Daniel Finkelstein on changing political allies
The Times associate editor and Conservative peer on why magnanimity is key to convincing people you disagree with.
‘Danny’ Finkelstein, associate editor of the Times and Conservative peer, talks to us about why being able to clearly see both sides of an argument is important but can also feel debilitating in a world that craves certainty. He shares his lessons from switching political parties and why it is critical to reduce the cost of people changing their minds.
Changed My Mind is a podcast from The Depolarization Project. Each week, we talk to someone who has undergone a serious shift of opinion about something that matters deeply to them. It's hosted by chief executive Ali Goldsworthy together with behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield and director of campaigns and communications at London First, Laura Osborne.
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Danny [00:00:00] The biggest change of mind in my life, which has dominated a lot of other things, is changing my view about who my political allies should be. So I started in my life when I was 16 years old. I joined the Labour Party. Then that became increasingly untenable. I joined the SDP and I was in the SDP all the way through until it finally completely collapsed. And in other words, I'd always regarded the right place for politics has been the center left. And I suppose I became a little bit more fiscally conservative. But my primary change of mind was just whether my views belonged in the bracket of center left and with center left allies or whether I wasn't better with center right allies.
Alex [00:00:44] Welcome to Change My Mind, the podcast where we ask leaders what they've changed their mind on and why. I'm Alex Chesterfield, Behavioral Scientist and Depolarization Project Associate. You've just heard from our guest today, Danny Finkelstein, who changed his mind on who his political allies should be. But before we get to that, I'd like to invite you to sign up for our email newsletter at depolarizationproject.com. We promote the show with Open Democracy to their eight million regular monthly visitors. And you can find the back catalog to our shows and more information on this episode at open democracy.net/depolarizationproject. I'm joined for today's episode by my co-host, CEO of Depolarization Project, Ali Goldsworthy.
Ali [00:01:32] Hi, Alex.
Alex [00:01:33] And Communications Director and Depolarization Project Associate Laura Osborne. Hi, Laura.
Laura [00:01:38] Hi, Alex. Hi, Ali.
Alex [00:01:39] This was a wonderfully thought provoking conversation with Danny Finkelstein, associate editor of the Times and conservative peer in the House of Lords. But I did come away feeling slightly gutted that someone as analytical, smart, thoughtful and balanced as Danny would never go into or probably make a good politician in the current status quo because of what he was saying about how debilitating it is being able to see so clearly both sides of an argument when really the world around you wants you to be so certain. Ali, what struck you most about our conversation?
Ali [00:02:12] Yeah. For me, it was Danny's insights on trying to change other people's positions in a way that allows them to save face. So when someone has said something that might be a little thoughtless or is based on facts that are completely not correct. How can you enable them to change their mind and reflect that in a way that doesn't mean they double down on their views? Because that's so tricky.
Alex [00:02:36] Yeah, yeah. What about you, Laura? What should listeners look out for?
Laura [00:02:40] I was really interested in the questions Danny put to us actually about whether polarization really is getting worse. And he talks about different kinds of identity politics over the ages. And it made me think two things, really. The first is that phenomenon change manifests differently and it doesn't necessarily make them better or worse connected to the second, which was that even if it looks similar to what you've seen in the past, we still need to interrogate its impact on our present. And what I really liked about talking to Danny about was not only the challenge that he presented, but also his willingness to go and find out more about it, something we can all learn a lot from before becoming committed to a stance or a particular viewpoint.
Alex [00:03:17] With that in mind, let's play our interview with Danny.
Alex [00:03:28] Hi, Danny, welcome to Changed My Mind.
Danny [00:03:30] Hello.
Alex [00:03:31] You're both a politician and a journalist. In these roles, to what extent do you seek to change minds versus reflect or mirror how people might be changing their minds?
Danny [00:03:41] A bit of both. So I do think one of my roles in something that I'm good at is trying to analyze and explain politics and how people vote and what decisions people make and why they make them. And that's been quite a lot of the large parts of what I've written about. But naturally, I have my own opinions. And in particular, when it comes to defending the whole idea of political democracy and the rule of law and a liberal and stable capitalist, I suppose, society. I do express my view, obviously.
Laura [00:04:13] If you also had a role in changing people's minds, and can you tell us a bit about where you've been successful in that? What have been the key elements, do you think?
