Ewan Crawford: U-turn if you want to – sometimes it’s the wisest democratic response
IF THERE was such a thing as a Margaret Thatcher tribute night, it’s a fair bet pride of place would be given to a re-run of her 1980 conference speech in which she famously declared: “The lady’s not for turning”.
Accused of pursuing disastrous economic and social policies the Iron Lady made it clear she would be staying the course.
Such was the Prime Minister’s determination not to waver that her Cabinet colleague and leading “wet” Norman St John-Stevas, who died last week, apparently gave her the nickname Tina – There Is No Alternative.
Thirty-two years on, and it seems U-turns are back. On minimum alcohol pricing, another Tory female leader has decided she is indeed for turning and that the alternative looks pretty good after all.
For political opponents the urge on these occasions is to put on their best Horrid Henry voice (parents of young children will know who I mean) and shout: “Na, na, na, na, na – you’ve changed your mind.”
In truth, of course, the policy shift announced by Ruth Davidson has come about not because of any independent thought among Scottish Tories but because David Cameron appears to have told them to do it. But in general, should U-turns really get such a bad press?
In some instances the answer should clearly be yes. If, for argument’s sake, a political party went into an election promising to abolish tuition fees (while saying it was time politicians kept their promises) and then spectacularly broke that promise then that party deserves all it gets.
But that is a different situation from a party deciding after detailed consideration of all the evidence and changing circumstances that it should offer a different policy, consistent with its principles.
Political scientists characterise a deliberative democracy as one in which policy decisions are made after an open exchange of ideas involving widespread, rational participation. The idea here is that the best option will become clear once all alternatives have been thoroughly tested and debated.
Clearly for such a democracy to thrive, politicians must be prepared openly to change their minds and admit past positions are no longer the most appropriate.
Looking back at the founding documents of the Scottish Parliament it seems that is the kind of environment the architects of devolution hoped it would help to create.
But the reality of Scottish (and British) political and media culture means that the dream of a benign, forgiving space where politicians feel comfortable about changing their minds can seem a long way off.
Sometimes the facts on the ground mean change is inevitable. When I worked at the SNP, we, along with the Liberal Democrats and Labour, believed that, in principle, membership of the Euro would have big advantages for trade and business in general. Clearly now, it makes sense for the SNP to say that retaining sterling after independence is the best choice. To argue otherwise would just seem odd.
At Westminster, the coalition is coming under real pressure on its reforms to the NHS in England and on its planned cuts to child benefit and tax credits. It seems the health policy has been attacked by just about everyone who has every worked in the NHS, as the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, delights in pointing out at most sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions.
But this is now a matter of politics, not policy, and David Cameron clearly believes the political cost of backing down would be too great.
Here in Scotland the last parliament was characterised by knee-jerk opposition, from Labour in particular, to policies suggested by the SNP for no other reason than they were suggested by the SNP.
There is clearly nothing inherently Nationalist about trying to stop cut-price booze and the measure is supported by an impressive array of health groups and alcohol charities. But like the Tories in London on the issue of the NHS, it seems that for Labour in Scotland a change of heart on alcohol pricing is just too politically difficult to contemplate.
In some respects this is puzzling. After all, New Labour was not shy about changing policy under the leadership of Tony Blair, even if it meant coming closer to a traditionally Conservative position.
In the heat of the battle it is easy to deride your opponents for “selling out” and I confess I may in the past have been guilty of making such a charge, but there is some force to the Blair argument that Labour needed to modernise to win and therefore to introduce progressive policies such as the minimum wage and increased spending on public services.
The hope now is that on the biggest issue in Scottish politics we will see similar deliberation. Indeed those on the No side have to a large extent based their campaign so far on a series of questions they say they want answered.
Perhaps without realising it, this strategy implies an open mind – an acceptance that if the answers prove satisfactory, such as for example on the extent of Scotland’s oil wealth, then positions will change. So, and with apologies to Lady Thatcher, I am happy to say to the anti-independence parties: U-turn if you want to. «
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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