From the archive: Why can’t we admit mistakes in politics?

Paul Bernal /   October 6, 2014 at 8:39 PM 2,490 views


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.

Courtesy of Paul Bernal

Sign-up for the Guerilla Daily newsletter – the best frontline and independent blogs every week day.