Danny [00:04:21] Well, I have tried really hard to defend certain things that I believe are very important. And there are obviously policy things. So, you know, for example, I've been very interested on crime matters, promoting the idea that it's just to give a small example, that it's very dangerous to have a single trial on multiple charges and to explain what the dangers are of that. And I weighed in on questions of miscarriage of justice, and I hope it changed some minds. But a more broad preoccupation is what I would describe as a sense of proportion. Now that can I suppose be quite arrogant, it means that you think you get the world in perspective and other people don't. But I do think a lot of politics consists of people shouting at each other without really trying to listen. And I hope that I've been a bit of a difference in trying to explain that that isn't a necessary way to conduct politics.
Laura [00:05:14] Thanks, Danny. And have you been able to persuade other people to listen more or indeed to listen better?
Danny [00:05:20] It's hard to tell, isn't it? I mean, actually.
Laura [00:05:22] It is.
[00:05:22] You can't go up to somebody and say have I changed your sense of proportion? But I definitely think it makes a difference if there are people in the political sphere who are trying hard to say, well, we don't all have to talk to each other like that. We don't all have to regard each other as knaves just because we have a political disagreement. And I think that has been helpful. And then also you can, by the way, have an influence just by good analysis. So I know that when I wrote an article during the debate in the Labour Party about whether to split, I used analysis to explain that I didn't think a split would be successful electorally. I didn't think it was successful. And I know that that did have an impact on some of the people who read it, because they told me, weirdly, that in some ways, morally, I felt that people shouldn't belong to the Labour party while Jeremy Corbyn was leader if they didn't want him to be prime minister. But analytically, I thought the leaving Labour Party would have was almost certainly a dead end, which is what indeed it proved to be.
Laura [00:06:18] And Danny, if you applied that same analytical approach to big picture issues, as much as you have to more specific issues, for example, the one you mentioned before in the justice system?
Danny [00:06:29] So one of the things that I tried to do is to write about people's biases the way that they have cognitive dissonance. That is that they people double up on the things that they believe, the way that people can often be influenced by all sorts of things that they call perceive. And I certainly brought that analysis. So one of the things that I was very keen on was the whole bail system, police bail being used over and over again to bail people and therefore court cases often taking the cases, taking often a year before someone was informed that, in fact, this case was going nowhere. I mean, that was an instance where I argued the case in the paper and I also argued the case with people whom I knew in politics, one of which was Theresa May, who was quite receptive to that idea. And it did lead ultimately to changes in the law. I mean, not because of me so much, but I was obviously a part of it. And another big issue where I know I do play a role because he was kind enough to say that was on the issue of gay marriage. So at a very early stage of the gay marriage debate, I began to argue that it was a conservative position because it was something the Liberal Democrats had supported. And then there was a question, could the Conservatives follow it? And I helped to make that argument. And again, I made that argument in print at the time when it wasn't very common. And then I followed up. I put a lot of time to try persuading David Cameron that it was the right thing for him to do. And he's kind of to in his book that I was one of those people who persuaded him.
Ali [00:07:56] So, Danny you've you've talked about times when you've successfully changed people's minds or influenced and helped bring it about. Is there a time when you've tried to change his mind and it's really backfired?
Danny [00:08:06] Well, I think as you probably often does I mean, sometimes I don't know about it, but when you try to tell somebody they're wrong, they don't normally go, oh, you're right, I'll change my mind. Sometimes you entrench them in their opinion. And recently I wrote a column about what I called the Yorkshire Pudding Test. The origin of it was somebody suggesting that the statue of Harold Wilson should be removed from Huddersfield Town Center. And this, I realized, was actually the suggestion of only one person with the name and avatar of a Yorkshire pudding. And so I said that quite a lot of times we have these big debates in politics and nobody is actually on the other side of it. So we're having an argument with nothing, or at least with very few people. And we get ourselves into a furious row because we don't appreciate how big the forces aligned to one side or the other are. But I gave us an example in that the fact that there's a massive argument going on about whether or not there is such a thing as sex. Right. In other words, as opposed to gender, male and female sex. And actually, there isn't really very there aren't very many people at all in statistical sense and almost nobody who thinks there is no such thing as sex. But there are a lot of people who are very involved in this argument who were just really annoyed that I was saying that that wasn't. And they often said, look, there's this professor who studies this. And I said, yes, but that's one professor. Anyway, I realized the more that I engage that all the more annoyed, not only probably one side with both sides of this row got. So sometimes when you weigh in like that, you make things worse.
Ali [00:09:37] And did that mean that you stopped weighing in on that subject?
