In praise of U-turns

There are some rather odd news headlines today… ‘Government accused of free book funding partial U-turn’… Surely the U-turn shows UK democracy working as it should?

Last week: the Department for Education sends a letter to the charity Booktrust, informing it peremptorily that all its public funding (£13 million per year) is to be cut. There is an outcry from authors such as Phillip Pulman (‘unforgivable disgrace’) , ex poet laureate Andrew Motion (‘act of gross cultural vandalism’), and children’s laureate Michael Rosen (‘absolutely appalled and utterly enraged’). And it wasn’t just authors: teachers, health visitors and librarians also expressed their dismay. The opposition, rightly, switches into attack mode: Ed Milliband states: 

‘This Conservative-led government knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The abolition of Bookstart will deprive children of an early opportunity to discover the joy of reading. It is one of the programmes introduced by Labour of which I am most proud.

It was a gift from the government to the next generation. This week we learnt that many of the Lib Dem ministers privately admit what they are doing is wrong and unfair. They may have convictions but they do not have the courage of them.’

And now, the DfE has put out a joint statement with Booktrust, stating that public funding will continue, although the level has yet to be determined. We should applaud the DfE for being willing to make a (partial) U-turn in the light of input from people who best know the impact the cuts would make. Hopefully, the final decision will be a wise one.

Booktrust says that, through support by publishing companies, it has been able to generate another £4 for every £1 of government money. The DfE seems to have taken this to mean that it does not need government funding. But the important thing about government funding is that (ideally) it provides a basic level of security for a certain number of staff, whereas private sources can be more subject to short-term economic conditions. If there is a short space of time when private sources dry up, the government funding is there to tide things over. £13 million per year is not a great saving in the grand scheme of things, and judging from those ‘on the ground’, it sounds like it’s in the public interest to maintain the funding.

In general, I think it would be a good thing if politicians were more willing to make U-turns if new evidence changes the picture against their original decision. If a policy isn’t working, or new evidence comes to light showing that a planned policy is a bad idea, the worst possible thing to do is to continue it in order to save face. The public (and the media) should respect the politician who, in response to criticism by those who know the situation, changes their policy. Open debate and willingness to change policy for the public good are great assets for a democracy.

In my opinion, the electorate (and the media) shouldn’t be too hard on the U-turn itself. The original mistake can be criticized, if it betrays poor judgement, but sometimes it can be due to a lack of information and a breakdown in communications which isn’t wholly the fault of the government. The practitioners and the experts also have a responsibility to bring important information to the attention of the government. And no actual harm is done if the government realise their mistake and act to correct it. No government can always get everything right with the first policy draft. The question we, as the electorate, should ask is: are the eventual actions of the government conducive to the public good?

It is perhaps more important in ‘confidential’ decisions, such as in foreign policy or domestic security, that the government be right first time, most of the time. The safety-valves of public discussion and debate just aren’t there. U-turns in foreign policy are often more serious, but the unwillingness of US presidents such as George W. Bush to ever admit to them is worrying. U-turns, or ‘flip-flops’ as the Americans call them, are sometimes necessary for the national and international good. Suppose a US administration is 75% sure that making a U-turn on policy towards Iran will substantially improve the situation for both the US and Iran. They may doggedly continue with their policy, thinking that the damage to their reputation from making a U-turn justifies the smaller chance of success if it is not made. This is what a democracy should wish to avoid; such hypocrisy should be ruthlessly exposed and punished at the ballot box. Again, open, informed public discussion seems to be the way forward.

Of course, foreign policy opens up a whole new hornets’ nest, as the actions of one country may be in the national interest, but not in the ‘international interest’ – i.e. bad for the world as a whole. However, in today’s closely interconnected world, international goodwill, trust and co-operation are important assets which any country discards at its peril. More of this anon…


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