‘The Lady’s Not for Turning’: Political U-turns and why they matter

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher, 1987

On 10 October 1980, Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech that would change the way we think about political decision-making for the foreseeable future. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, she uttered the words: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’ – a phrase that would transform her refusal to reverse a terrible and hugely unpopular decision into an example of political power and virility. Thanks to Thatcher U-turns were now considered representative of inexcusable political weakness. And my, how we’ve grown to love the stupidity and incompetence that they represent. As Nesrine Malik wrote in a recent piece for The Guardian, ‘There is nothing opposition politicians and journalists like more than a good old flip-flop.’

Whilst Thatcher is long gone from Downing Street, the impact of her political stubbornness has been significant. One has only to type ‘Political U-turn’ into Google to gain insight into just how much power her words held at the time, and how much the media continues to enjoy ridiculing those who are guilty (as if it were a crime) of backtracking on their political decisions.

Of course, in some cases political U-turns are wholly unfair and deserve all the ridicule they get. May’s recent backtracking out of her energy price cap proposal, for example, has left millions of over-worked and underpaid Brits with increasingly unaffordable energy bills to pay. But even in cases where U-turns are made in favour of reasonable objections and for the greater good of the people, we are still prone to condemning them as nothing more than lack of conviction. Unfair and misguided as some government U-turns certainly are, it seems there is more than meets the eye to the disdain that many of us feel towards them.

Politicians sometimes make mistakes. And, like everyone, they sometimes change their minds.

And I think this can be explained via meritocracy. In a society which overvalues success, and fears failure like the plague, it’s no wonder we are so hard on those who demonstrate any kind of uncertainty about their actions or ideas. After all, the notion that we must never fail at anything, including the decisions that we make, is something that most of us internalise from an early age. It’s something that we’re first made aware of at school, where we’re expected to work hard for good grades if we are to achieve anything of value in life. And then at college and university, where we’re encouraged to compete with our peers for academic merit. It is then drilled in again when we reach the workplace, where we’re expected to keep moving up through the ranks and making more and more money as we go.

What we often neglect to realise in the pursuit of success is that, more often than not, failure is a necessary part of the journey. Other than the incredibly wealthy and privileged of our society, there are very few people who find success without making a few mistakes along the way.

So, if we consider that political decision makers are some of the most successful people in the country, and that like everybody else they are expected to succeed without any failure, then the idea that their U-turns are always rooted in incompetence seems pretty harsh. Politicians sometimes make mistakes. And, like everyone, they sometimes change their minds.

And this isn’t to say that I’m not well aware of the fact that some government U-turns are merely tactical rather than based on genuine mistakes. But I must say, I’d rather live in a society where political decisions are sometimes reversed than one in which policies are always stubbornly implemented and held in place regardless of the objections that they are subject to. In a democratic society, the ability of our politicians to admit their failings, change their minds, and decide to go down a different path is something that I would personally like to see more rather than less of.

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Maddie is a Bristol-based writer and blogger with a particular interest in feminism, social justice and contemporary culture.