Home

A UK government advisor who's changed his mind about the Iraq War

Ed Owen, an advisor to the foreign secretary at the time of the Iraq invasion, on why he now feels differently about the decision to go to war

The Depolarization Project
8 September 2021, 1.45pm
British soldiers in Iraq, 2003
|
Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

Ed Owen worked at the heart of the British government when it decided to go to war in Iraq in 2003. In this episode of 'Changed My Mind', he explains why he now thinks he should not have supported the decision to go to war, how his views on proportional representation have changed and what he thinks are the criteria for an effective minister. 

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 corporate affairs director at London First, Laura Osborne.

Get dark money out of UK politics

Sign our petition to tell the government to tighten electoral laws and shine more light on political donations. We need to know who is giving what to our political parties.

You can also listen to Changed My Mind on

Apple Podcasts

Spotify

RadioPublic

Stitcher

TuneIn

or wherever you normally get your podcasts.

Alternatively you can subscribe directly to the RSS feed.

Transcript

Ed: Ministers are about judgments and you have to make decisions and you have to be comfortable with the fact that you will, in retrospect, find out that a good proportion of those decisions were wrong.

Ali: Welcome back to a new series of Changed My Mind, the podcast where we ask leaders what they've changed their mind on and why. I'm Ali Goldsworthy, chief exec of the Depolarization Project based in California. You've just heard from our guest today, Ed Owen, who was a very senior advisor in Tony Blair's government.

He'll be talking to us about how to influence and why he has changed his mind on the Iraq war and the voting system. Before we get to that though, we've got some exciting news. Our book inspired by this podcast, Poles Apart, is released on the 9th of September. You can buy it from Amazon online or at all good bookshops. You can find out more about the book itself at wearepolesapart.com.

As always I'm joined for today's episode by my co hosts behavioral insight expert, Alex Chesterfield.

Alex: Hi Ali.

Ali: And by corporate affairs director at London First, Laura Osborne.

Laura: Hi Ali.

Ali: Is that a new job title for you, Laura?

Laura: Yes, it is a new job title. I was very pleased to be promoted not very long ago, but actually it's really one of many things that have happened since we recorded our last episode. I mean, starting close to home on the things that have happened to us. Obviously the three of us have written a book together, Poles Apart, which is out very soon on the 9th of September.

And we had the pandemic to contend with and homeschooling and Ali, obviously you've had a baby and there's been so much going on in the world during that period of time. So when we look out from ourselves, you know, over in the US we had the very dramatic and violent handover of the presidency, and we've had many divisions caused by Covid and there's been a lot of trauma in the world in recent times.

Ali: Yes. People may hear the sound of a small child in the background. Baby Tom is now six months old. Alex, what do you think people should keep an ear out for in this podcast?

Alex: Keep an eye out for why it's so hard for leaders who have made a public statement or talked about their public belief, why it's so hard to change their minds when you've already admitted it publicly.

Ali: Yeah. That's a great one and we'll definitely be digging into that. And so with that in mind, let's hear our conversation with Ed. We'll reconvene afterwards to digest some of what he's had to say.

Laura: Welcome to Changed My Mind. We're really pleased to have you with us.

Ed: Hello, Laura. Good to catch up.

Laura: So you've spent I think almost three decades working in policy and politics and influencing. I wondered if you could tell us a bit about the work that you've done and the things that have stayed with you during that time on how to change minds and influence people.

Ed: Gosh I spent thirty years thanks for reminding me three decades in various guises, if you like, but with a common theme around communications and influencing and policy and politics. The thing I'm most conscious of is that often the ability to change comes from a combination and in a sense this is politics, isn't it, it's a combination of the logical and the emotional.

