Responding to public pressure is not always political failure

By Joshua Cole

There have been a few unpopular policies recently. The plans to relinquish public ownership of up to 258,000 hectares of English woodland have left many people justifiably disgruntled. However, what happened when one of these poorly received policies was eventually overturned gives a telling insight into the English political psyche.

On the 17th February, the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced in an address to the House of Commons that the plans to sell off the forests had been abandoned, and that an expert panel investigating how best to maintain public access and biodiversity within the relevant woodlands had now been commissioned. Were people happy with this turn-around in policy? Yes. Were they happy with the government that implemented it? No.

In fact, not only were people still angry at the government, but they were also inclined to perceive this about-turn as symbolic of a more general and pervasive incompetence in ministerial decision-making. And neither do these accusations originate solely from the political opposition. From the ordinary man on the street to even the supposedly impartial arena of the BBC, policy change equals government failure, even when we’ve spent the last month or so campaigning whole-heartedly against those policies.

So what’s going on here? Should the government really be embarrassed that it was ‘forced’ by public opinion to change its plans, should Caroline Spelman be penning her resignation even as we speak? A lot of people seem to think so. Perhaps ministers are supposed to be psychic; perhaps they should know in advance whether or not their ideas are going to be well received? ‘But’, you say, ‘Surely they could have guessed it wasn’t going to do down very well’. Actually, that’s not necessarily true.

Right now the government needs all the money it can get from wherever it can get it. Sustaining our woodlands through the Forestry Commission eats into the government’s already depleted funds. Furthermore, there is ‘evidence’ to suggest that private ‘not for profit’ organizations such as the National Trust and other charities are able to look after forests just as well if not better than the state. What the government intended to offer, or at least wanted to appear to offer, was a best of both worlds “mixed model” of ownership which the state facilitates whilst also managing to save some cash, and in which public access and biodiversity are still prioritised above all else, if not to an even greater degree than before. So, were the government being completely idiotic when they failed to predict the public backlash that ensued after their plans were put forward?

No, not really. In fact, the funniest thing about the forest sales ‘fiasco’ is that the government had good reason to think we might actually go for it. Unfortunately, particularly for Mrs. Spelman, we didn’t; and when she did decide to reverse her proposals after admitting she’d been wrong, we condemned her for it and called for her resignation. Just let me repeat that: after listening to what the public really wanted and then changing the government’s policies in order to accommodate our concerns, we thought it best that she should go. This is symptomatic of a political environment in which the most cardinal sin is to admit one’s mistakes.  This type of attitude can only have negative consequences.

If governments are continually punished for listening to their people, governments eventually stop listening. I don’t want to sound like too much of a bleeding heart here but if you’ve caught the news recently you’ll have seen a lot of people dying for the things we customarily ignore, one of those things being the ability to influence state policy and thus participate in the running of our country.

If governments are too afraid to scrap unpopular policies due to fear of appearing weak, it is us, the people, who will be forced to bear the brunt of their obstinacy. Think Cameron’s ever going to drop this ‘Big Society’ stuff? Not likely, just imagine the embarrassment.

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