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Politics

As Britain lifts its lockdown, it's vital our leaders admit their mistakes | Gaby Hinsliff


It’s hardly as if they weren’t warned. When Jacob Rees-Mogg first started threatening to bring back parliament in person, the risks – both to medically vulnerable MPs and to the public, if it turned politicians into unwitting super-spreaders – were spelled out very clearly to him.

But he pushed ahead anyway, and now we see the results. One visibly sweaty cabinet minister now self-isolating, and MPs travelling home wondering if they’re unwittingly bringing Covid-19 to their constituencies. And all to maintain an unconvincing fiction of life slowly returning to normal, while satisfying a popular demand that turns out barely to exist. Just 12% of Britons think MPs should have to vote in person in a pandemic, according to YouGov – which is remarkable given the depth of ill-feeling against politicians. Ending the remote parliament so soon looks like a mistake, and refusing to admit it bodes ill. 

Everyone hates being wrong. That’s why children lie, doctors hush up misdiagnoses and newspaper columnists gloss over opinions that haven’t aged well. I don’t like admitting to mistakes any more than you do, but hands up: back in March I was too slow to question the government’s strategy of delaying lockdown, swayed by the chief medical officer’s endorsement of it when it’s now clear the scientific advice was flawed. But one early prediction I stand by is that a pandemic would sorely test our ability to cope with uncertainty, or the terrifying array of things we didn’t yet know.

We are now far enough into this to pause and reflect, and in some countries that’s clearly happening. This week the Swedish state epidemiologist who led his country’s lone crusade against lockdown conceded that he might have gone too far. With hindsight, Dr Anders Tegnell said, he would have sought a middle way between shutdown and his strategy of keeping bars, schools and restaurants open with voluntary social distancing. I was reminded of what Swedes call lagom, or striking a perfect balance: not too little or too much of anything but just enough. It’s too late now for more than 4,500 Swedes who have died but, since the strategy is now being reviewed, perhaps not too late to do better. 

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Meanwhile Norway’s prime minister suggested she may have erred in the other direction by shutting schools too early: on reflection maybe that hadn’t been necessary. This willingness to question your own decisions in public is the hallmark of a mature political process; but we’re so far from doing so in Britain that it makes you weep.

Why is it so hard for humans to admit mistakes? Sometimes it’s arrogance, inertia or a horribly fragile ego. At times it has seemed that Donald Trump would rather declare war on his own citizens than admit misjudging his own response to the killing of George Floyd. Anything rather than let them make you “look like a jerk”, as he told state governors.

But sometimes it’s more of a two-way street. Jeremy Hunt, when health secretary, campaigned against what he called a culture of blame in hospitals, which discouraged staff from owning up to mistakes and ultimately endangered patients. If people are too frightened to admit to accidental errors, then lessons may not be learned about how to prevent them in future. Hunt argued for a focus on the circumstances under which honest mistakes happen, rather than on punishing the individuals who make them.

But to do that in public life requires a kind of forgiveness and understanding from the rest of us that is in vanishingly short supply. Even in cool-headed Sweden, Tegnell says he has had death threats.

It’s not surprising that politicians shy away from questioning their own judgment, when its consequences may be life and death. It’s safer to put your head down and keep going – and before long you’re in so deep that ploughing on feels easier than going back. At best the result is the kind of belated, grudging admissions of error without culpability described in Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s classic study Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). Not “we screwed up” but “mistakes were made”, as if by some mysterious higher power.

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We may be lucky to get even that from this government, however. It has already executed two major U-turns – first by eventually imposing lockdown, and then by resuming a mass testing strategy that had been abandoned in March – and perhaps it simply feels it can’t afford any more. 

At Vote Leave, the philosophy was to double down when in trouble; that’s how Dominic Cummings last week brazened out his breach of lockdown rules, and government seems to have emerged if anything more bullish. It’s full steam ahead now for no- deal Brexit and, as I write, over the much-criticised plans to quarantine holidaymakers – although it seems inconceivable the government won’t have to compromise eventually on one or both. A pattern is emerging of ministers digging in long beyond the point that resistance makes sense, only to be overruled in some cases at the last minute from on high. 

What’s frightening is that relaxing lockdown safely relies on an unusual willingness to acknowledge mistakes quickly. Each step back towards normality is an experiment, since we’ve never done anything like this before; ministers must be vigilant for signs they’ve overdone it, and willing to retreat fast if necessary.

Mistakes will inevitably be made in fighting a novel virus when everyone is learning as they go. But success may depend on being big enough to admit it.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist



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