And I was always very struck when I worked in government at the sort of receiving end if you like of influencing, what made a particular policy work? What made a particular policy controversial? How successful was an influencing campaign to change a particular policy? I'd love it to say that politics and particularly in government is one that is driven by a logical assessment of need and rational analysis of facts, if you like, to weigh up in a logical scientific way, what the best outcome was. But of course, as we all know, politics is intertwined with an emotional range of issues. Politics often is about getting that combination right, and that often you can have logically the most effective and perfect policy in the world, but if it doesn't work at an emotional level, it will backfire and can be a unpopular and can fail ultimately, cause it has to have the buy in of people who are affected by it.

Laura: Thanks very much, Ed. It's actually something we've talked about quite a bit amongst ourselves before, in terms of the limitations of facts for influencing and for changing minds, which I think a lot of our listeners will certainly be aware of from their own experiences.

And you highlighted there that logical and an emotional combination can be absolutely critical in actually effectively changing minds. And where have you seen that done well? What's the most impressive piece of influencing you can remember?

Ed: Well, I suppose if I was to look at it objectively and I've only had a bit part in this and on the losing side, ultimately, I think the most influential lobbying, if you like in changing the course of British politics has been the movement to remove Britain from the EU. And here was an issue which was a relatively marginal issue that was articulated by a relative minority of people 30 years ago and has resulted in the referendum in 2016, which led to Britain's exit from the EU.

And that's been, I mean, if you think about the profound impact of that, and yet tracking that over that period, the process and I'm not saying it was necessarily a deliberate one in every guise, but as I say, from what was a relatively marginal issue third years ago, then helped to influence the opinion within the Conservative Party and other areas of the media that the switch has ultimately led to this extraordinary change in British politics and British policy. So that, that for me is, and I, I suppose my bit part in that was when I worked at the Foreign Office and worked alongside colleagues on EU policy and we were particularly at that point working on the EU constitution, if you remember, 20 years ago on this.

We attempted, and I think maybe, maybe to some extent, the fault 20 years later with the referendum campaign we attempted to confront and to challenge some of the notions and arguments at the time that were articulated by that then vocal, but minority opinion by a sort of rational logical assessment of the facts as we saw it and to give a very logical base for why it was important that Britain was a member of the European Union why it was in Britain's logical interests to do so. It probably didn't work there and it certainly didn't work in the referendum in 2016.

Ali: I'm just wondering if there's a bit of influencing that you've seen that's really backfired? Is there a really dreadful piece of influencing that you ever experienced when you were in government or that you've seen elsewhere that you just think please don't ever copy that, anybody?

Ed: I go back to that sort of rational emotional thing. There's an issue around I remember when I was in the Home Office that Jack Straw, then the home secretary brought forward a proposal to restrict jury trial for a particular category of cases, which actually makes logical sense, not least because that's in the number of offenses and cases that you can't elect for jury trial anyway.

And there's long been a sort of a logical policy case for this which previous home secretaries have sort of unearthed. And actually then to prove my point, it was an issue, a policy position, that we opposed when Labour were in opposition, but in government actually, because you try to confront issues in a logical way, and I very strongly say that it was a very logical policy. Ultimately, it was defeated by the same reasons that we in opposition had defeated it when it had been brought up by Jack's predecessor as home secretary under a Conservative government. And it is because coming back to that point here was a rational logical policy, which worked in a very logical way, but emotionally touched on something very deep in the psyche of our political discourse, if you like, about the right to jury trial, which has all sort of historical emotional baggage that comes with it. And ultimately it was defeated by a combination, alliance of interests that campaigned against it.

Ali: What were you looking to restrict in terms of trial by jury? Just for the benefit of our listeners who might be in America and unfamiliar with exactly what was going on.

Ed: Yeah that's a good point. I sort of plucked that out of the air as a unfortunately rather sort of perhaps unusually detailed one.

So the right to jury trial is regarded often I think if you probably to ask most people, do you have a right to jury trial if you're charged with criminal offenses, most people would say yes, but actually the truth is you're not because there are distinctions which in different offenses and are what are called summary offenses, which you don't have a choice and the arguments to extend some of those offenses or to enable judges to decide whether a case should go to a jury trial or not, some lower level offenses.

