In light of the recent government policy reversal regarding free school meals, Emily Fielder explains why, in her view, we should not be so quick to criticize government U-turns.
U-turns, that is, a reversal of political policy, often made suddenly after sustained opposition, have long been deemed to be symptomatic of a weak government, a view exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s famous “you turn if you want to” speech to the Brighton conference in 1980. Thatcher argued that her resolve “not to be diverted from our course” demonstrated that the Conservatives were “a party united in purpose, strategy and resolve,” and therefore, by extension, that any political party that changed its mind in the face of any opposition is weak.
Thatcher’s biting condemnation of U-turns created a framework in which Westminster commentators would discuss them ever after. Theresa May’s volte-face over her social care policy in the run-up to the 2017 election was surrounded by the rhetoric of “screeching tyres, burning rubber, chaos and panic” with some commentators dubbing her “weak and wobbly”, in direct opposition to the “strong and stable” leadership she had been so desperate to portray. More recently, Boris Johnson’s U-turn on his decision to scrap giving all pupils who normally qualified for free school meals a voucher to cover the six-week school holiday following a heartfelt campaign by Marcus Rashford, was met with derision, with ITV’s Dan Hewitt asking Johnson at a recent press conference; “why did it take a twenty-two year old footballer to embarrass you into changing your policy?”
In light of such sustained scorn from the media, it is hardly surprising that governments are desperate to avoid looking as though they have bowed to pressure and reversed their policies; May furiously repeated “nothing has changed” when asked about the changes to her social care policy, whilst Johnson claimed that he had only heard about Rashford’s campaign on the day that he announced his U-turn, even though his official spokesman had been answering questions on it the day before. Politicians are so terrified of the negative attention surrounding U-turns that they either avoid the subject completely, or they act as though they are not really happening at all.
Herein lies the problem. The ubiquitous, unfavourable rhetoric used by the nation’s press when discussing U-turns actually obscures the fact that a good majority of the public are pleased that their government has the sense to change their minds when they realise they are in the wrong. In a recent YouGov poll, 49% agreed that “government U-turns are usually a good sign [and show] they are willing to listen and change their minds when people complain or situations change,” compared to only 23% who thought that they are “normally a bad sign [and show that] they are incompetent, weak, or have not thought through their policies in advance”. With this in mind, it becomes clear that governments’ responses to U-turns are often flawed; the public would prefer it if, for example, Johnson had told the press that he had heard the concerns of Rashford and the public at large and that he had decided to act on these concerns.
Furthermore, the negativity surrounding U-turns is, at least to some extent, unjustifiable. U-turns should actually be seen as an indicator of a well-functioning democracy. Many of the governments most recent U-turns have been informed by opposition from public campaigns, the opposition bench and even, on occasion, Conservative backbench MPs. Johnson is seemingly unable to push through any policy he likes, even with an 80-seat majority. This effective opposition has led to the overturn of unpalatable policies, such as the NHS surcharge increase for all migrant workers, with NHS workers now being exempted from the surcharge. Keir Starmer’s response to this U-turn therefore arguably struck the right tone, as he tweeted that it was a “victory for common decency and the right thing to do,” rather than attempt to put a negative spin on the proceedings for his own party’s advantage.
This is not to say that governments should be praised for its U-turns or that they should be exonerated from its initial choice of unpopular policies and its seemingly limited fruitful research into the impacts of their decisions. Rather, U-turns positively signal that British democracy is functioning effectively. The Conservative’s reversal of its surcharge policy demonstrates the existence of an active opposition, and the impact of public opinion on a government, even as far away from the next election as we currently stand. It’s worth questioning how many damaging policy decisions could be, or will be, modified or reversed, if governments were not so terrified of appearing weak by doing so.