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The U-Turns that Have Shaped and Defined Britain

U-turns, particularly within politics, are when government bodies or officials backtrack on a decision, policy or promise they made. Essentially when they feel like a mistake has been made or where the public outcry has become so severe that they have no choice.

Articles and opinion pieces have sprouted up all over the place over the last few months, making the term “U-turn” a bit of a buzzword, but why? As this Metro article very nicely sums up, this government have made just over the equivalent of one big U-turn a month since the beginning of the first lockdown earlier this year.

But U-turns and government blunders have a long history, which actually had some really monumental effects, here are just a few of them to explore some of the big questions about what happens when they initially get it wrong. Does it make politicians weak to back down, or does it make them sensible? Is it a part of a well-functioning democracy that politicians adapt decisions to reflect public outrage, even if reluctantly?

Ultimately the question we want to probe here is whether there is much shame in the U-turn?

Catholic Emancipation

U-turns weren't invented in the 1800s, but one of the most interesting U-turns happened in 1829 with the Catholic Emancipation Act.

Throughout the late 18th century, Roman Catholics in Britain found that, little by little, their rights were becoming reinstated. After a long period of political and social oppression towards the Catholics following the Reformation of England, we saw bills which enabled Catholics to buy property and to practice their religion without consequence, whilst this was a slow unravelling of rights for the Catholics, the most prominent change came early in the following century.

The success of Daniel O'Connell, an Irish Catholic, in County Clare's 1828 by-election spurred on legislation that led to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. A few years prior the case for Catholics to regain all their civil liberties was narrowly defeated, the election of O'Connell impressed the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, so much that a U-turn quickly followed on that vote. The Catholic Emancipation Act swiftly followed.

Corn Laws

During the same period of Catholic unrest in Britain, the government had something else to worry about: the masses of British citizens going hungry from the Corn Laws.

The Corn Laws were policies which impacted the price of grain in the UK, and despite being around since the 12th century, they only started to face backlash in the late 18th century. As a number of bad harvests, import restrictions from the Napoleonic Wars and the growing population influenced the price and availability of grain, civil unrest grew steadily. The Anti Corn Law League was formed in 1839 and surprisingly The Economist, now an internationally respected publication, was founded in 1843 to speak out against the Corn Laws.

This political and social pressure eventually convinced Robert Peel, Prime Minister at the time, to scrap the Corn Laws.

Ted Heath

A blunter title than most others here, but as this critical journalist from the Guardian says, Ted Heath (Prime Minister between 1970-1974) was the "undisputed king of the U-turn". Tim Bale makes the statement after a number of comments made by Labour in the early 2010s suggested the then coalition government was constantly U-turning. "A U-turn really was a U-turn, not just a decision to nix some half-baked idea you'd floated only to find it was unworkable or unpopular," Bale says, and Ted Heath really did U-turn.

His decision to continuously turn his back on his own manifesto would've been welcomed by me personally. I can't imagine anyone wanted to see huge slashes in public expenditure, neglect towards deprived areas of the UK and strict immigration laws, especially in the face of an unemployment crisis. His constant U-turns unfortunately didn't put him, or the country, in a good place, because after that Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister.

Tuition Fees

Into the new decade of 2010: a chance for more political blunders, and we sure did get one after the 2010 election. During the campaign trail the Liberal Democrats, then led by Nick Clegg, made it very clear that they wanted to avoid the suspected rise in tuition fees, even claiming that they'd have them abolished. The U-turn came when they were elected into a coalition government with the Conservatives, and in fact they voted to nearly triple tuition fees to £9000.

The feelings of distrust towards the Lib Dems, especially amongst students, still remained by 2017 - a study by the Higher Education Policy Institute showed that most students planned to vote for Labour or the Conservatives ahead of the Lib Dems.

Brexit U-turns

I'm sure a novel could be written about the number of Brexit blunders, but here I may simply list a few:

  • Twisting figures to suggest that we'd save £350 million a week by leaving the EU - however we get a portion of our membership fee back, a more realistic figure would've been £234 million

  • David Cameron insisting that he'd power on as PM, but then stepping down just hours after the result

  • Theresa May promised that we will have left the EU (on 133 different occasions) by the 29th March 2019. It still hadn't happened by the time she left office in July that year

  • Cameron didn't trigger Article 50 immediately after the election as promised

  • Promising that EU would no longer have control over fisheries after Brexit day, but having to accept that they still have control of them over the transition period and potentially beyond

  • Claiming that Brexit would lead to cheaper soy sauce

COVID-19 chaos

Like Brexit, COVID-19 has been dealt with… messily. Here again is a simple list of blunders made in the last year due to the coronavirus:

  • Failing to deliver a “world-beating” test and trace system by June, it actually came in Autumn

  • Failure to achieve 100 000 tests a day by the 1st of May, and then covering this up by misleading the public

  • Profusely ruling out a second national lockdown, smearing officials for suggesting one, and then finally doing it anyway

  • Reversal of the controversial A-Level algorithm that saw 40% of grades downgraded, which affected students from working class backgrounds disproportionately more

  • Ditching the NHS surcharge for non-EU migrant health and care workers, despite defending it a day earlier

  • Extension of the furlough scheme by Rishi Sunak

  • Refusing twice to provide free school meal vouchers to eligible kids throughout school holidays but U-turning twice after public outcry

  • Distancing themselves from a herd immunity strategy after getting slammed by the WHO

These U-turns make me wonder how many more policies will be reversed throughout this government and into the future, and whether this is ultimately a good or bad thing.

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