And there are some low level offenses, which are not summary offences, which if the defendant, the accused says, now I want this to go to a jury trial. It will go to a crown court jury trial rather than be dealt with by magistrates and not a jury. So in that sense that it's a logical issue, it's built upon it quite emotional, deeply historical sense of the right of British citizens to be tried by a jury

Ali: Yeah, thank you. I'm just going to pass over to Alex.

Alex: And I want to dig straight into your time, Ed, when you were right at the coalface of British politics, as special adviser to Jack Straw as he was the cabinet minister in Tony Blair's government responsible for at first Home Office and then the FCO, so the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. So what I'm really curious about is, were you ever successful at changing their minds on an issue?

Ed: A little thing I remember being which had big implications, I was quite proud of was I persuaded Jack to support the government support for hosting the Olympics in London in 2012.

Tony Blair actually asked Jack to chair a cabinet committee, which would look at this issue back in the early 2000s. And so Jack chaired the committee to look at the sort of cost benefit of the approach. He was sort of neutral if anything, probably varying towards not. He'd been scarred by the millennium dome debacle which he had had some role in and he'd been a sort of ardent supporter of, and I think it had for him damaged the "grand projet" view of the world. And I think he sort of went into that process with some skepticism and I sort of managed to persuade him that actually, this was something that the government should pursue and that it would be a potentially massive impact for all sorts of things, which as we then saw in 2012 and this is probably, this is probably a decade before, but, but the cabinet committee as a result, I mean not the result of my persuading of Jack obviously, the cabinet committee discussed these things in great detail, but I'm glad to say that Jack went into that cabinet committee with a, I think more positive vein.

I would rarely be a single point of influence. I was part of a process, part of a group of people, including career civil servants and ministers coming to the decisions of which I was playing a part. It was rarely the case that somehow there was there's one single issue of which I was the ultimate, if you like advisor to Jack on issues, but there was some issues, particularly because I was involved particularly in the communications side, there were often decisions that needed to be taken very quickly, often the media issues and et cetera, what our response to issues were which I would then have sort of, if you like undue influence on.

But that's the nature of, as you know, the way that ministers operate, or good ministers operate, they will take advice from a variety of sources and then ultimately it's their judgment. There's two issues about political judgment that I will make. Firstly, I was always very struck that you could always spot a good junior minister, those junior ministers that were comfortable about making decisions. And I think that what marks out generally good ministers from poor ministers are ones that are comfortable making decisions, knowing absolutely a good proportion of the decisions they make will be wrong.

Alex: So happy with potential failure.

Ed: Yeah. And that's a critical issue, isn't it? Because a minister who is paralyzed by the fear of getting a decision wrong is a poor minister. Ministers are about judgments often and you have to make decisions.

And you have to be comfortable with the fact that you will, in retrospect, find out that a good proportion of those decisions were wrong. But that is the nature of being in power politically. And so that was, that was my first point about political judgment.

The second point is that Jack would often say to me, when I would bang on about something and say you really can't do this. No, you really, really can't do this. Are you sure you want to do this? He would eventually sort of get impatient with me and he would say. Ed, I do employ you and I do value advice and your job is to make sure that as far as who can ensure that I don't inadvertently fall off a cliff on any particular issue.

But ultimately if I want to jump off a cliff, I'm going to jump off a cliff, so you've got to know when to stop, I suppose. So there's a limit to influencing too.

Alex: Interesting. And I want to take you back to a comment you made a minute ago around successful ministers or people who are good at their jobs, taking on a diversity of views. I'm interested in how much did you see that go on in government, behind the scenes around getting that diversity of viewpoint and challenge.

