Written by Annie Wakefield
Illustration by Ellen Stanton
If you were asked to think of Britain’s most controversial Conservative Prime Minister, the mind would more than likely conjure up an image of Margaret Thatcher. And though that’s perfectly justifiable, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark if you thought first of Boris Johnson, who’s leadership has similarly divided opinions, and who himself has quickly become as memorable a figure in his own right. When it comes to inducing a marmite-like, love or hate sentiment amongst the British public, parallels can certainly be drawn between Thatcher and our current PM. Yet, there are still points of departure between the twos’ principles and approach to government. Whereas Thatcher had made her position on policy U-turns abundantly clear, infamously declaring that “the lady is not for turning”, it would seem that much to the contrary, Johnson’s government is for turning, and with alarming frequency in fact.
After a panic-stricken few days in August, school and sixth form college leavers revelled as the Johnson government decided to make a U-turn following the fiasco over the seemingly unfairly allocated GCSE and A-Level results. The results appeared to have been influenced by postcode and were divided sharply down state and private school lines more so than any other contributing factor. With students not able to sit their summer exams as usual because of the Coronavirus pandemic, Ofqual, the exams regulator, was found to have massively over-predicted some grades, whilst drastically under-predicting others. The decision to U-turn came after the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, had vowed just a couple of days earlier that the government would definitely not be budging on this matter.
There was equally a sense of relief as the general public responded to the news that the government had decided to make yet another U-turn; this time on their earlier unpopular decision not to provide free school meals over the summer holidays. The U-turn was announced as the government had given in to the mounting pressure which had largely been generated online led by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.
It thus seems accurate to say that the British public has become fairly accustomed to the government’s back-and-forth decision-making style, especially over the past six months. This has only been intensified by the current context, given the near-constant uncertainty which has come with the Coronavirus pandemic, and the Johnson government’s response to it; which has inevitably included many more policy U-turns. The government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been criticised as disorganised and confusing. Regions across the UK are constantly being swapped in and out of local lockdown, as well as rules about pubs, schools and group sizes constantly changing, and with countries being added and dropped from the quarantine list almost every week with no clear sense of reason.
Whilst the increasingly frequent use of the U-turn might be considered a tempestuous approach to policy making, at least in the case of GCSE and A-Level results, and the free school meals decisions, many people ultimately felt that the final choice to U-turn was the right one. The initial mess up with the results algorithm was seen as unfairly classist and had produced a mass of disheartened students, who’s dreams of university were momentarily thought to have been swept from under their feet on the morning of results day. Hence, the government’s later decision to U-turn was ultimately treated as a cause for celebration; the people spoke, and the government listened.
But is the rising number of policy U-turns really a reason to be cheerful? It’s important to question the extent to which continually bowing to public pressure is an indicator of a flexible and responsive government, or rather, whether it is a signifier of the inability of the Johnson government to read the room in the first place or to make strong and effective policy decisions with conviction off their own accord.
Although deciding to U-turn in the face of vocal opposition might on the one hand seem as though the government is genuinely listening to both the official Opposition in Parliament, and also the British people and taking onboard their criticisms, it might be worth first asking another question: if the government were truly in tune with public opinion, would they not simply make the right decision in the first place, without the need to U-turn at a later date? Is the government too far removed from the realities of the ordinary person if they were initially unable to pre-empt how the public would feel about school children potentially going hungry over the summer?
A more serious point is to be made of this routine of sporadic, unprincipled decision making which the government seems to have slipped into. It might actually suggest that we have a government which is less concerned with principles, and more concerned, in a typically populist fashion, with holding onto power by any means necessary. Even if that requires making frequent policy U-turns a defining feature of their government, in almost complete contrast to how Thatcher had notoriously made the very opposite – stubbornness and a refusal to U-turn – emblematic of her government in the 1980s. In the wake of rapidly mounting criticism over Johnson’s leadership of a country in crisis, and with a Brexit deal still to be secured so close to the deadline, it appears that the U-turn may have become a useful tactic to encourage confidence in the government, more so than it being a sign of receptiveness to public opinion.
Of course, however, it is important to acknowledge that a catch 22 situation soon arises in this scenario; if the government did not U-turn on decisions such as GCSE and A-Level results, a significant portion of the public would be left unhappy. At the same time, when the government does make another U-turn on an issue, it is still met with criticism for lack of conviction, and frequent mind changing, and the confusion which ensues.
At least concerning handling the current pandemic, we might allow for some leeway for the constantly evolving rules and measures, given that the situation is constantly evolving too. Yet, even with this, as the figures confirm, countries like New Zealand, which stuck to their guns on their approach for tackling the virus from the very beginning, are now faring far better than the UK, which was both slow off the mark and then inconsistent and chaotic in its decision making throughout.
However, if this commonplace practice of policy U-turns truly is a sign that we are entering a new era of British politics, one seasoned with referenda, and with an enhanced regard for public opinion in decision making, then perhaps the government has no choice but to acknowledge the power of the people’s voice. Perhaps then, the government might even begin to make policy with the very people the policy will affect in mind, eliminating the need for policy U-turns altogether.