It’s going to be difficult, if I continue to write this blog, not to be e-v-er so slightly nasty about our friends the Tories. And their inexplicable friends the Lib Dems. Rest assured, there will be no sparing the striding, high-charisma, ideas-driven Labour opposition, while UKIP, the BNP and the Scottish Nationalists are all a barrel of intellectual achievement and enjoyable hi-jinks too.
But before we go there, I’m going to try to stick to a less politically-divisive topic with the matter of U-turns.
Every time a government changes its mind, there seems to be a squeal from its opponents, as well as the UK media, about a U-turn. As if, somehow, realising you’re wrong and changing your mind is as bad as realising you’re wrong but sticking to your original plan plan to kill the first-born of each family regardless.
In all honesty, we have some form for this in this country: our best joke about the Italians concerns the gear-box arrangements of their tanks, because it would undeniably have been better for the world if the partizani hadn’t opposed Mussolini, and the Italian armed forces hadn’t joined the Allies to free their country from Nazi German rule. Ho ho ho, funny Italians, changing their minds to believe that the Holocaust was a bad idea. Ha ha ha, etc.
Hilarity aside, I’m not sure whether this is purely a UK thing (maybe those of you reading this elsewhere in the world can let me know if it’s the same where you are?) but it really does seem that if you change your mind in politics, you’ve committed a crime.
The Tories, as the government at the moment, have experienced some serious criticism over this in the last two years, which is ironic, as Thatcher, Cameron’s mum (I think) and steely-eyed denizen of 1980s mega-consumption once said: ‘You turn, if you like. This lady’s not for turning.’
Sadly, I’d love to give the current government a kicking for changing its mind on things, but in all honesty, I think Thatcher’s comment was one of the three stupidest things she ever said, and in fact one of the ten worst ideas expressed by a serving UK Prime Minister (I’d tell you the others, but I’m afraid I’ll run out of future posts, so I’m keeping that as back-up).
The world changes daily, if not faster, and refusing to allow any elasticity in your view of it is just not something I want from a political leader. It’s not even something I really want from a greengrocer or bus driver.
Of course, there are certain things I think I will stand by as universal basics, eg, not going to war to ensure peace. (Hm, that’s one on the PM list…) and not reducing freedom to protect freedom (drat. That’s another), but in general, within a certain framework, I think it’s reasonable to say that while one day it might be good to carry an umbrella, on another, a pair of sunglasses might be better.
In fact, that’s it. A clothing metaphor (brilliant). We agree we should wear clothes, but what they are can change by the day. Having some ‘reserve’ clothes might be good, in case you fall into a lake, or are dropped behind enemy lines during a fancy dress festival, but in general, clothes good – same clothes at all times bad.
So when the Tories said they were going to sell off the nation’s forests (I don’t know why, and neither do they) and then everyone complained, and they changed their minds, I thought ‘oh good. A stupid policy has been reversed because people complained – showing they care – and the government listened, showing either that they care about what people think, or they don’t care enough about selling the forests to make it a vote-loser.’
But what the opposition – who hadn’t wanted the policy in the first place – and the national press, which in many cases had supported the campaign to save the forests, actually did was criticise the government for its U-turn. And agreed with its revised policy.
It just seemed a little unfair, I guess.
A similar thing happened to Labour. In 2004, Tony Blair, who had said there definitely wouldn’t be a referendum on the EU constitution, then said that actually there would be, after all. I think he probably smiled while he said it, which I imagine made my skin crawl.
Now, I hadn’t wanted a referendum, because I DID want the EU constitution, and I was pretty sure I’d be on the losing side in that debate, at least in part because an Australian non-dom tax ‘avoider’ was telling 6m people a day that the EU was bad for Britain through the pages of his excellent newspaper. The glories of the British media…
But I did think ‘oh, good. People who care about the EU want a referendum on its new constitution, and even though Tony Blair doesn’t want one, he’s listened to the people and decided there should be one.’
Interestingly, Simon Glover in the Daily Mail, a newspaper which had demanded a referendum on this exact issue (I believe it ran an editorial under the headline ‘Refusing a referendum is worse than anything Hitler, Stalin or Ghenghis Khan ever did. Kill Blair and hang his body from London Bridge as a warning to The Left’ but I admit that I have some difficulty in differentiating between the Daily Mail and whisky-inspired dystopian nightmares), handled Blair’s decision like this:
‘Tony Blair’s decision to call a referendum on the new European constitution is one of the biggest U-turns in political history. Time after time, he and ministers have said that there was not the remotest chance of a referendum. It simply couldn’t happen.