Ed: I think it depends very much on the minister. Ministers have different styles. I always felt lucky to work for Jack. So Jack Straw is someone who naturally wants to hear, wants to be challenged, wants to be scrutinized, wants to get advice from a variety of people and then make that judgment. Yeah now of course, there's a difference between a sort of proactive policy which is taking weeks and months to develop and a dynamic judgment as against those judgments is often where you have to make sort of snap judgments due to the circumstances in which they come in. But he would generally follow that process. You know, he'd want to hear from as many people as possible. He would always encourage both in the Home Office and Foreign Office he would want to encourage people to bring their views. In fact, one of the things I remember from the Home Office was I remember being struck by and me sort of coming into the Home Office as a fresh faced political advisor with no previous experience of government. I was quite struck when we had meetings on particular policy issues, how hierarchical it was within officials, so that you'd only have perhaps two people speaking, but other people sitting around. And he would, he would often say, well, what do you think?

You know? And it would be quite uncomfortable I think for those junior officials who were suddenly faced with often they didn't want to necessarily speak in a different tone, in a different way to their superiors. That was a much more culturally, a much more common thing in the Foreign Office, interestingly, where that culture of people providing opinion, regardless of status was a much there was, I mean, there was a much greater acceptance and encouragement of debate and discussion around issues and that was, that was one of the great things about being in the Foreign Office, you were part of that. It was quite exhilarating, but also an ultimately rewarding process because hopefully you came to a better decision.

Alex: That's great. Really encouraging to hear.

Ed: Well, I think I was a bit spoiled with Jack. I suspect my impression and I think you only really know where you're actually working in the heart of it. My impression is that probably some other ministers were less inclusive if you like of a variety of views and there's a whole set of reasons. So some ministers I think were much more keen to surround themselves with people who, in a sense with a sort of trusted, loyal people around them.

And my concern around that way of decision-making is that you narrow your field of advice and therefore, ultimately the risk is that the decision is not as effective, but there are inevitably different styles. I mean, the views across political parties, of course and the process of political parties conferring on policy outcomes and decisions is a different ball game altogether. But that's my experience from government.

Alex: Wonderful.

Ali: Ed we do ask all our guests about a time they changed their mind on a substantive policy issue and why, and I know you've actually got two for us, which is unusual, but I was going to ask you first about the Iraq war, which clearly you were involved in advising Jack Straw as in his role in the Foreign Office, as the decisions were being taken at the very highest level about how to respond to what was going on in the world.

Ed: Yeah, thanks Ali. Well, first of all, I should say, by the way, that recruiting you was a decision I don't regret. So...

Ali: Thank you.

Laura: It's nice to know that you haven't changed your mind on Ali.

Ed: That remains the same. So yeah, I made the point before about judgements and also about political decision-making.

I mean, political decision making is, ministers often make decisions based on imperfect information but that doesn't mean that you can avoid making decisions. And now I'm not making that direct point with Iraq, but of course it would be the great advantage of having a view about Iraq is that it is now 20 years since the event. From the luxury of my imaginary armchair I can say that, of course there were mistakes made. And of course, if we'd had that time again, and if we'd known then what we know now of course decisions would be different. So have I changed my mind? Yes. Because I know things now, I didn't know then and there were a number of issues I think that we got wrong. I mean, inevitably the most important thing was that the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was not right. And even though there was a consensus across intelligence services across the west that Saddam did hold significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, that was not correct. That turned out not to be correct.

Ali: So obviously you've talked about the weapons of mass destruction being really critical to the argument and the case of how you and how many others ended up taking the decision to go to war in Iraq that has now been shown to not be the case. And one of the most interesting studies about the role of facts is how hard people find it to update their belief and to change things and to work out the rationale for why people have gone to war and there's a study by some people called Nyhan and Reifler. In essence what they do is they show people, people sort of thought, oh, this is why we went to war in Iraq.

And then they go back to them a year later and they say, well, actually, yeah, You know, weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. Are you still in favor of the war in Iraq? And so many of them continued to be an overwhelming, like 90 plus percent of people continue to be in favor of the war in Iraq, even though the rationale of why they based their original decision had changed.

And so I suppose what I wanted to ask you is how did you, what do you think is going on in your head that means that you're not caught in that trap and that you have been able to say, actually I would have taken a different decision rather than being wedded to your current one or your first one.

