Thursday, October 21, 2010

When politicians change their minds

The only people who never change their minds on anything are the sort of tedious sods it is best to avoid. Yet increasingly we seem to expect our political class to never change their minds. It is like we expect them to be right first time on every issue and if they do change their position, then it is a sign of weakness. Sometimes it is almost as if Thatcher’s “the lady’s not for turning” pronouncement is some sort of benchmark against which all politicians should be assessed, rather than an admirable sentiment at the time that later sank that particular leader when it came to stubbornness over the poll tax. .

That idea is, of course, horseshite. Everyone changes their minds on some things; indeed, keeping an open mind, engaging in debate and reviewing your opinions accordingly is a sure sign of an intelligent, engaged mind. If a politician can stand up and say they were wrong on an issue then I’d argue they’ve got far more going for them than a politician who stubbornly sticks to their original opinion in the face of contradictory facts.

Yet I don’t want to give the political class a “get out of jail free” card – if they are continually wrong on stuff, then it does rather call into question their judgment and therefore their suitability for government. So what’s the balance – how can we tell when a politician is justified in changing their mind and when they’re not?

I think the litmus test should be the reasons why they are changing their minds. If they are doing so for reasons clearly of political expediency, then we should treat their u-turn with scorn. Take Miliband Minor’s recent pronouncements on the Iraq War and civil liberties – he claims he has changed his mind* because it led to the electorate to lose trust in Labour. Now that logic simply isn’t good enough. He needs to understand why both the way and the sustained attack on civil liberties under Labour were bad; the reason isn’t simply that they were bad for Labour in electoral terms.

In contrast, the recent conversion of Ken Clarke to not wanting to lock up everybody possible has more credibility to it. Clarke didn’t say what he said for reasons of expediency – in fact, given the opinions of many in the Tory grassroots, saying the opposite would have been far more popular. But what Clarke has done is look at the mess that was Labour’s prison policy (and the prison policy of his own party when it was last in government) and drawn sensible (and, some would say, blindingly obvious) conclusions from that which may contradict his previous positions. Let him change his mind – it makes more sense than stubbornly sticking to the idiocy that went before.

So when a politician changes their mind, let’s find out why. If the reason is intuitively plausible, then they deserve the benefit of the doubt (as long as they don’t keep on doing it). However, if the reason is simply “because it benefits me politically”, then I hope you will all join me in heaping scorn on that particular craptacular politician.

*Yeah, I know some people believe that he was always against the war; however, he was a governmental aide for the party that started the war and he stood at the next election for that party after the war had started. Furthermore, I don’t doubt for one second that had he been in Parliament at the time of the vote on the Iraq War, he’d have voted for it. For career reasons, y’know…

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At 10:07 am , Anonymous SimonF said...

I suspect that Ken's volte face is more than a little political, in the sense that the current financial mess allowed him to admit his real belief as opposed to his previous, expedient, political belief.

But yes, your right in that we don't want intransigent politicians. My test would be:

I believe A because of y, however I have now seen research Z and so believe B.

At 7:50 am , Blogger Anomaly UK said...

Voters reject politicians who change their mind because throughout history, it has been more important for a leader to be constant in their decisions than for them to be right.

The reason for this is that if a leader is indecisive, many others will devote their efforts to changing his mind their way, and preventing their rivals changing his mind a different way, rather than getting on with their own activities. This is much more destructive than simple bad government.

Of course, we live in a democracy, meaning we get all the bad effects of weak government, all the time, no matter how strong and decisive our individual politicians are. But collectively we have not shaken off our conviction of what constitutes good leadership.

At 9:21 am , Blogger The Nameless Libertarian said...

But good leadership is not sticking to your original beliefs when they have been categorically shown to be wrong/not to work. Example - both Bush Junior and Blair stick to their belief that the invasion of Iraq was both legal and necessary to stop Iraq using WMDs. What we've learned since the war is that both of these ideas are questionable at best - and at worst downright wrong. To stick to those beliefs is not a sign of good leadership - it is a sign that the people concerned have lost touch with reality.

