U-Turns, Flip-Flops and Scientific Reason: Changing your Mind in 21st Century Politics

The bedroom tax, or ‘spare room subsidy’, is a controversial and unpopular policy. So, when a senior member of government releases a statement effectively stating ‘We were wrong’ and withdraws their support for the policy, perhaps it would be reasonable to expect some satisfaction or relief in public opinion. Not a bit of it. Critics are keen to label this generation of voters the most cynical and disillusioned ever, but surely it is a step beyond normality when one is condemned for agreeing with the public.

Of course, it’s not that straightforward. Many believe the Lib Dem decision to no longer back the bedroom tax is a rather transparent attempt to regain voter support nine months from an election. The party voted for and continually supported the government policy up until very recently, but as their ‘differentiation’ strategy, a clear attempt to distance and ‘differentiate’ themselves from their Tory partners, gathers pace, they have turned their back on a patently unpopular policy in the hope of winning votes. Except, politics doesn’t work like that.

The Lib Dems have not only shown themselves to be ‘flip-floppers’, lacking any clear ideological standpoint, but they have also reminded the public of their, up to now, most infamous flip-flop- tuition fees. In one act, they have reminded people why they are so lacking support and then solidified that lack of support with a demonstration of their apparent lack of principle. It is beyond almost all doubt this decision was about votes, but for a moment, extracted from the world of politics where one can’t be wrong, it seemed strange that a group of people would be so chastised for evaluating previous actions and making a revised, informed decision on their future actions. It raises the question: Why is it so bad to change your mind in politics?

Perhaps one of the greatest human achievements was the development of the scientific method. The use of reason to objectively observe events, process information/evidence, and draw sound conclusions based on that evidence. So much of human advancement is down to this approach and the principles that stem from it. One such principle can be simply stated as:

‘If I am presented with legitimate evidence that contradicts my beliefs, I will alter my beliefs accordingly’.

Despite all it’s influence in recent human history, this principle appears strangely absent from contemporary political life. There has always been a clamour for evidence-based policy making, and, depending on one’s definition of evidence, evidence is often used in policy making. Since when, however, have reevaluation, revision and the right to change one’s mind been so derided in politics?

Where in political philosophy does it say ‘Never admit you were wrong’? Perhaps somewhere it does say this, but why? Some say ideology is dead in twenty-first century politics, that pragmatism will always win. Some argue pragmatism is an ideology in itself. Either way, politics has always been seen to be ideological. Voters, journalists, reporters all want to know ‘What is your view on X?’  to judge how closely a politician matches certain ideological leanings. So, when a politician reverses a decision or revises a viewpoint, they are often seen as lacking ideological conviction. This creates an environment where stubbornness is rewarded and an unwillingness to listen, to observe, to process evidence is seen as ‘strength’, and willingness to heed these same factors is seen as ‘weakness’.

It is not just the voter who influences this culture. The opposition parties, thirsting for public approval, will leap on any opportunity to portray rivals as weak, and there is no better material from which to create this image than a political U-turn. If, somewhere in the annals of political philosophy, it does say ‘Never change your mind’, perhaps it should instead say ‘Never let it be known that you’ve changed your mind’, as the media have an equally powerful role in supporting this culture of stubbornness. Many U-turns have been made by this coalition, but none have been as public as the Lib Dems ill-advised flip-flop over tuition fees and now, the bedroom tax.

In the longer term, flip-flopping may not be an enormous influence on popularity. Obama’s turnaround in not closing down Guantanamo Bay has been met negatively on the whole, but he was reelected in 2012 and the criticism over Guantanamo have only been low murmurs compared to the chorus from Republicans on his healthcare reform and the economy. In a different manner, Angela Merkel’s U-turn on Germany’s nuclear power policy in 2011, while receiving a certain amount of negative press at the time, does not seem to have adversely affected her polling at all. Her decision in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, to eradicate Germany’s dependency on nuclear power by 2022, appears the decision of someone who processed undeniable evidence and altered their strongly-held views accordingly. Whether this is true, or whether she never actually changed her mind and a tide of media and political pressure merely forced her to pretend she had, is disputed.

Public and media reaction indicates that the decision to play the ‘Principles’ card by Clegg, Alexander et al was a woeful misjudgment. They have reminded  the public of their single biggest controversy in government by flip-flopping yet again. However, this should not distort the fact that, no matter who you are, in Britain at least, changing one’s mind is rarely seen as anything other than weakness. Perhaps we should blame Thatcher for bringing stubbornness into vogue, or maybe this perception of political weakness is indicative of a political system that has not yet left ideology behind. No matter which is the case, everyone could do with some more reason, revision, and evidence-based decision-making in their lives. Unless you’re in politics, that is.