Ed: Because we attempted to, and it didn't win, it didn't secure the support of everyone as we know, but the case for it was done on a very deliberate basis and it had to be, and so it should be a matter of that enormity. The case was made in a very deliberate, almost quasi legal case around security council resolutions, around the flouting of those obligations that Saddam had had, that was the basis on which the military action was taken. And it was, you know, for all the if you like noises off at the time and then subsequently around sort of lies and everything else, it was based on a very, very logical sort of if you like,quasi legal. And so I suppose, given that that had been such a sort of driven part of the rationale for doing it, once in a sense, an element of that was obviously shown up to not be the case in subsequent times and inevitably that for me, it was logical then questioning of the ultimate decision and the original decision.

And so that was why, but of course it goes back to what I was saying before, even though that case was made very logically, it didn't win the support of a lot of people and a lot of people had a counter view that was similarly logical, although there were a variety of different views.

There were some people who were against military action per se, there were some people who — actually one of the few people who was correct in his anticipation of what was to come was Robin Cook, who actually reflected the fact that he did not believe and against the advice of many intelligence services, he did not believe that Saddam held significant stocks,of weapons of mass destruction. And that was the reason why he felt that military action wasn't the right approach and that containment should have been a continuing policy.

Ali: And he obviously resigned from the government over that position. And just in terms of how did it feel that day for you when he resigned and he decided to go against, I guess, I suppose many of his friends and colleagues and walk it almost literally a different path?

Ed: Electric. I remember that night. So the debate sort of on the eve of military action, I say this, it sounds as if it was a game, it wasn't a game and it was deeply serious, but in a sense, being a sort of front seat spectator to what was happening in parliament at that point and sitting in the civil servants' box and Jack Straw wound up the debate.

It was an extraordinary evening and Robin's speech was an extraordinary speech. And it was the, just the, you know, huge decision. This is a big deal. You realize this was such a big decision and that weighed quite heavily on a lot of people, I think including Jack and I'm sure Tony Blair as well, but it was, this was not some casual set of decisions that were made.

This was, this is really serious. And there was an absolute knowledgement of the serious implications of that decision. But I would add, and I suppose to some extent, bring this up to contemporary things, as ever with politics, there are also serious implications of not doing anything.

And I think we've seen just for sort of a wide now I'm not making, I'm not making a broader case that military action is always the right response, it's not. But I think we have seen in the last decade that the costs of not intervening. And I think that it's the difficulty of politics.

Politics is not about making some choices, which have no context. Any choice has consequences and the choice of not acting at that point would have had consequences too.

Ali: Yeah, I understand that. And just before we maybe start to move off Iraq and, and look at some of your views on AV, one of the questions that we're often asked by listeners and by people when we talk about this is whether the view that you've had in the updated position you've had is one that maybe people who served in government at that time have as well. And they obviously went publicly on the record or you often put them publicly on the record making that and how that can make it even harder to update your position or acknowledge that the facts might have changed or the underlying case for it is there. Do you think that your new view, your updated view is more widely held? And if so, do you think there's anything about the environment that people operate in that could make it easier for them to publicly update their view?

Ed: Yeah, I think w you know, we do live in a political culture, which makes it very difficult for people to change their view and to articulate it.

I mean, ironically, I just, just make a point that I'd say one of the things I learned from Jack as my boss, Jack Straw, was that he was the person who actually was not afraid to say sometimes as a leading politician, I got it wrong. I made a mistake. Cockups happened. And there were a number of issues, particularly in the time at the Home Office where things happened, as the minister responsible, you have to go to parliament and explain and say, look, this happened. It shouldn't have happened, but we'll make amends and do this, that, and things were put back on track. So in a sense we do live in a culture which makes it difficult as to is the way. But I think it's difficult. What makes it difficult I think for politicians to acknowledge mistakes is that we live in a media environment, which is very demanding of politicians and can be pretty merciless when politicians do accept that they got something wrong and often the sort of media coverage that can follow that can be pretty, pretty damning.