And yet now it will.
Governments don’t like public climbdowns, and Mr Blair’s change of mind has been forced on him. It is a sign of weakness.’
The last six words are the giveaway: It is a sign of weakness.
But, is it?
Because in all honesty, I’d rather see some evidence that there was a thought process going on behind the glassy, cold eyes of those who have clambered to the position of Prime Minister. You have to have a mind, to change it.
John Maynard Keynes said: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’ (sometimes I change my mind. Sometimes I check I haven’t just drifted a little while reading about dinosaurs – who knew they wore nail varnish?).
But within the House of Commons, and among political reporters, it seems to be seen as a sign of desperate weakness, cowering under the weight of actual real facts rather than relying on the power of one’s own unhinged mind to bend reality to suit your wishes.
I suppose it comes down to an argument about whether you have the courage of your convictions, whether you will stick to your ideas in the face of public criticism. But there’s a difference between saying ‘yesterday I said sprouts should all be hurled into the sea, now I see that was silly’ and, for example, ‘yesterday I said I believed in a more equitable distribution of wealth, but because The Mail says that’s what a girl would say I am now a neo-liberal who holds to the idea that all money should be distributed LESS equitably. And in fact, children should be poorest of all.’
Unless you really like (or hate) sprouts, I’d say the alteration of one small policy in the light of new information is rather different to changing your entire political outlook overnight.
Equally, I suppose I can understand that it’s frustrating for some within government – and on the opposition benches – to see a kind of ‘government by suggestion’: That is, someone announces an idea and then takes notice of the response to it.
That was one of the things Cameron’s Tories are criticised for, but in all honesty, isn’t that better than the other things the same party could be picked up on? Are we not closer to a democratic ideal if we get the chance to take part in policy debate rather than voting for a party which says ‘no top-down reorganisation of the NHS’ and then enacts the biggest ever re-organisation of the NHS, from the top, down? I know which I’d prefer.
It’s come up again because of yesterday’s decision – seemingly just by George Osborne and David Cameron in a spare moment between twisting the legs off dogs and laughing at pictures of poor people falling into puddles – not to introduce a new 3p per litre fuel duty increase in August.
A few things have been lost in the debate which followed – not least that oil is at a lower price on the international market than it has been for several years, and that the government will STILL introduce the increase, just in January, not August.
But there were some serious questions to be asked about the ‘new’ policy. It is expected to cost the government £550m. Where will the money come from? When was the policy agreed, seeing as government ministers had been defending the government’s decision to stick with the duty increase as late as Monday afternoon?
And why, if the policy will cost £550m, and the government’s main – indeed sole – priority, by its own reckoning, is repaying the national debt at a faster rate than previously agreed, is it choosing to spend money on what amounts to a tax break for car users?
This is the point at which we come closest to talk about a U-turn, because the government fought the entire election campaign on the terrible state of the national finances and has pushed through eye-watering cuts to services, public sector employment and benefit payments because it says the sole priority of the next five years must be repaying a debt.
But simply throwing an accusation of a U-turn, as some opposition MPs, and many in the media, chose to, is pointless.
If Ed Balls stands up in the House of Commons, and accuses the Tories of a U-turn, what do we gain? We don’t know anything more about the policy, or why it has been made, and almost no-one cares anyway, outside the House itself.
If Ed Balls had chosen instead to ask: ‘Is this tax-cut, using money from an unspecified source, not evidence that the current government’s main desire is not to repay a debt, therefore necessitating massive service, employment and benefits cuts, but instead that it intends for purely ideological reasons to cut the state, making people unemployed, slashing services and punishing the poor by removing the benefits they rely on, and is using the debt as an excuse to do so?’ He might have been ridiculed.
But at least the Chancellor would have had to say something more interesting than: ‘It’s not a U-turn.’
Osborne’s policy announcement – or more accurately, what followed it – raised another issue: what does it mean to be the head of a government department?
This is not a question relating to the way he made the announcement, or the embarrassment he caused to his cabinet colleague, Transport Secretary Justine Greening, who had defended the government’s intention to GO AHEAD with the duty increase one day earlier, though perhaps there will be questions asked of the Chancellor from within the government on that.
Instead it was his decision to send a junior Treasury minister, Chloe Smith, to explain and justify the decision on live national television.
The results were embarrassing. Ms Smith, who is just two years into her tenure at the Treasury was – and I used the term kindly – mauled by Krishnan Guru Murthy on Channel Four News.
