Politics – why can’t we admit mistakes?

Last night and this morning I had a somewhat extended argument on Twitter with someone who I assume is a Lib Dem activist. The argument started off being about my frustration (and even anger) about the passing of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) in those few short days in the summer (see my blog post here – a shabby process for a shady law). I was annoyed, and said so, that the erstwhile champion of privacy, and key behind the defeat of the Snoopers’ Charter, my own MP Julian Huppert, had in effect helped push through the law in double-quick time without any chance for discussion. It was, in my view, a mistake on Julian’s part.

That just started the argument. By suggesting that Julian had made a mistake – and in my view a pretty egregious one – I was, according to my accuser, casting aspersions on Julian’s motivations and integrity. I wasn’t, in my opinion, doing that at all. I respect Julian very much, and know that he has great integrity and that his intentions are good. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t think he made a mistake over DRIP. I still do – and I have a feeling that he will come to realise that. I may well be wrong, of course – because even if it was a mistake, we seem to have come to a position in politics where we can’t really admit mistakes. At best, we can make half-hearted apologies, generally apologies that we were ‘misunderstood’. The ‘I’m sorry that you feel that way’ kind of apologies.

Following the Lib Dem conference brings this home in a big way. Nick Clegg’s famous ‘apology’ over tuition fees – immortalised in the Auto-tuned version here – was only an apology for a promise, not really an apology for any action at all. The mistake was the promise, not the real actions. The much bigger actions – the much bigger possible mistakes – are never acknowledged, let alone apologised for. The possibility, in particular, that it might have been a mistake for the Lib Dems to go into coalition with the Tories at all, is so dangerous as to be impossible to mention. And yet it might have been a mistake. Things might have been very different if they had not gone into coalition.

It’s not just the Lib Dems who have this difficulty. There are many, many people within the Labour Party who find it impossible to admit that the invasion of Iraq might have been a mistake. A huge amount of energy is still expended on trying to justify that decision, to ‘prove’ that it wasn’t a mistake. Tony Blair takes every possible opportunity to try to persuade us that way. Many of good people in the Conservative Party will, I have a feeling, find themselves in similar difficulties if they do manage to win the election and they really do push for their ‘British Bill of Rights’ plan. The idea that you can admit a mistake and try to find a better way forward seems to have become politically impossible. At best politicians try to gloss over their previous mistakes, or turn them on their heads.

And yet we all know that we all make mistakes – God knows I’ve made some pretty huge ones in my time – so why is it such a problem to admit them? Why is seen as bad or somehow ‘weak’ to admit that you have doubt, or that you may have made the wrong decision. Isn’t it better to admit it, and then find a way to move on? Trying to cover up mistakes, or deny reality doesn’t help anyone much. Well, that’s my perspective. I might well be wrong about it. I’m wrong about a lot of things and make a lot of mistakes.

9 thoughts on “Politics – why can’t we admit mistakes?

  1. ‘The person, who has never made a mistake, has never learnt anything.’ Nick Clegg’s virulence towards the Tories, I am convinced, is an implied admission that the coalition was a mistake. The Lib Dems will suffer for his and its naivety. There seems to be a constant, never acted upon, narrative about a new politics. The only new politics I’m interested in is the politics of honesty. We all make mistakes. The hubris of politicians is their worst trait and it would be a ‘new’ politics if they changed this.

  2. em…
    I was just reading this as yet unopened in my inbox immediately before following up this email –> post, where Politics is my gmail category:-
    “Terra Lawson-Remmer – Ava. Politics Before Honey Bees Are Extinct Wow! 3.2 million signers and Avaaz .”
    This thought occurred to me:online petitions (as they are still called) have little influence. All they really do is count how many people are prepared to put their names next to some ideas.
    But they don’t prioritise the ideas. Politicians do that.
    Politicians, as yet, still have a voice, and can still act in relation to that voice. That is to say they can adopt opinions they think will gain votes, they can stick to their guns irrespective, they can vote with or against their previously stated opinions, and all of that activity can have an influence on our lives, or be completely fruitless even in terms of their stated intentions as to effect. Let alone wider consequences.
    When you talk about ‘mistake’ I wonder what you mean since you say “There are many, many people within the Labour Party who find it impossible to admit that the invasion of Iraq might have been a mistake. A huge amount of energy is still expended on trying to justify that decision, to ‘prove’ that it wasn’t a mistake.”
    Had it not been a mistake I expect it would have been a good decision based on true reasoning. (Starting points true, conclusions true.)
    That would be impossible in relation to something like the invasion of Iraq, there were far too many variables and unknowns, not just the WMD thing.
    But, while those who are trying to ‘prove’ that it wasn’t a mistake, as you put it, cannot, nor can those who think it was. So I think your argument is disingenuous. If you use scare quotes over prove for those who try, then you must use them for those who do not.
    Which leaves me wondering, as I have said, what you mean by ‘mistake’.
    It is obvious to me, when it comes to war, that politicians try to corral support in the public. So, to be more specific, is that the mistake?
    Is it a mistake to corral support over war, but we know that is a topic that people have strong feelings about one way or the other almost devoid of the context. I exaggerate, but then that process of persuasion involves much exaggeration by each side.
    Or is it a mistake to try to persuade people over policy when the arguments are unclear?
    But politicians are past masters of making arguments without being clear about starting points and conclusions.
    And yet, they are what we have.
    Can we help them? I’m far from convinced that Avaaz does, nor am I convinced that their parties do.
    So that leaves the media:TV, the press.
    Oh dear.
    Or, it throws us back on ourselves as part of our own responsibilities.
    Oh dear, again!

  3. Coincidentally I was thinking something similar the other day. I started wondering whether the LibDems would have been more effective by staying out of coalition and forcing the Tories to adopt policies that were acceptable. It surely would have been better than having a trade off where you will support the Tory policies, and they won’t support yours.

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