Danny [00:09:40] Well, it's interesting that there was a bit of attention, I suppose, in that respect between my desire to change things and my desire to express my opinion and my job of expressing my opinion in the paper. Obviously, when you write for a paper, you kind of don't mind people disagreeing with you. You don't mind if they dig in because it creates a bigger controversy. I wrote a column only last week about the relationship between sexual liberalism and prosperity, and several people have responded to that, disagreeing with me. But that I actually found quite good. I enjoyed it. It's helpful to me. My columns get discussed as a journalist, but obviously you don't want to dig people into that position. If you're trying to change the world, I suppose sometimes the job of being a provocative columnist and persuading people can sometimes be at odds with each other.
Alex [00:10:25] Where do you see people, it might be politicians, it might be journalists, typically go wrong when they're trying to change other people's minds?
Danny [00:10:32] Well, I had a friend mind who when he said he was going to make redundant a mutual friend of ours. And he was dreading it. And I understood why he was. And then he did it. And afterwards I said to him, how did it go? And I said, actually, it went really, really well, because I managed to give him a convincing story, which he could explain to everybody about why he was leaving the organization and he didn't feel therefore like being fired. And I think that this was a profound and profoundly clever insight. The truth is, people need to be taken off the hook with their position. So very often you find that people fly at you in social media really angry with something. And if and if you just respond back, you know, you idiot. Don't be so rude. Why are you saying that? You get absolutely nowhere. People double up on their position so often I go that's a very thank you for making that point. Very interesting. I'm going to reflect on it. And this point that you made was undoubtedly right. So I think we agree on that at this point. I've actually that I'll leave to think about that again, because you've clearly you've clearly influenced me by, if I may say so. This other point. I don't think you're right. If you do it like that, you can. I think, you know, I very often when I first started, you got a lot of angry emails. And now since Twitter, a lot of angry tweets from people who disagree with you, people sometimes find it quite hard to tell a different thing, disagreeing with you and thinking that your awful or horrible or that you want everyone to die or be poor or whatever happens to be. You have to remember that position and not entrenched the minute you're trying to unhook them from their position, but you're not trying to blast them out. You've got to make concessions. You've got to help them develop a story which allows them to integrate that the position you want them to take from the position they've got. So you're trying to tell them you're right. And the point that I believe fits with what you think already. Therefore, you're not required to abandon anything or admit mistakes or admit errors because people really don't like to do that. And if you can do that, you can certainly unhook them from their position.
Alex [00:12:38] That is very insightful, I think, on two levels. One, when you're talking about the redundancy story, the importance of people feeling they can save face, I think it's one thing. The second thing maybe, maybe think was an organizational context about we call it interpersonal risk taking and why people don't often admit mistakes or admit errors, which means that smaller problems become much bigger problems and is because they fear the reaction. And actually, when you can react in a way to mistakes and I was being disclosed and other people see that, then you can start to see change and more people actually admitting what has gone wrong and how they can how they can learn from it.
Danny [00:13:13] You've got to make this psychological cost to people of changing their mind or moving their position easy to pay.
Alex [00:13:20] Much lower costs, much lower.
Ali [00:13:22] Danny, what you said really reminded me of a conversation we've had with a woman called Katherine Boyle, who was a Washington Post journalist and is now a VC out here in the Valley. She's got really quite a firm view that to get ahead in journalism now, it's essential that you take extremely strong positions on social media to build a following and then go from there. As someone who established their career pre Twitter, I wondered if you thought that you agree to that, but also how you felt about if you've been able to reach some of the positions you are in now by taking the more nuanced, thoughtful and reflective decisions that you have?
Danny [00:14:03] Yes, I think I could be. It happens to be position but I worked out quite early in addition to being my position, there was a gap in the market for that position. I think that people are quite hungry for both analysis and cool and polite response to questions and to a civilized engagement and a moderate position. So, for example, there was quite a lot of interest in my position after the Brexit referendum, which I was against Brexit, but I argued we'd voted for it and now we had to do it. I had, in other words, a position that in some ways you could say was completely friendless. But actually, lots of people quite appreciated it on both sides. I think you can find an audience for the sorts of journalism, what I want to do, sort of opinions I want to express. But honestly, it's important to have an editorial team that supports that position. So The Times has been very good place for me.
Ali [00:15:03] All of my experience in looking at analytics and sharing and things like that is those kind of articles are not what drives us to our web site, and they aren't necessarily what drives subscriptions. Are you suggesting that there is also a financial market for non polarizing and thoughtful content?
