08/02/2013 5 Comments
Nursey: Oh, that’s another good idea. You’re so clever today, you better be careful your foot doesn’t fall off.
Queen Elizabeth: Does that happen when you have lots of brilliant ideas? Your foot falls off?
Nursey: It certainly does. My brother had this brilliant idea of cutting his toenails with a scythe and his foot fell off.
(From Blackadder II)
One suspects from this conversation that Nursey’s brother was a bit thick but there could be an alternative. It could be that he was a politician who had realised that his initial plan was terrible but thought it better to go ahead with than be seen to change his mind.
Yesterday Michael Gove scrapped his policy to replace GSCEs with the English Baccalaureate. “U-Turn!” cried the media. “U-Turn!” cried The Opposition. I didn’t. I saw it and thought, “A politician has admitted they got something wrong and scrapped a bad idea. I wish they’d do that more often.”
I have lots of ideas at work. Some of them turn out to be good but not all of them. Quite often I’ve overestimated the benefits that an idea would bring or underestimated the amount of work it would entail. When that’s the case I will try to adapt the idea based on my new information or I might even scrap it altogether. This is just the way things work in all walks of life outside politics.
For example, Adrian Newey is widely considered to be the greatest Formula 1 engineer of his generation. If Newey puts a new bit on one of his cars he expects it to make the car faster. If it doesn’t and it turns out that it makes the car slower he will take it off or change its shape. He won’t leave it as it is and then put lots of effort into a campaign that pretends it is making the car faster. (I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have won nine constructer’s titles that way.)
Although that sounds obvious, we seem to have some in-built expectation that politicians must get everything right from the outset and never adapt or abandon their ideas. If they do they are “Weak” and they are “Flip-Floppers” and they are “U-Turners”. I have no love for politicians but treating them in this was leads to a very big problem because it continually makes them refuse to adapt or abandon bad ideas. Essentially we put them in a situation where the consequences of scrapping a bad idea is usually worse than just continuing with it and pretending it’s good.
Take the economy for example. I have (as you might have noticed) been fairly vocal about the government’s austerity policy. I believe that since taking power they have been pursuing the exact opposite of what was required. The initial policy though, while flawed, was not the main problem. The main problem was that for almost three years the government has refused to adapt that policy in light of a continual stream of damning evidence that has shown, time after time, that it just isn’t working.
But last week I wrote of my optimism:
One of these days, and probably sooner than you think, those people who stuck by the government when they said austerity would mean growth are going to run out of patience…when this happens the government will have no choice but to do something sensible instead.
Seems it might be sooner than I thought as well. Although the Gove story took centre stage yesterday there was another apparent change of plan as the government announced it was to borrow £2.3bn and invest it in improvement of our flood defences. This really is good news. Improving flood defences is something we need to do anyway and there is no better time to do it when there are lots of unemployed people waiting for work and when we can borrow that £2.3bn at extremely low rates.
This is exactly the kind of thing the government should be doing. Ok, this policy on its own is far too small to solve the overall problem but it does suggest that the government might have finally admitted to themselves that they need to spend in order to create growth.
Over the coming weeks and months I hope to see more policies like this and if they do materialise let’s all promise that we won’t shout, “U-Turn!” If we do that, we risk the government immediately fleeing back to austerity and back to the pretence that their initial policy is working.
And if that happens we’re going to spend the next two years as we’ve spent the last three – cutting spending, cutting the economy and cutting our toenails with a scythe.