James Max: Too many U-turns have left the UK spiralling downwards
The government’s indecisiveness is crippling our country’s ability to move forwards, writes the LBC Radio presenter
The U-turn is now the standard tool for developing government policy. Come up with a quick idea. Make a big announcement. Grab a headline or two. Watch it being demolished on Twitter and then perform a U-turn. I’ve lost count as to how many times this coalition government has changed its mind. On forests, caravans, pasties, fuel tax, Heathrow expansion, free school milk, coastguard centres, video games tax relief, charitable donations, buzzards, the NHS - the list seems endless.
Margaret Thatcher defined the 1980s. Remember this incredibly well constructed line? “To those waiting with baited breath for that favourite media catchphrase, ‘the U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: you turn if you want to. The Lady’s not for turning”. And she wasn’t.
A show of strength? Perhaps. Thatcher showed the fortitude and dynamic strong leadership that our weak nation needed to tackle the “sick man of Europe” disease that had undermined our manufacturing base and made us a laughing stock of the world.
Although a mantra of the government of the time, it’s arguable that the U-turn didn’t have to be used because policy was better formulated before imposing it on the public.
These days, sticking to a policy just because you have announced it is apparently as daft as leaving your credit card at a bar because you were too drunk to remember to pick it up before going home.
But a U-turn can actually be a sign of strength. Like anything it should only be used sparingly. The problem is really that the policies that are being formed are not only polluted by the politics of coalition, but by an obsession with perception.
At the heart of this is what policies are right for our country. We all know, deep down, that the things that hurt the most or are most difficult to obtain are generally the right things to do.
Think about it in personal terms. The fun option is to not bother going to the gym, eating and drinking what you like and burning the candle at both ends. The difficult option is to be careful with what you eat, cut down on the alcoholic consumption and have a good night’s sleep.
Yet the difficult option doesn’t win you popularity, nor does it win you votes at an election. Particularly if the difficult option concerns money. Less is never good in pay, pension, savings, and investment returns, or on public expenditure. Yet the need to spend less is the reality we are facing, and policy has to reflect the reshaping of our economy if we are to reinvigorate this great nation of ours.
So what policies have the government got wrong? Heathrow. To demonstrate their “green” credentials the coalition immediately abandoned plans for a third runway. They didn’t have an alternative proposal or implement a comprehensive review of UK aviation. Perception politics was put ahead of sensible decision making and strategic planning. The result? A realisation that doing nothing is not an option, and the resultant U-turn.
Now they realise that the UK’s competitiveness as part of a globalised marketplace is intrinsically linked to the infrastructure we have. So that leads to their transport policies. Fuel escalator duties are never a good idea. Time and again this government, and governments before, have heaped taxation onto the motorist. Instead of having an integrated transport policy that looks at the problems, plans for the long term and incentivises people to move away from cars, it’s a short-term tax and spend regime. That’s now got them into trouble as yet another U-turn on fuel duty is made.
It’s not just transport. It’s the economy too. Of course we have to balance the books. Yet the tax system is a mess, the spending plans unclear and most importantly the policies to encourage those most able to help us out of the crisis are not there.
Add to that the perception taxes, such as Stamp Duty rises. Put there to show that the rich in society are “paying their fair share”, it has resulted in a clogged up housing market.
The inability to increase lending to small businesses, while clamping down on rogue practises charging more to borrow, is throttling growth. At a time when the government is pumping billions into the economy through quantitative easing, you end up with a mess.
The indecisive perception of this coalition and lack of an ability to form and think about policies before they are announced has polluted everything they do.
The opposition is using the clean-up operation by the coalition on the media and banking industries against the government, very effectively. Even when, arguably, it’s the misdemeanours of the opposition that necessitated the need for endless inquiries and swathes of new regulation in the first place.
In essence a U-turn can be a good thing. Use it sparingly and it’s a powerful tool to show you are listening. Use it too often and it becomes a sign of weakness. More damagingly than that, it becomes evident that policy is being cobbled together rather than strategically considered.
Let’s hope the Prime Minister and Chancellor use the summer recess to really think long and hard about what they should be doing to put the country back on its feet, rather than playing politics and enjoying lavish entertainment on yachts and sprawling villas in the south of France.
James Max presents Weekend Breakfast every Saturday and Sunday mornings on London’s Biggest Conversation, LBC 97.3 FM. He is a qualified surveyor and worked in property and finance for 15 years. After working for one of the country’s leading property advisory firms, he completed healthy stints in investment banking and private equity, before becoming a candidate on The Apprentice, which launched a career in broadcast media. Visit JamesMax.co.uk.