Danny [00:15:20] Yeah, I think so. I mean, look, you'd have to ask the Times that, but I think so you've got to make sure that your column isn't blah, right? You do have to have a point and you have to have an argument. You have to say something. And, you know, although I think of myself as being woken up, probably some people will read it and think it's a completely immoderate position. But, you know, you I'm writing a piece tomorrow. It's about football and it's going to support big money football, which is a very controversial position. But you can do that in a thoughtful way. That's what I try to do, is it's all about how you change people's minds as well. I try to to listen to how other people put their arguments and try to make sure that I don't end up in side rows, that I'm not where I'm not actually in disagreement. My most recent aggravating experience was an article that I wrote, which was an attempt to persuade people who unthinkingly supported Winston Churchill that although Winston Churchill was undeniably a great man and I personally know that because I don't think my family would be alive if it wasn't for Winston Churchill, so I'm very seized of his greatness. But he was, without any question, a racist you call really deny that, looking at his record. That was the argument I wanted to make. The headline on the article was Churchill may have been a racist, but he was a great man. Whereas really what I was writing was Churchill may be a great man, but he was a racist. There's a subtle difference. I had seventeen thousand retweets from people who thought who were part the Black Lives Matter or young people who felt like I was saying racism made you great, basically because I didn't read the article and they only read the headline. That was the sort of thing I could've done without. It was very quickly because you call correspond with 17000 people and say, I really wish you'd read the piece. You've misunderstood what I'm trying to say. So sometimes I do appreciate that a polarized opinion can it could attract a lot of attention, not necessarily of the sort that I want. One of the reasons the Times has gone behind the paywall is so that we are less reliant on the individual hits of provocative comment and we can actually say what we think. You do want the piece to have an oomph, to have a point. You don't want to meander and say on the one hand or on the other. Don't do that. But I do try and write what I say, you know, kind of civilized. And if all at once, you know, I try to do it sounds a bit arrogant, I suppose, putting it like that. But I try very hard to try to put it in a civilized and reasonable way. Let's say, for example, Jeremy Corbyn, somebody with whom I have strong political disagreements. I tried. I worked really hard to take an extremely honest view directly drawn from his own statements about what he thought rather than merely say he was dreadful. And it didn't stop people thinking that's what I was saying. But it was I suppose it was more defensible and Times readers wanted to read that sort of thing.
Ali [00:18:16] A lot of our work looks at, effective itemization, so where people increasingly align together under political views and party political labels. And that becomes, I guess, the label that people hang out under and decide people would increasingly identify someone, I guess, as a Brexiteer or a Remainer. If you're in Scotland as a nat or a unionist, you know, here in the States Democrat or Republican.
Alex [00:18:37] Yes, where you dislike and distrust those from the other side, irrespective of whether we actually agree or disagree on something.
Ali [00:18:43] How much of a rising cleavage or cleavages it was in society?
Danny [00:18:49] There's an awful lot of talk about us becoming more polarized. And what I'd really like to see is more data to check whether that's actually the case. I mean, let's take the example of identity politics. Everyone is saying now we've got identity politics so people are divided because of their identity. But in reality, we always have a class based politics. Now we've just got identity, which was an identity formed, a form of identity politics. I think politics is profoundly demographic. People find demographic coalitions and we moved from that to two different kinds of identity. So it may be what seems like it's polarization is in fact just an awful lot more information and people able to access each other's opinions much more than they used to be able to.
Ali [00:19:37] There's definitely some research to show that in the UK and I'll send it to you afterwards and put it in the show notes from LSE last week showing that people are increasingly aligning under opinion and political base grapes. Because you're right. A lot of that research is out here in the States and it's quite profoundly different. But it does seem to show that that trend exists beyond, you know, around the world and in the UK.
