In praise of politicians who change their minds

George Osborne in his Oxford days (or more accurately, Viz's Student Grant)
George Osborne in his Oxford days (or more accurately, Viz's Student Grant)

George Osborne used to be a political radical, sort of. For a year at Oxford University, the future Chancellor was the editor of Isis, the student magazine. While there, he wrote a piece about surveillance. Viewed through the eyes of 2012, with the knowledge that Mr Osborne would later be a senior figure in a government that intends to spend £200 million pounds a year to allow its security services to intercept any phone call or email it chooses, it is an unexpected read:

MI5 can decide to tap your telephone, open your mail, record intimate details of your private life in its computers (which have the capacity to hold 20 million files), and even scupper your prospects of ever being employed by a major company, if, in its judgement, you might constitute a threat to that wonderfully nebulous concept of our ‘national security’…

Just as we are becoming more suspicious of the need for such an elaborate and expensive intelligence community, and less ready to let them ‘get on with the job’, new technology is enabling organizations like GCHQ and MI5 to literally ‘harvest’ communications from the air-waves, making it that much easier to monitor the affairs of British companies and British citizens whose interests they are supposed to be guarding.

Equally interestingly, an issue of Isis during Mr Osborne’s editorship ran a piece headlined “How on earth did the Tories win?” and another issue was printed partly on hemp-based paper, with an editorial which said “ISIS is not yet an eco-warrior but we have made the first steps in that direction”. I think it is fair to say that none of these articles represent Mr Osborne’s current thinking.

We love these politician-held-different-views-when-they*-were-younger stories: Ronald Reagan was a liberal Democrat (but not a Liberal Democrat, obviously); Tony Blair stood in a mock school election as a Tory; his arch-Blairite lieutenant Jack Straw was a firebrand socialist while at Leeds. It’s partly because of the whiff of hypocrisy: look, Mr Osborne, your younger self believed in privacy and the limits of state surveillance. When you look in the mirror, don’t you see your inner student staring back at you with betrayal in his eyes? Possibly wearing a West German army surplus jacket and a Sonic Youth T-shirt, shouting something incoherent about The Man and smoking a suspicious-looking rollup?

But it’s hardly fair. For a start, everyone was an idiot when they were a student. You’ve got to a stage in your life where you have learned a lot of things, and you feel pretty smart. But you haven’t yet got to the next stage, which is learning that a lot of very clever people disagree with you about pretty much everything. So you believe the things you believe with a fiery, angry certainty: obviously, anyone who disagrees with you must be extraordinarily stupid, otherwise they would agree with you.

Later, you will realise that many of them are not stupid; and then, if you are not stupid yourself, you will realise that the world is more complicated than you used to think, and that not every question has a simple answer. (There may be a third stage which I have not yet reached, in which you regain confidence in your own beliefs, but I suspect Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has pretty much nailed that one.)

More than that, though, we should expect people to change their mind. We should want them to, in fact. John Maynard Keynes was right, as always: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” As Tim Harford writes, of “the lady’s not for turning”, or “I don’t have a reverse gear”: “It’s odd: you wouldn’t buy a second-hand car that didn’t turn or reverse but it appears to be a successful electoral strategy. Personally, I wish politicians would change direction more often.”

In Mr Osborne’s case, the facts, as they are available to him, have presumably changed rather a lot. There have been 20 years for them to do so. More dramatically, he’s gone into government, and has presumably become privy to MI6 security briefings and the like which were usually not handed out to irksome student journalists.

To clarify: I am not saying that George Osborne is right, or that he was wrong then. For the record I suspect that the surveillance bill is unnecessary, ill-thought-through and inexplicably expensive, but I may be wrong. I also agree with the abovementioned Tim Harford piece that he is U-turning in all the wrong ways: throwing ideas out without thinking them through, then turning around when someone criticises him for them, rather than carefully assessing their impact and changing course if they’re not working. And finally I can’t stand him because he’s a multi-millionaire baronet’s son called Gideon and he looks like a vampire who’s let himself go a bit, and I’m very shallow about that sort of thing. But in general, it’s reassuring that our politicians have changed their views since they were students. Otherwise we might as well be governed by students, and that would be terrible.

*Yes: I’m using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. AS GOD COMMANDS


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