The U-turn is considered a mortal sin in politics. The strident voice of Mrs Thatcher at the Tory Party Conference in 1980 echoes down the decades: 'To those waiting with bated breath for the 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!' (The phrase is now well-known, but not everyone knows the Christopher Fry play from which the phrase is derived: The Lady's Not for Burning
Politicians go to great lengths to deny the U-turn as they try to convince us that really they have been quite consistent. It seems then that politicians and the public alike want consistency and predictability, and disapprove of U-turns and the 'loose cannon'. Indeed, even when a governing party adopts a U-turn – the very policy opposition parties have been advocating – it is still criticised by the opposition for its U-turn. At the moment, John Swinney must be acutely aware of that. More generally, outside politics, we also like to know where we are with someone, and we want our friends to be dependable (ie predictable).
But there is another side to this, or several other sides. At a trivial level we can find some sorts of predictable behaviour tedious or irritating. Some marriages founder on the endless tedium of predictable behaviour, such as the predictable joke over the breakfast table or the predictable anecdote. 'You're so predictable', we say wearily. On the other hand, sometimes what is predictable is funny, as when in slapstick comedies we laugh when we know in advance that a character is going to trip or fall down the coal hole. Indeed, with some comedians, such as Billy Connolly, we begin laughing before they have said anything at all. But equally, we laugh at the unpredictable, as when five slim fairies wearing green dance out of the wings and are followed by one fat fairy in red.
More seriously, we sometimes want politicians to be inconsistent in the sense that we want them to learn from their mistakes. We expect (hope) that they might re-consider some of their policies in the light of disastrous outcomes. If this is inconsistent with previous policies or tendencies then so be it. When we realise that we are on the wrong road, a U-turn is desirable, if sometimes dangerous. There is a frightening saying that to learn from experience is to be able to recognise the same mistake when you make it again. Let us hope that this is not how politicians will learn from experience. It is another matter how changes in policy are explained. Disraeli gives a tip here: 'I never deny; I never contradict; I sometimes forget'. (As reported in Victoria R
(1964) by Elizabeth Longford.)
In everyday life, our predictions about the behaviour of others can take the unfortunate form of 'fixing' them – assuming that because we know them in one context, we can predict them in all. For example, one of my students was studying for a joint honours in philosophy and drama. I had 'fixed' her in my mind as a very average run-of the-mill student. Then I happened to meet her at a party, and she began talking about the drama work she did with deprived and disabled young people. She was transformed! She was overflowing with exciting ideas and initiatives. I had 'fixed' her in terms of the very limited academic context in which I had previously known her. I once had a colleague who didn't think much of the late great Charles Kennedy because he had not completed his logic exercise! Academics are given to 'fixing' their students in the light of their limited knowledge, but I am sure it happens in other spheres too.
As far as everyday life goes, predictability got a very bad press from a school of philosophers now very much in decline. They were the Existentialists, who flourished, especially in France, around the time of the Second World War, and had an impact on thinking in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. The best known of them was Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980).
Sartre's central view stressed individual choice. It is our ability to choose, he thought, which distinguishes human beings from everything else, and failure to exercise choice was the nearest he got to identifying moral wrong doing. Failure to choose he called 'bad faith' ('mauvaise foi'). He gives many imaginative examples of this. One such is of what he calls the 'waiter's dance'. The waiter behaves as he thinks it is expected that a waiter should behave. He is respectful, deferential, makes standard jokes or polite remarks. In other words, he is not acting as a person, a being who can exercise choice, but is 'fixed' as a persona; he is acting in a role with a script someone else has written. Such behaviour, Sartre argues, is insincere, non-authentic.
We can all recognise behaviour of this kind. We can detect it in the politician, the salesman and the doctor who have been on courses on communication skills. They say what is expected of them, what will please, what will reassure. In my childhood, there were wind-up toy bears with a key in their backsides. If you wound them up, they would jump along making appropriate noises. The skills of the makers of bears and of the teachers of communication have improved since then, but the principle is the same. And Sartre did not like it.
On the other hand, or at least to moderate the views of Sartre, society requires a fair amount of predictability if it is to operate smoothly and harmoniously. It works better if there is standard polite behaviour in every sphere. After all, what does Sartre expect the waiter to do? He cannot engage authentically with every diner, and if doctors were to try to do so with every patient, they would be worn out and make bad decisions.
In the art of poets and others who celebrate romantic relationships, we can find the celebration of the authentic communion of two souls. But even the most romantic relationship, if it is to survive for any time, must morph into standard predictable behaviour, where it is clear who does what in the household. Survival in a broader society or in a family means that, to some extent, we must be able to take each other for granted. But the occasional U-turn is also necessary to keep the interest alive or to get out of a rut. But U-turns in politics keeps the wrong kind of interest alive.