in Politics

Cameron’s virtuous U-turns

The Institute of Government blog has an interesting post on the value of insubordination.

The central thrust is that allowing a degree of dissent and challenge results in better policy making. The example cited, from Tim Harford’s book Adapt, was from the Iraq war:

US commanders on the ground … discarded their orders and tried something different based on local needs and circumstances. Their counter-insurgency strategies, at a time when the US Defense Secretary was refusing to admit there was an insurgency at all, formed the basis of the eventual moves toward restoring a degree of stability. The US Army never fully embraced the mavericks – but did eventually learn from them.

The lesson: the conventional attributes of the well-functioning big organisation – aligned team; clear big picture vision; organisation dedicated to following the leadership – can lead to some horrible mistakes.

It goes on to refer to some of the institutional examples in the UK where people are licensed to openly dissent from the government that employs them, like the Chief Medical Officer (although it also mentions those that shouldn’t, but sometimes do, dissent like military chiefs).

However, I couldn’t help thinking of the government’s recent ‘U-turns’. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher these have an incredibly bad reputation, but perhaps David Cameron sees them as a deliberate policy. He might not know where the next U-turn will be, but he has the self-confidence to accept he doesn’t know everything and when there’s an uproar he might need to re-think.

Part of the bad reputation U-turns have come from a strange perception that admitting you were wrong is a bad thing; a perception I’ve don’t share (it’s nearly a year since I admitted to being a fan of – controlled – failure). The logical conclusion of a government that never changes its mind is a government that comes to office with an immutable set of beliefs and policies that will never change regardless of circumstances, a patent and dangerous nonsense.

Judging by opinion polls I can’t help wondering if Cameron has slayed the U-turn monster. Shouldn’t the Conservatives be in the polling doldrums, with Ed Miliband seen as the next Prime Minister? The fact that the Labour lead is nothing like what it should be and Ed Miliband is suffering the same sort of chatter that cursed William Hague from the start of his leadership suggests Cameron might have successfully sold the truth that it is possible to admit you’ve re-thought without a massive political penalty.

The risk is that the perception that U-turn equals weakness returns and if the story continues to be repeated U-turns in the face of opposition then return it will. But the easy antidote are a few strong stances: the hard policies that are so important to the government and won’t change. The problem starts when people remember all those malleable policies and none of the hard ones, a position I fear we are drifting towards. The Prime Minister’s saviour may well be coming on Thursday when the Unions give Cameron a high profile battle from which he won’t back down.

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