To be honest, if you are unable to handle an interview with the former NewsRound anchor, you know you’re in some trouble. But worse – and I mean the word in every possible sense – was to follow, when she was torn to pieces by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.
Ms Smith deserves little sympathy. She is, after all, a Treasury minister, and as part of her job can be expected to answer questions about Treasury policy. But it was hard not to ask some questions as the interview progressed.
The interview on Newsnight is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bddWaHuxTzc (actual interview begins at 6.20) in case you’re interested/haven’t seen it, but to summarise:
First, she was unable to say when the policy – which she claimed to have been part of creating – was decided on. She was also unable to say when it had been announced to the rest of the government.
Second, she was unable to say where the £550m to fund the policy would come from. More exactly, she said it would come from ‘departmental underspend’ but then said she couldn’t say which underspends these were. Paxman predictably said this was because she ‘didn’t know’.
Paxman then asked whether cutting the deficit was the government’s priority. When Smith said it was, he responded: ‘Is this some sort of joke?’
It was fun, in a kind of horrific way. But it raised some questions beyond the obvious ones about the policy itself – particularly, why had this been left to Chloe Smith to defend?
What is certain is that she was briefed by the Treasury to talk about ‘benefits to households and business’ (in fairness, there may be many), as she repeats the phrase seemingly two thousand times. But it seems impossible that she was prepared in any other way.
She was unable (I think we have to assume this) to offer any detail on the policy, and was in fact unable to say anything about it other than to talk about its benefit ‘to households and businesses’. This was despite the fact that this announcement was bound to inspire interest because a) it was not known by the Transport Minister the previous day b) it raised serious questions about the nature of the UK’s debt crisis and the Tory government’s view of it, and c) because it was expected that Labour was set to call a vote on the issue next week, in which many Tories intended to rebel.
She was mauled. Twice. On national television.
In the Guardian today, Michael White made a brave attempt to argue Smith had done well under intense pressure (she did not, but in fairness to her it’s hard to see how anyone COULD have done) and was ‘bullied’ by Paxman.
Fair enough. He has form when it comes to bullying.
But on this occasion, he asked several pertinent questions of the politician put up to talk about a policy, and she was unable to answer them. It wasn’t bullying. It was journalism.
So where was the Chancellor?
George Osborne stood up in Parliament, and made the announcement, enjoying the cheers and congratulations of his colleagues. So why was a junior minister sent to defend the policy from concerned reporters working on the public’s behalf?
It seems Mr Osborne was in fact ‘entertaining ministers at 11 Downing Street’ when Ms Smith was being destroyed in front of the nation.
To be honest, I’d expect better staff protection from a McDonald’s line manager than Smith received from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
And the reason it raises questions is that this is not the first time this government has seemingly sidestepped the responsibilities of high office. I do not mean this as a criticism purely of them: any party whose ministers appeared to shirk their duty in this way should be forced to answer some questions.
But Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the House of Commons in April that his Special Adviser Alan Smith had acted in a manner which was ‘clearly not appropriate’ by sending text messages and e-mails regarding the government’s views on News Corporation’s attempted buyout of a majority of shares in BSkyB to News Corps’ director of public affairs, Frederic Michel.
Smith resigned. But Hunt, Culture Secretary, and Smith’s manager, faced no reprisal at all.
In most businesses – in fact all I can think of – your role as head of department entitles you to better pay, and maybe more holidays than your staff. In the case of a government minister, you actually get to help run the country.
But with those benefits comes greater responsibility. And one area of responsibility is for the actions of your staff. You have, in fact, a legal responsibility to ensure that your staff act within the law, while at work. If they do not, of course they can be punished. But the buck stops with you.
Yet Adam Smith resigned, and Jeremy Hunt, following an (admittedly embarrassing) apology to the House, remained in his role. So what are his responsibilities? Who are they to?
Equally, one might expect that as a manager, you would have a duty of care to your employees. You might, for example, help a young, relatively new member of the team, by shielding her from the worst things the job has to throw at her, at least to begin with, so she can find her feet, grow in confidence and make a more assured contribution to the company.
You might not, perhaps, throw her in a shark pool with bits of raw meat stapled to her swim suit, spraying blood in the waters around her just to make sure.
And yet on Tuesday evening, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had dinner with friends and colleagues, while his junior minister was hung out to dry, twice, on national television.
It appears to be either cowardice, or dereliction of duty.
At university I studied a course on the media’s attitudes to politics and politicians. It was sub-titled ‘Power without responsibility’.
It’s hard not to conclude that today, that applies to those in charge of national policy.