the mainstream media deteriorates, our newspapers and broadcasters have become ever more desperate to set the agenda and show that they are still relevant. Add to this the amplified voices of social media – which, as election and referendum results have shown, are hardly a reflection of the nation as a whole – and we get weak politicians flip-flopping desperately to react to what are often rather extreme and fanatical concerns.
But there is a difference between trying to appease the fanatics and the cynical voices of the press, and listening to critical and – this is important – expert voices. British governments of all colours are given to knee-jerk legislation, often because of that afore-mentioned media pressure – be it video nasties, sex work restrictions, dangerous dogs or legal highs legislation, badly thought-out laws have been rushed through and the concerns of people who know what they are talking about brushed aside. Sometimes, sense does prevail – the recent abandonment of the porn block legislation as unworkable seemed to be a rare moment of sanity, though that is more a delay than an actual realisation that this was an unnecessary and dangerous law. But far too often, when a government sets out on a path, it is almost impossible to get it to change direction even when it knows that it should. It’s the curse of an adversarial rather than co-operative system, where both sides are more concerned with scoring points and currying favour from a fickle and often ill-informed public than they are with dealing with a situation.
Politics is a depressingly tribal affair, perhaps now more than ever. But if we want to see any progress in the way we are governed, we should be willing to applaud our ideological enemies when they manage to do the right thing, rather than scoff that it is ‘too little too late’ or mock them as flip-flopping incompetents. You never know, we might even get a political system that lifts itself out of the playground and proves to be fit for a modern world. But no, I won’t hold my beath…