Patrick Harvie got me thinking. There not many opportunities to say that. So I’ll say it again. Patrick Harvie got me thinking. Actually, it wasn’t so much Patrick Harvie himself or even what he said but more the subject matter. Usually when some opposition MSP is demanding a change of policy, I just switch off. So often what we’re hearing is opposition for the sake of appearances. The logic seems to be that because they’re called the opposition they must oppose everything. Not on the basis of genuine issues with a policy derived from careful scrutiny and rigorous analysis. Just because!
Alternatively, the opposition may be prompted by tribalism. It doesn’t take a mind-reader to know what you are thinking right now – British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). Although all the British parties are guilty of partisan oppositionalism to some degree, only BLiS has taken it to a level probably best characterised as suicidal. It’s no coincidence that it was a BLiS politician who lent his name to to this phenomenon. Google ‘Bain Principle’ if you don’t know what I’m referring to.
Patrick Harvie was guilty of neither token not partisan oppositionalism when he urged that the Scottish Government change its cautiously supportive position on the third runway at Heathrow Airport. Not that this favourable stance was totally unreasonable in itself. Nor is it that Harvie’s ‘Give me Green or give me death!’ attitude is entirely reasonable. As so often happens, both sides are a little bit right and a little bit wrong.
But it is not the merits or otherwise of the Heathrow expansion plan that Patrick Harvie got me thinking about. His call for a change of policy got me thinking about political U-turns and how they might be managed. The particular issue here may not be the best example as it is only clear-cut to the woefully shallow-minded and the position to be changed is not as deeply entrenched as some. But the principle is the same in all cases. It’s a 180 degree turn no matter the issue. And politicians don’t like doing U-turns. It makes them look weak and indecisive and – worst of all – wrong! Dislike of being exposed as horribly wrong is a universal human trait that becomes a raging phobia in those humans who seek political power.
Policy U-turns are rare – for the reasons given. They can be treated by spin doctors so that they look less ‘U-turny’ at first glance. But a total volte-face is difficult to disguise. If you wake up one morning to find that you’ve metamorphosed into a cockroach it’s going to take more than a dab of theatrical Max Factor and a smart suit to prevent people noticing. Especially when every Twitter timeline is littered with before-and-after pictures and your political opponents are tilting at a Christmas number one with “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah” sung to the tuned of Otis Redding’s 1966 hit ‘Sad song’. Younger readers may need to Google that as well.
Should a U-torn become necessary – or politically expedient – there may be different treatments the spin doctor can apply to make it look less like an admission to having been totally wrong. There was a time when the pre-U-turn position could be erased from the public consciousness by having the press fail to mention it. But this requires some measure of control of or strong influence over the media. At the very least there must be an amicable relationship with the people who do have control or influence. Where ‘amicable’ should be read as ‘mutually parasitical’. Today, the internet and citizen journalism makes such Orwellian crudeness all but impossible. Only those whose access to information is limited to the traditional media are susceptible to having the past rinsed from their consciousness and replaced by some more convenient history. Only those who suppose the BBC to be the font of all truth and wisdom can be convinced that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia and that the chocolate ration has been increased for the third time this year.
Another approach to spinning a U-turn is justification. This gets trickier the more the initial position has been nailed down. And the more important the issue. And the more dramatic dramatic the change. It is quite common for a racing car to skid into facing the wrong way, If a bobsleigh performed a similar maneuver it would surely be deemed more notable. Justification works best if there is some change in circumstances which can be used as
an excuse a reason for rethinking the matter.
It follows that the most dramatic U-turns will require the most plausible
excuses explanations, Or to come at it from a different direction, the biggest changes in circumstances can be used to justify the most unthinkable about-turns. Major incidents or developments provide an opportunity to make the most dramatic U-turns. The most adroit politicians are always opportunists. They are the people who are adept at spotting opportunities and putting them to use.
Some manufacturer of clichés once said that a week is a long time in politics. One wonders what they would have made of the last seven years never mind seven days. One cannot consider the sheer volume and massive significance of change during the Holyrood term now drawing to close without concluding that the period must have offered politicians a multitude of opportunities for dizzying U-turns or tectonic shifts in policy. Two things stand out – Brexit and Covid. Either of which could be used to justify a rubber-burning turnaround. Together they provide what may be an unprecedented opportunity to perform U-turns that would normally be to dangerous to contemplate.
I guess by this point most of you will know what’s coming next.
We have the nailed-down position on a major issue in the Scottish Government’s approach to the constitutional question and Nicola Sturgeon’s inexplicably dogmatic commitment to the Section 30 process. We have the earth-shaking factors of Brexit and Covid such as might be used to justify a dramatic U-turn. All we lack is someone perspicacious enough to recognise the opportunity, and pragmatic enough to take advantage of it.
Is Nicola Sturgeon the one? That may be the biggest question in politics at this time.