The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed one of the central incompatibilities between science and the modern political sphere. Where science is all about uncertainty, the illumination of which only raises more questions, politics is all about certainty. It is all about convincing the public to put faith in your manifesto at the ballot box, and then convincing them to do the same five years later based on your record. However, the pandemic has exposed the central flaw in this thinking – that good leadership is about being able to adapt your approach to the changing situation, not doggedly sticking to one path whatever happens.
If a party has not only failed to fulfil one of their policies, but has actually done the exact opposite, this is referred to as a “u-turn”. Although politicians have been going back on their word since time immemorial, it was Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that she “was not for turning” away from her desired economic policy which cemented a lack of u-turns as a sign of political strength and competence. However, changing one’s mind and approach is not inherently negative, especially if it is done with grace and transparency. This appears to have been lost on the current government, whose frequent u-turns have raised questions about their competency to run the country during a significant health and economic crisis.
The Summer of 2020 may have been the Summer of COVID-19 for most Britons, but in the political realm it was the Summer of the U-Turn. Depending on whom you ask, the Conservative government has performed at least a dozen u-turns as of September 7. Boris Johnson’s government’s record of u-turn after u-turn has significantly damaged the image of the usually bullish Prime Minister, and has proven a gift for the opposition Labour Party. Sir Kier Starmer seized upon the disquiet the frequency of u-turns had caused within Johnson’s own party by quoting unhappy MPs during Prime Minister’s Questions: “The Government says one thing on Monday, changes its mind on Tuesday, something different is presented on Wednesday”.
The variety of u-turns the government has taken would have been impressive if they were not turning away from policies which would hurt a lot of people. Before the campaign by unions and an emotional plea from volunteer cleaner Hassan Akkad, who came to the UK as a refugee from Syria, forced a u-turn, the government would have excluded low-paid migrant NHS workers from a scheme which would have granted their families automatic leave to remain in the event of their death. Before they eventually changed course, the government refused to extend a voucher programme which provided food to school children from low-income families during term time through the summer holiday , to ameliorate the economic strain the pandemic put on the family wallet. The anger surrounding these u-turns doesn’t seem to be directed towards the government because the outcomes were unpopular, but because the government appeared to intent on pursing one path and looked to be forced into changing their mind.
Take the argument over extending free school meals. The campaign was led by the Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, who had experienced food poverty growing up in Wythenshawe, and quickly gathered speed as public figures such as Gary Lineker and the leaders of opposition parties. But in response, the government doubled down on their position, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock responded to a question about Rashford’s campaign by telling Premier League footballers to “take a pay cut and play their part” to look after those less fortunate than them. After Hancock’s remark, it didn’t take long for the campaign to become too popular to ignore, forcing the government into a humiliating reversal of policy.
The frequency of the government’s u-turns can also be seen as a question of “competence”, as Sir Kier Starmer alluded in Prime Minister’s Questions. The snowballing scandal surrounding the awarding of A-level grades to students whose exams were cancelled has the potential to be one of the most politically damaging events in the recent history of the Conservative Party. It’s not that they had no warning: the results of the Scottish Highers exams were released before A-level grades, and they showed that standardisation methods disproportionately downgraded students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But the government insisted that they would not revert to awarding students their Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) awarded by teachers, doubling down on calling the calculated grades “credible, strong results” and “robust and dependable”. After protests from students and teachers, widespread anguish and mounting political pressure, and several smaller u-turns which only made the situation more complicated, students were awarded their CAGs decided by teachers who knew them better than an impersonal algorithm.
Had the government resolved to award CAGs after the Scottish Government did so, or after reports emerged describing how 40% of grades were downgraded from CAGs, then this scandal would likely have been less damaging. The government could have looked at the data, looked at what happened in Scotland and concluded that the right thing to do would have been to revert to CAGs. But instead they denied there was a problem, implemented new policies at short notice a day before results were awarded only to retract them later, and then tried to act as if no damage had been caused when they finally made the u-turn to be in line with Scotland and Wales.
This points to the heart of why u-turns are seen as so damaging. While the outcome of many u-turns have been popular, the government’s repeated insistence that no u-turns would be made creates the impression that they have to be forced and pressured into doing the right thing. Boris Johnson has also appeared to try and gaslight the public away from the notion that any u-turns have taken place at all: claiming never to have heard of Marcus Rashford’s campaign; telling students that their futures had nearly been “derailed by a mutant algorithm” when he had described the same algorithm as “robust and dependable” a few weeks earlier, and then dodging Sir Kier Starmer’s questions on the subject at PMQs. It was chaotic, and pointed to a lack of competence and coordination within the government.
Which brings us back to the problem of the requirement for certainty in politics. The Conservative Party have treated the emergency measures put in place to mitigate the effects of an unprecedented pandemic as if they were manifesto pledges upon which the party was elected. Unlike a scientist, who adapts their hypothesis according to the emergence of new information, they have doubled down on their position while evidence mounts against them. What we need in politics, especially during fast moving crises, is an understanding between politicians, the public and the media that changing one’s mind can be a show of strength, not weakness.
It may take a long time. But if there is any time to shake up politics for the better and impress upon those in power the importance of being able to admit when they’re wrong and adapt their plan to new information, it is during a pandemic. Changing one’s mind isn’t inherently bad. But if you’re a politician, how you do it matters.