With all aspects of society now affected, the journey is far from clear cut

By Aaron Newton: Political Columnist

The UK government and the ‘U-turn’ on policy have gone hand-in-hand throughout most of 2020: sources put it at 8 significant instances in 8 months for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. From the school meal scheme given a new lease of life by a professional footballer to an algorithmic mistake of huge proportions, it seems to be one thing after the next.

These examples were almost immediately repealed following public outcry, leaving Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson with egg on their respective faces. Given that politicians are supposedly experts in their respective fields, the law of probability shows they wouldn’t get it wrong to that degree as often as they have. So why does it keep happening? 

Essentially, it is the system with an added dash of human error. The British policy-making machine is one of decisiveness over deliberation: it is designed to facilitate quick policy pushed through the legislative chambers with a large majority, leaving little room for academic discourse or testing, nor input from executive committees. While this method is good in a crisis (on paper), it leaves a lot to be desired when the policy does not fit the practical outside requirements. Bad policy is made in the same way as good. 

mackayan: government u turns

The people responsible within that system are also to blame, obviously, but due to the environment they operate in it is made worse. Accountability of politicians and decision-makers is key to this. As ministers are not directly accountable for their actions by the public outside of the standard electoral practices, it is thought that they fail to understand the full effects or consequences of the policy on the public.

After all, if a policy is good enough on paper, why would they expend extra effort if there are no bad consequences to them? Gavin Williamson has refused to resign despite public pressure, for example. This lack of awareness is in place until it hits the streets and feedback comes in the form of media criticism and the inevitable Twitter rampages: this is where re-thinks occur, hence the U-turns.

This is not to say U-turns are indicative of a weak government. U-turns in policy can actually be very beneficial to the public, not only for the consequences of the issue but also because they feel listened to. A recent YouGov poll in May 2020 puts that sentiment at roughly double the opinion that the government is weak. It seems then that it is not all doom and gloom for the government when things need to change. At what point does a U-turn change from good communication with the public into unashamed incompetence? It is a fine line.

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