‘The Lady’s Not for Turning’: Political U-turns and why they matter

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Margaret Thatcher, 1987

On 10 October 1980, Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech that would change the way we think about political decision-making for the foreseeable future. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, she uttered the words: ‘You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning’ – a phrase that would transform her refusal to reverse a terrible and hugely unpopular decision into an example of political power and virility. Thanks to Thatcher U-turns were now considered representative of inexcusable political weakness. And my how we’ve grown to love the stupidity and incompetence that they represent. As Nesrine Malik wrote in a recent piece for The Guardian, ‘There is nothing opposition politicians and journalists like more than a good old flip-flop.’

Whilst Thatcher is long gone from Downing Street, the impact of her political stubbornness has been immense. One has only to type ‘Political U-turn’ into Google to gain insight into just how much power her words held at the time, and how much the media continues to ridicule those who are guilty (as if it were a crime) of backtracking out of their political decisions.

Of course, in some cases political U-turns are wholly unfair and deserve all the ridicule they get. May’s recent backtracking out of her energy price cap proposal, for example, has left millions of over-worked and underpaid Brits with increasingly unaffordable energy bills to pay. But even in cases where U-turns are made in favour of reasonable objections and for the greater good of the people, we are still prone to condemning them as nothing more than lack of conviction. Unfair and misguided as some government U-turns certainly are, it seems there may be more than meets the eye to the disdain that many of us feel towards them. And I think this can be explained via meritocracy.

Politicians sometimes make mistakes. And, like everyone, they sometimes change their minds.

In a society which overvalues success and fears failure like the plague, it’s no wonder we’re so hard on those who demonstrate any kind of uncertainty about their actions or ideas. After all, the notion that we must never fail at anything, including any decisions that we make, is something that most of us internalise from an early age. It’s something that we’re first made aware of at school, where we’re expected to work hard for good grades if we are to achieve anything of value in life. And then at college and university, where we’re encouraged to compete with our peers for academic merit. It is then drilled in again when we reach the workplace, where we’re expected to keep moving up through the ranks and making more and more money as we go.

What we often neglect to realise in the pursuit of success is that, more often than not, failure is a necessary part of the journey. Other than the incredibly wealthy and privileged of our society, there are very few who find success without making some mistakes along the way. So, if we consider that political decision makers are some of the most successful people in the country, and that like everybody else they are expected to succeed without any failure, the idea that their U-turns are always rooted in incompetence seems pretty harsh. Politicians sometimes make mistakes. And, like everyone, they sometimes change their minds.

And this isn’t to say that I’m not well aware of the fact that some government U-turns are merely tactical rather than based on genuine mistakes. But I must say, I’d rather live in a society where political decisions are sometimes reversed than one in which policies are always stubbornly implemented and held in place regardless of the objections that they are subject to. In a democratic society, the ability of our politicians to admit their failings, change their minds, and decide to go down a different path is something that I would personally like to see more rather than less of.

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Social Progress in the Digital Age: Why it’s time to step away from social media

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Photo credit: TaylorHerring via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Confined to the cosy bubbles of our online worlds, it can be difficult to understand when elections and referendums fail to deliver the results that we expect. When Brexit was announced I, like everyone I know, was shocked by the result, not only because leaving the EU wasn’t the result that I had personally called for, but because I didn’t know anyone who had voted to leave. Likewise, whilst I was aware in the lead up to this year’s general election that there remained across the country a great deal of support for the Conservatives, at no point did I consider that a Tory/DUP coalition was a possible outcome. What I hadn’t considered up until recently is how sheltered from reality I’ve been.

When I first joined Facebook many moons ago, there was no such thing as a news feed algorithm. It used to be the case that I would come across all kinds of posts in my daily feed. Some were interesting and instantly engaging, some boring, and some downright offensive. Regardless of whether or not the content was relevant or interesting to me personally, it was very likely that I would see whatever my friends and acquaintances were sharing. These days it can take days for the annoying YouTube video that someone posted at the weekend to appear in my news feed. And in some cases content remains completely hidden.

In a way this is pretty clever and useful. It means that when I scroll through Facebook I’m more often than not presented with news items and features that are of interest to me and that I’m likely to engage with in a meaningful way. But when it comes to the way that we engage with politics and current affairs, is it really that helpful for information to be restricted?

These days it’s extremely rare that I come across any content which opposes my personal belief system. What I find disconcerting is that if I’m receiving very little in the way of opposing viewpoints, then the same goes for those who think and feel differently from me. Whilst it’s easy to feel as though our social media algorithms are working in our favour to protect us from annoying/anger-inducing bullshit, I can’t help wondering if restricting information that is assumed to not be useful to us also hinders the way that we’re able to engage with and learn from our fellow citizens.

When it comes to the way that we engage with politics and current affairs, is it really that helpful for information to be restricted?

With more and more people turning to social media to access news and opinion, and with so much unreliable information floating around, it’s a shame that only certain types of stories are reaching certain individuals. If the only articles that we’re immediately presented with in our social media feeds sit cosily within our existing interests and beliefs, then how are we meant to connect with ‘the other side’ so to speak, and find a common ground from which to tackle the issues that are keeping us divided?

In a country characterised by polemic view points and a biased media system hell bent on fuelling the fire, it’s important that we make an effort to connect with one another and try to understand the other side of the proverbial coin. Rather than dedicating so much time and energy to voicing our opinions on social media, where only like-minded individuals are likely to gain exposure, perhaps it’s time to step away from our screens and start talking to one another in the real world.

Social progress depends upon how well we connect with and understand the people around us, and social media no longer offers a platform for this kind of engagement. So, speak with your neighbours, start conversations on the bus and in the street, and remember that we can be far more united and connected in the offline world than social networks and their algorithms will ever allow for.