Is it any wonder that the government has reversed its plan to sell off some of the UK’s forests? Never has so weak an argument been framed so poorly; indeed, the only comprehensible aspect of the scheme was that it fit neatly into the coalition’s plans to change everything because they appear to think that’s what politicians are for.
What interests me about the forests, though, is less how they’re managed, and instead how neatly this policy reversal fits into an observation I’ve long held about the relationship between the media, politicians and the public around the dreaded U-turn. It’s an expression journalists and politicians seem to love, suggesting as it does a smoking gun, incontrovertible evidence that this lot can’t make up their minds or – worse still – have no clue where they’re going. Journalists parse politicians’ language (body and speech) for any hint of a ‘but’, while politicians agonise over how to phrase ‘we were wrong’ such that it sounds like ‘this was always the plan’.
When you look at this from the point of view of Joe the Plumber (or Piotr the Carpenter as the case may be) you grow a little puzzled. If you recall, the government announced its sell-off plans, and the people were immediately up in arms. They wanted a U-turn and they wanted it now. Did they regard the policy reversal they’d been clamoring for as an indication of the government’s weakness? Or did they recognise that scrapping a questionable policy that had been communicated poorly indicated that the government was listening (on this, at least).
I admit I’m skating on thin ice here, homing in on such a laughably executed bit of would-be policy-making. I still cringe when I think back to poor old Damian Green attempting to defend the idea on Question Time a couple of weeks ago while the audience hooted its disbelief. Still, I’d argue that the obsession with so-called ‘decisiveness’ and the derision heaped on ‘U-turns’ by the media and politicians is not shared by the public. What’s more I’d venture that it produces bad policy by reducing complex issues to cartoonish dualisms, and debases public debate as a result.
You see this all the time. Take a look at Tony Blair whose delusions about the righteousness of the Iraq War remain trapped in a world view that posits unwavering decisiveness as an end unto itself. The reality is that while the British people have been clamoring for a sliver of nuance from Blair for years now, the former PM seems constitutionally incapable of such complexity of thought – and he looks the weaker for it.
I’d say the same about the coalition government’s plans for the NHS. What’s far more alarming than the fact that nobody seems to agree with them is the government’s concurrent inability to convince anyone that these specific reforms are necessary now and its refusal to address the specific concerns of doctors, nurses and patients.
At the weekend, the Telegraph reported that the UK has one of the lowest cancer survival rates in Europe despite the fact that our per capita health care spending is among the highest in the EU. Will these reforms mean more people survive cancer in this country? Will the proposed changes address alarming differences in life expectancy from one of London’s boroughs to the next? Will closing A&Es improve the health service? It’s questions like these that people are seeking answers to, not simply a rigid strategy of change for its own sake, cynically fueled by a collective memory of some surly NHS doctor or another, and mindlessly assured through yet another tiresome fist-thumping debate in the House of Commons.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Nick Clegg. I mean, is there anything he hasn’t done a U-turn on? And has this ‘flexibility’ won over hearts and minds? I guess that depends on what you call a U-turn. Recognising that a strategy won’t achieve its own aims is laudable. Trading in principles for power is another thing altogether.