Danny [00:19:59] Ok well I'll look at that carefully. Obviously, there are very open to be persuaded that it's the case. But, you know, when you read this recent we're having this debates about cancel culture, which, by the way, is I think is more of an issue in the United States than it is in Britain, but it's something that's important here. And I think one of the reasons is that speech of all kinds is more oppressive upon people, makes a bigger impression upon people than it did 20 years ago, because actually, most of the time, twenty years ago, you couldn't hear what someone else was saying. Right. And now you can sometimes have a thousand. Well, I gave you an example earlier of seventeen thousand retweets of an incorrect interpretation of my headline that was really, really oppressive. If I'm honest, it was. But normally I wouldn't have even been aware of people saying those things and they wouldn't have been able to circulate them to each other. So I think to some extent it is both sides then feel that our previous relaxed attitude of letting people say anything is something that makes people feel unsafe when 20 years ago, it wouldn't have impinged on people anywhere near as much. And on the other hand, the people who like J.K. Rowling, whatever will find 20000 angry people who disagree with her. Which actually isn't that many. If you see what I mean. Twenty thousand people. But it's very oppressive to her. And I think it's one of the reasons we've got this feeling that there is this cancel culture debate. It's about the ability of us to access information. So I think that there's definitely an issue of us sharing our opinion more and having more opinions. But whether or not, you know. So there was a study, for example, about Facebook which suggested that far from it being the case, that Facebook means that you've got stream of information that reinforces your own view, which is the normal way that we talk about Facebook when we are being alarmist about it, actually. What it means is that you keep in touch with people whom otherwise you wouldn't bother with somebody that you were at school whose now a nurse, somebody who works as a gardener as well as somebody who works as another journalist. And that you share their tastes because they're in your feed. And you share and you learn what they're saying, where normally you would actually only be restricted to quite a small group of people.
Alex [00:22:30] That is interesting, I guess the counter challenge to that would be that all the actually reading and taking on board what other people say when they're from a group that we disagree with? It's almost like you were saying, that people were disagreeing, people weren't really hearing what you were saying. They were disagreeable because of messenger effect, because of what people think you stand for and what you represent. And disagreeing with that and actually your opinions, removing your label is probably pretty similar.
Danny [00:22:57] So I'm I should be clear. I'm only discussing whether that's increased over time. But what I do agree with, whether or not that turns out to be the case, it's very interesting research. I'll definitely look it up. People definitely do look at opinions like that. They form opinions a little bit by who else, you know, or who is in your group who holds that view. People are very, very unaware of the extent to which they're holding views because that view is in their own interests. And it's extremely difficult sometimes to separate your own interests in your head from the public interest because people think of themselves as good actors. So therefore they think that what they do must be in the public interest. And so our mind plays tricks on us, our brain is the lawyer of our emotion, whether or not it's changed over time. It's definitely a big problem. And I suppose it's more present because we now have so many ways of expressing our opinions to each other and rejecting each other's opinions.
[00:23:54] So I wonder then, Danny, if we might go in for the main question now and ask you about a time when you've changed your mind on something significant? What was it and why did you change it?
Danny [00:24:06] Well, I thought about this a lot, it's a really interesting thing to be asked. I thought about all sorts of policy things, but I actually ultimately realized that the biggest change of mind in my life, which is dominated a lot of other things, is changing my view about who my political allies should be. So I started in my life when I was 16 years old, I joined the Labour Party, and then that became increasingly untenable for me and I joined the SDP and I was in the SDP all the way through until it finally completely collapsed. And in other words, I'd always regarded the right place for what politics has been the center left. This was a little bit connected to political views, which are slowly but surely began to think weren't right. So, for example, I supported the incomes policy, I was only 17, right. I supported the incomes policy of Labour governments, for example, which I later began to think was a ridiculous policy. And I suppose I became a little bit more fiscally conservative. But my primary change of mind was just whether my views belonged in the bracket of center left and with center left allies, or whether I wasn't better with center right allies. And the reason I cite that, it may seem like it's not really a policy issue, but it's so much flows from making that choice. Actually, you can't be an expert on everything, you can't even be interested in everything. And so when you for political alliance, you end up, I suppose, contracting out your bits of your politics to your allies. Right. You accept and go along with the things that they think the right things to do in areas which are too arcane for you to be able to follow it. So for me, it was the big change. And here's what's interesting about it. From the point of view of changing your mind, I had to be sort of effectively kicked out of my old opinion. The SDP actually collapsed. Right. So it really wasn't viable for me to remain. I had the chance to think again completely, I think it's much harder when you you know, it certainly was. I know for some people who were who joined the SDP from the Labour Party, they found it really difficult to make that choice because they were leaving behind loyalties and friends, things that they had said. And for me, it wasn't the same because, you know, the SDP is so completely collapsed. So it made it easier to move my position. But undoubtedly, however much I might claim consistency in other areas, that was a very big and I suppose made inconsistent my political life for all that my politics hasn't changed very much.
Laura [00:26:32] Ali, I know you were desperate to ask some questions about Danny changing party. So do you want to come in here?
