Some thoughts on the U-turn in modern British politics

It seems to me that there are two types of U-Turn, and not often is the distinction between these types discussed. Firstly, there is the commendable U-Turn. This is the type that John Maynard Keynes talked about when he asked of an audience member who queried a U-Turn Keynes had made, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’. In politics today (and I suspect ever), this type of U-Turn is exceedingly rare. It does not matter what new evidence surfaces, politicians are very unlikely to have a sudden conversion. The second type of U-Turn, and the one that I will write about, is one that John McDonnell might refer to as ‘embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing’, and this is the type of U-Turn where a politician, or anyone else, changes their mind in order to fit some narrative that they wish to promote.

A good example of this is the Conservative Party’s recent behavior over the Lords’ rejection of tax credit cuts. For years, Conservative MPs have been perfectly happy to extol the virtues of having a second chamber and make the argument against a reformed House of Lords. Whether the argument against an elected House of Lords is a good one is irrelevant, the fact is that they have shown support for the Lords in the way that it currently works. Yet, as the Lords becomes an obstacle for George Osborne in legislating, and in the more long-term, an obstacle to him becoming leader of the Conservative Party, he will huff and puff about the outrage that an unelected House of Lords has blocked legislation from the elected House of Commons. Of course, politicians are not so plain about such things. They tiptoe around the fact that they are changing their minds for political reasons by referring to some minutiae that they claim makes all the difference. For Osborne, he claims that the difference is that this piece of legislation is a statutory instrument relating to finance, which to you or I seems obviously an unashamed piece of spin. Are we seriously to believe that if a Labour bill that happened to be a statutory instrument relating to finance had been blocked by the Lords, the Conservatives would be up in arms about the democratic injustice of it? Of course not.

That is not to say that changing your mind to suit some political objective is exclusive to those on the right, or more common there. George Orwell, for example, in his essay The Prevention of Literature, talks about the way in which Communists changed their mind to make the Communist Party look good: “Consider, for example, the various attitudes, completely incompatible with one another, which an English Communist or ‘fellow-traveler’ has had to adopt toward the war between Britain and Germany. For years before September, 1939, he was expected to be in a continuous stew about ‘the horrors of Nazism’ and to twist everything he wrote into a denunciation of Hitler: after September, 1939, for twenty months, he had to believe that Germany was more sinned against than sinning, and the word ‘Nazi’, at least as far as print went, had to drop right out of his vocabulary. Immediately after hearing the 8 o'clock news bulletin on the morning of June 22, 1941, he had to start believing once again that Nazism was the most hideous evil the world had ever seen”.

A more modern example of those on the left having the most blatant double standards is the case of the European Union. When the election results came in on May 7th, it was difficult to not hear the cries from the left of the injustice of the electoral system. First Past the Post was a failed system, they claimed, and somehow had given the Conservatives a majority of the seats despite the fact that they received only 37% of the vote. Again, whether this argument is a good one does not particularly matter, it is the sheer brazenness with which those who make it have to apply this logic to British elections but defend the European Union. David Cameron might only have received 37% of the votes, but Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, received precisely zero votes.

Perhaps an even clearer example is the way in which the governments of Greece and Portugal have been treated by Angela Merkel. Imagine, for a second, that Jeremy Corbyn is elected Prime Minister in 2020. Imagine then, that, in spite of the fact that he has won an election on an anti-austerity ticket, the European Union announces that this economic policy is incompatible with the wishes of Angela Merkel, and that if they do not adopt it by choice, austerity will be forced on the people of the UK. If this happened, the British left would be up in arms, and rightly so. So why, when this happens in Greece, are the British left (with some exceptions) still happy to support the European Union? In Portugal, the left-wing majority government has been refused office on the grounds that they are not compatible with Europe, and the Conservative Prime Minister has been allowed to remain in place. The same people who would, without a doubt, denounce these things as disgraceful and undemocratic if they were happening either within, or being forced upon, the United Kingdom are happy to ignore or even defend them when they apply to the European Union.

Double-think, to come back to Orwell, is still rife. People can accept that an unelected House of Lords that acts as a check on the elected House of Commons is a good thing, and then come out and say that the House of Commons ought to be able to legislate whatever it pleases and should not be blocked by unelected Lords. People can passionately believe that the Conservative government ought not to be able to form a majority government without a majority of the votes and argue that the European Union, in spite of the fact that neither the European Commission nor the Council of Ministers is elected, ought to be able to pass laws that affect the United Kingdom. Many things have changed since Orwell was writing, but politicians and people who talk about politics having views that are completely inconsistent to one another in order to preserve some kind of narrative, has not, and it is doubtful that it ever will.