Furthermore, it isn't true that voters always reject politicians who change their mind. Clinton did so repeatedly in his first term for pure reasons of political expediency - and was re-elected. By contrast, ideologues who stuck to their guns like Goldwater and, to some extent, McGovern were routed at the polls. Consistency is not always appreciated, or rewarded, by the voters.

Finally, I don't agree with your assertion that opposition forces trying to change a leader's mind is much more destructive than bad government. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who is in power - it is about the policies they follow. Therefore, opposition parties/rivals should spend as much of their time trying to influence current government policy as they should trying to get into government themselves.


At 10:47 pm , Blogger Anomaly UK said...

Nobody involved in government believes that what matters is policy. What matters is gaining and holding power. Most "policy" is primarily aimed at securing a power base and weakening that of one's enemies, and it is usually visibly worse for all concerned than any policy that would be adopted by a ruler who didn't have to worry about being replaced by rivals.

You call yourself a libertarian - meaning very roughly that you define "good government" as some kind of minimum state. Have you by any chance noticed that, by a measure of the amount of state involvement in people's lives, no ruling hereditary monarch in the last thousand years governed worse than any modern Western democracy? Why might that be?

Something approaching half the productive capacity of the country is diverted into wasteful activity because bringing the activity under government control allows it to be used to reward and strengthen supporters, and to punish and weaken opponents. Nobody who ruled simply because they were a ruler, rather than because they were successful at politics, would have any reason to adopt such a "policy" of indirect and inefficient mass bribery.

However, we have a folk memory of rulers who actually weren't too sure what they wanted, meaning policy was actually made by whoever had their ear. The result was politics: those who did have such power by proxy used it to make sure they would continue to have the power, rather than their rivals. In time, these destructive power struggles became institutionalised as democracy, and now cannot be avoided by any means. But there is still this folk memory, from the days before politics, that a weak leader is worse than a leader who is merely selfish and stupid. The rule of thumb is still sometimes applied even to democratic politicians, though there is no good reason why it should: no matter how firmly Blair sticks to his position, it will not in the slightest discourage others from committing politics, or reduce his own need to do the same.

At 8:05 pm , Blogger The Nameless Libertarian said...

Not entirely sure what your point is - the fact that attainment of and continuation in power is the focus of a lot (but not all) of politicians doesn't mean that we can't expect - or demand - something different. Part of the process might be seeking intelligent leaders, rather than those who posture at being strong rather than pig-headed. I don't see a folk memory leading to a desire for strong leaders - but even if there was such a memory, it could be overcome.

I'm also not sure I agree with your claim that hereditary monarchs intervened less in the lives of their citizens than modern democracies. How are you defining state intervention? Because while the government may demand a lot from its citizens, it doesn't demand that I adhere to any particular religion, for example. Perhaps that's swings and roundabouts, though.


At 4:09 am , Blogger Anomaly UK said...

It was you who said "we seem to expect our political class to never change their minds." I suggested an explanation. Have you now changed your mind? My term "folk memory" was probably understating things - only a little before my time, the "weak king = bad king" was still taught explicitly as a basic part of the history curriculum. I never said it was a good reason: it perhaps could be overcome, which would be fine with me.

Your dichotomy between "intelligent leaders" and "those who posture at being strong" is false. Tony Blair is exceptionally intelligent, and the result of his intelligence was that in most things he did whatever would gain most popularity, saving his political capital for the things he really believed in. And what he really believed in was not Iraqi WMDs, but the necessity in general of improving the world by overthrowing governments he didn't like. This speech he made in 1999 is particularly revealing.

As to requiring adherence to a particular religion, that was very rare requirement under monarchies, but did happen at the time of the wars of religion, when to support the "wrong" religion was to support the ideology of the enemy. Of course, the Occasional Conformity Act was passed in Britain early in the democratic period, as a classic democratic ploy to disenfranchise the opposition.


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