Ali [00:26:39] How did your former tribe or tribes from the center left to treat you when you when you moved over? What happened then and how welcome did you find it?
Danny [00:26:49] Well, something that is very important to my change of mind was I worked as a journalist in a trade and technology newspaper company. Right. So we made we made specialist journalism for the computer trade. Actually, I was involved in some of the first newspapers and magazines about the Internet. And what happened there was that that a massive strike, which I thought was of journalists, which I thought was completely absurd. I totally disagree with it. I joined in it for about three days and eventually I thought I cannot in all conscience carry on with this. It's ridiculous. And I'm going to go back to work. So I did go back to work crossing the picket line and ending up editing this newspaper all by myself, I sort of rang friends. And they sent in, I knew nothing about computer networking, but we got the paper out a few times. And that was a big moment for me in terms of thinking, you know what, I think maybe I'm trying to be right wing on the left. Maybe my politics doesn't really belong in this area. And the thing that's interesting about it is people make all sorts of assumptions about your politics and you on the basis that you're a Tory. Right. So they that implies so people and I'm constantly encountering it. And I genuinely I think they really actually do think I don't care if people are poor and I want the NHS to collapse or I don't mind about it. And I sort of want to kind of nightwatchman state absurd things. So I don't think in a million years. But it's attached to that and is I suppose it's it's sort of it was quite interesting to encounter that view to some extent. I suppose I encounter it online. I remember in some meeting once with somebody said to me, in your political life, what does it be more difficult being a Tory or a Jew? Well, I said, funnily enough before 9/11 it probably was being a Tory. Truth is that it was a sort of a bit of a shock in terms of the way the other people saw one, but nobody that only because of the way that it happened, because of my main politics, have been really in the SDP because the SDP had collapsed altogether. It did leave political from Polly Toynbee, who I much admire and think is a very capable journalist, a brilliant writer of columns, actually, but she's pretty cross with me for joining the Conservative Party, she thinks, is completely beyond the pale. And we were political allies in the SDP. She's written that several times. She thinks it was completely without principle and all that, you know, I just disagree with her and I have to suck it up and she's entitled to her opinion.
Ali [00:29:23] When she does attack you, does that reinforce your identity with the Conservatives? How do you how do you feel, how does it push you in terms of your team identity?
Danny [00:29:35] Well, it's an interesting thing. My automatic response to her is to think you were completely wrong. That's a total misconstruction of it. But I totally understand the logic of her argument. She in her head saw being part of the SDP as being a complete commitment to a sort of center left view and her politics have undoubtedly moved more and more to the left. So for her to feel that she was sharing not just a party, but even a faction of a party with someone who is now associated with being on the center right and in quite a public way, I can see why that is hard. And I suppose that her articles are attempting to defend the reputation of people who stayed on the center left but were in the SDP. And they don't want to be seen by their continued center left colleagues as people who palled about with Tories. So I kind of understand the motivation for it, but obviously I don't share the logic of it. And if I did, I would have made same made the same decision. I tell you what it did to them. It does make me when I know that I was a political ally of Polly's and, you know, and I'm an admirer and friend and regard as one of my mentors, David Owen, who I often disagree with. You can't any longer regard people, you can't when you've done that regard people as beyond the pale because they're not in the same political faction. I had lots of really big disagreements with Andrew Adonis during the Brexit debates. Because I thought by his position that we should just ignore the result of the referendum was completely untenable. But it's impossible when you've shared a political alliance with him to sort of regard him as a completely, you know, terrible person. You can't see things that way. So it definitely I suppose it broadens my outlook in one way.
Laura [00:31:14] That's interesting. So overall, it's made you think more able to see both sides of the argument? Going back to what you said earlier about being very focused on analysis, do you think it's partially having held a place in two different political tribes that enables you to do that so well now?
