When politicians get it wrong

I’ll be honest. I don’t profess to understand the intricacies (nor indeed the extricacies) of the debt crisis. Nor do I know what is the best course of action to address the more recent crisis that has beset the euro. And nor do I know whether the amendments to the Lisbon Treaty that were proposed on Friday were attractive to the UK, or whether we are better off having walked away from the negotiating table, as Cameron did.

What I do know is that politicians are bullish. And what I do know is that once they choose a course of action, it is rare that they later decide that this course of action was foolish. Heaven forbid they might do a U-turn.

Because in politics, being wrong is a weakness. And admitting you’re wrong is an even bigger weakness. Much better to plough on with an ill-judged policy than to stop, rethink and take a different path. Taking the latter approach will yield cries of incompetence from the opposition and might see your career take a turn for the worse at the next Cabinet reshuffle.

Sometimes, this latter course of action is taken but is hidden. Cameron and Osborne recently performed a U-turn on the economic recovery programme, deciding to pump £50bn into the construction industry, after severe austerity measures, in a bid to stem the economic downturn. Not a U-turn, of course, merely another facet of a complex economic reform programme.

I can’t help but feeling that Cameron has been too hasty in his decision not to join the other 26 members of the European Union in signing up to changes in the terms of the Lisbon Treaty. Ten hours is simply insufficient time to make a decision so intrinsic to the future identity and economic outlook of the UK.

Yet ten hours is how long it took. And at the end of those ten hours, a decision had been made. The UK would leave the rest of Europe to it. If Cameron had any doubts about the wisdom of this decision, they certainly didn’t show, as he defended himself to the hilt in subsequent press conferences and in today’s Prime Minister’s Questions.

But what if there were glints of regret in his mind? My view is that Cameron would have taken the same course of action, as would many other politicians in his position having made the initial decision.

The political consequences of a U-turn, or even a request to continue discussing the matter with Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy, are considered too great for this to be a viable option. Yet the possible economic impact on the UK of not entertaining this notion is far greater.

I wish politicians were able to admit their failings and misjudgments more readily. But the political system and its rich history is designed to slam those who deliberate, cogitate, and certainly those who rethink. And that’s such a shame.

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