Danny [00:31:29] Yes, it is. And I'll tell you, I do sometimes worry about it a bit, it's sometimes a bit debilitating when you can see both sides of an argument so completely clearly that it then becomes hard to pick. I give you an example of this, which was when the Conservatives introduced a policy on child benefit, that they removed child benefit from upper rate taxpayers. And it caused an anomalous situation between families, depending on whether both partners earned roughly half half. In which case most might they might fall just below the level of child benefit would be withdrawn. And then one earner families where all the money came from one person and they'd lose the child benefit. And the more I looked at that, I could see this was an anomaly and indisputably was an anomaly. And it would probably will discourage, as it were, discriminates against one of the families. On the other hand, the argument for removing child benefit from higher rate taxpayers was also incredibly strong. And you couldn't do one without the other. You know, they were they were still together if you did the policy at all. You were going to end up discriminating between two and one earner families and there was no way out. And so it was a straightforward choice between two policies, both of which had significant problems. And you just have to pick and sometimes being able to see both sides of the argument are incredibly strong. It's actually a curse rather than a blessing. I do regard it as being an extremely important realization that in most arguments there are really strong arguments on both sides and you have to pick one. It does prevent you from thinking the other side are really awful the whole time, but it can be sometimes a bit stifling.
Alex [00:33:12] I'm curious, when you moved over, did it change your views about the other side or other sides?
Danny [00:33:17] Yeah, I tell you the most one of the most striking things, I was running something called the Social Market Foundation at the time, a think tank center left and center right think tank. And we had Virginia Bottomley come to dinner with a group of people. David Willetts, who is now a colleague of mine, a Conservative peer, but was also a friend of mine in the Conservative Party as well. And he was on the board of the Social Market Foundation. Virginia Bottomley's entire evening was spent on how do we defend, improve, argue the case for the National Health Service. And it was a private dinner. There was only about 15 people there I suppose. And so what she was doing was asking people that she thought might be sympathetic and friendly how we set about improving the NHS, and I suppose that for all at a theoretical level, I might have rejected the idea that the Conservative Party didn't believe in the NHS I suppose enough of it, of the argument had got to me that I was really struck by it. The way that that issue didn't really come up in its most private councils was, you know, that was part of the most senior dinner I ever attended at that point. Now completely standard thing. I'm having many, many conversations with David Cameron or Theresa May or with, you know, with Boris actually, you know, with George Osborne. Always people I spoke about the NHS. They all share that view. But it was very striking to me the first time. So that was actually a bit of a change in my perspective about Tories, where it often thought it was sort of a controversial issue, the National Health Service, and it turned out not to be really.
Ali [00:34:51] So, Danny, if you could avoid choosing Barack Obama or Donald Trump as the answer this question, we'd be pretty grateful because people have already nominated them quite a few times. But we'd really love to to know about someone who you would like us to ask about the time they changed their mind on an issue and why. Who would you like to answer that question?
Danny [00:35:11] Well, what's interesting. What did I say George Osborne. George is one of my close friends. And I always find it really interesting to listen to him, to listen to him talk. And we often do events I might even I ask this question together where I am, the questioner, he gives the answer and I would be interested to hear. And he often stresses the consistencies, his view over a long period of time. I'd be quite interested to learn what he thought, where he thought he changed his mind, and that would be quite interesting. The other person said, people I've worked with actually, I think it'd be very insulting to to ask William Hague that question as well. I think he's changed in many big ways, actually, William. Very, very interesting to ask him, I'd say. He's somebody who's very robust and intellectually secure. So he would be an interesting person to ask. It would just be interesting question to pose. I mean, I'll have the opportunity to do it now that you put it in my head to pose to people that I've worked with or admire. But those are a couple.
Ali [00:36:08] Well, I can actually tell you what George said, because he teaches at Stanford. And I cheekily dropped into one of his sessions once and asked him exactly that question. And he said, well, he changed his mind about was the value of wind and renewable energy. And he didn't know my background or what I was asking about. So he wasn't pandering to it. He just said that he'd been really very unconvinced that you could produce renewable energy in a way that was low cost. And he'd been shown that actually you could. And he was almost delighted to be proven completely wrong. I was really surprised by the answer, but it was in a very pleasant way.
Laura [00:36:45] But he might turn out to be one of those people who could identify loads of things that he's changed his mind on.
Danny [00:36:50] Because I thought he might answer was that he was much more centralist when he started and a bit dismissive about mayors and local decentralization and became more persuaded by that.
Laura [00:37:01] I've heard him talk about that, Danny, actually, and about the different needs of the regions across the UK, I guess, stemming from his involvement in the Northern Powerhouse. But he did say that he had a bit of a change of heart.
Alex [00:37:14] Just thinking about the media and about the conversation before, about how we respond when people have changed our minds or have an argument how we respond. Too often what we've seen, when we've done these interviews or on research that can be really costly, changing your mind publicly. So you know, the retorts of a U-turn or your flip flopping can can make leaders, whether they're from business or politics or whatever, look weak. I was wondering if you had a view on that.
Danny [00:37:42] I've written quite a lot about the whole issue of U turns, because it looms so large in politics. Politicians think people don't want you to U-turn. Actually, people are always happy if you move from a view they don't agree with towards a view they do agree with. And if you move from something that doesn't work to something that does work and obviously it's better if you've thought it through and you didn't get to the position that didn't work to start off with. But a second best is moving to the position that works from one that doesn't work. And so I think a lot of people, politicians overestimate how much attention people are paying to the positions they had in the past, to the commitments they've made, that there are a few examples where that's not the case, but usually that is when they've moved. That's, for example, take George Bush's famous, the older George Bush read my lips, no new taxes, and then he imposed taxes. The problem wasn't that he changed his mind. The problem was they imposed taxes and then they could use the you promised not to as the examples of that. So provided that you're moving from a position that people don't like to a position of people that people do like. I think there's absolutely no problem with U turns. And I've argued this over and over again. You might pay a price in terms of a few days of coverage that you didn't know, that you didn't accept the truth in the first place. I suppose occasionally if you feel that you're not really committed to the new position. But let's give the recent example of the cost of the government and Marcus Rashford's campaign, right? It didn't matter in the slightest that the government changed its mind. What mattered was they moved from a position that wasn't sustainable and people didn't like to a position that was that people did like. Right. And that was definitely the right thing to do.
Alex [00:39:31] That's really interesting. I remember, was it Jo Swinson talking about that, Ali, the cost of changing your mind publicly?
Ali [00:39:34] Yes, exactly.
Alex [00:39:38] Danny, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
Danny [00:39:42] Pleasure.
Laura [00:39:42] Thank you so much.
Alex [00:39:50] Before Ali, Laura and I digest this interview, we wanted to bring you a brief word from our partners, Open Democracy.
Mary [00:39:57] Hello, I'm Mary Fitzgerald, editor in chief of Open Democracy. We exist to bring you the latest reporting and analysis on social and political issues around the world. We're here to educate citizens, challenge power and encourage democratic debate, just as this podcast does. To find out more about us or to make a contribution to our work, visit opendemocracy.net.
Alex [00:40:19] So now we've heard the full interview. Was there anything you wanted to reflect on? Ali, do you want to go first?
Ali [00:40:25] Yeah. For me, the journey Danny went on, on finding his political home, moving from one party to another and crossing the political picket line really stood out, you know. And how as a consequence, he found that people made very different assumptions about him, depending on who his political allies were. And although he was slightly resistant to admit it, that really is exactly what effective polarization is, people bringing different labels together and under a political label and making presumptions about what you will think as a consequence. I was also really struck by a more optimistic note that he said about journalism, that he thought there was a commercial case for making thoughtful, considered comment and from the man who brought in the paywall at the Times, that gives me a little glimmer of hope.
Laura [00:41:18] Yeah, I thought very much the same thing, Ali, that made me feel really optimistic about the future of considered journalism. And I also thought it was very interesting, the points that he made about how we have to reduce the psychological costs of changing your position and that we can help other people do that. And again, that felt quite an optimistic approach.
Alex [00:41:39] For me, I think it was that acknowledgment or his acknowledgment that politics is can be too shouty and that challenge of getting people to listen. The story resonated with me after being a local councilor. Now, clearly, being a local councilor in Guilford is not equivalent to the bearpit that is national parliament.
Ali [00:41:56] Oh, come on, Alex, stop putting yourself down.
[00:42:00] But this did resonate with me after being a local politician for four years. So I think although politics does clearly have a long way to go, the fact that you can have an influence by good analysis, as demonstrated by what Danny was saying, is really inspiring to me.
[00:42:19] Has Danny inspired you to think of a time you changed your mind and why? At the end of the series, we'll be doing a special listeners edition of the show. Email [email protected] and tell us about what you have changed your mind on and the best response will get a copy of Danny's new book whizzed out in the post.
[00:42:39] So that's all from us today. Thank you very much for listening to this episode of Changed My Mind. If you liked what you heard don't forget that we have a full back catalog of fascinating interviews with leaders. You can find them all by searching Changed My Mind in your podcast app. Join us next week when we'll be crossing the Atlantic to talk to a former Marine and a former Obama speechwriter about what they have changed their minds on.
[00:43:03] Thank you to Open Democracy for their support of the show. To Caroline, Crampton for editing. And to Kevin McCloud, whose Dreams Become Real is our theme music.
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