We live in a macho political culture which elevates a sort of particular view of strength. And partly strength is to be all knowing and never, never accepting that you have ever been wrong. And that's sort of a strange way of because as we all know, from our wider human existence, that isn't a strength, that's a weakness.

And often the strong thing to do is to accept mistakes and to accept. Well, you have got it wrong. But our political culture has not, I'm afraid, it doesn't reflect that often. But I do wish that I think politicians generally could. I mean, I think confident politicians are ones that can lead this.

I'd hope that with a culture where I think politicians are very conscious of the fact that the public has politicians in low esteem and et cetera. So to some extent that drives even further, the sense that politicians can never accept wrongdoing or accept that they've made mistakes.

But I think that the good politicians are ones that can . I think that's something that should be encouraged. I wish more politicians did. And actually, I think it was a going back to that paradox, I actually think that the public would actually give politicians more credit, if they were more willing to acknowledge mistakes and to be open about the judgments that they had to take, the reasons why things may not have worked out the way they'd hoped and the, and the actions they're taking to, to remedy that. That may be maybe that may be wishful thinking.

But social media and everything else even piling on further pressure on politicians. Maybe that's maybe that's naive, but I'd hope that we might be able to encourage more politicians to do that.

Alex: I was just going to ask Ed just on the back of that, whether you have noticed any change in the culture or the conditions since you've left?

Ed: Well, I think the scope for that is greater. I think partly because, I mean, the political environment that I was working in 20 years ago was one that in a sense the media and the print media was, was extremely powerful. And it created the arena if you like in which politicians operated and that often was not particularly that was quite constraining and didn't allow necessarily for because it was in the sense that the way that the media reported issues was inevitably funneled and that's the nature of journalism. So I'm not complaining about that particularly, but it was... whereas now politicians have different channels.

They can communicate more directly with people. Print media is not as powerful as it was. So I think there is greater potential for that to happen. I think perhaps bemoan the fact that I think we have a slightly more cowed political class generally.

And you know, that's come on the back of if like a series of things for the last 20 years where the public's sense of, you know, the motivations for politicians has declined which is a great pity, but I think that has created a more nervous, more cautious set of politicians and than perhaps before.

But as I say, I think there are mechanisms now that I think for politicians to, to be perhaps be able to communicate and to be able to articulate issues in a way perhaps that wasn't there 20 years ago. You can explain the rationale for issues, so again, maybe naivety, but so that, that is the big change in the political communications world that the arena is a different one.

Alex: I feel like there is a ray of hope.

Ed: Yeah I hope so. I also think, and this is the second issue I've changed my mind on is PR.

Laura: As in proportional representation?

Ed: Sorry. Proportional representation rather than public relations. Part of the reason that I have changed my mind is because I think our political culture, our binary political culture, which is the one that I described before in many ways is breaking down. It's breaking down as a result of voting behavior, as a result of interaction between the public and politicians. People are not less if you like indulgent of the idea that there's only two views about the world. I know that I simplify that for effect, but we live in a much more diverse culture in terms of issues of policies and opinions. People are much more willing and able and demanding of the fact they're gonna make choices. They're making political choices, which were perhaps, maybe in previous generations this voting behavior was one that was more handed down, almost habitual, whereas these then live in a much more fluid political environment.

I think proportional representation is a better way. The bit that links the public and those in power has to reflect that and that sort of reason I'm in favour of proportional representation, even though I was opposed to it 20 years ago. So I think in that environment, I think there's a greater potential then for people to be much more open, about doubt, about mistakes.

There are some examples in European culture, and I'm particularly interested in Germany at the moment with the federal elections coming up. There's a political culture in Germany, which is not as demanding as the one I've described that I worked in, there is a recognition that issues are ones that are for discussion and they change different parties' views, and that's understood and accepted as part of the political culture. And I think we've got a journey to travel here, I think in that respect. But the PR both will hopefully would, it would potentially encourage that, but also reflect it better.

Laura: And connected to something you said earlier about the cost of changing your mind. Of course, the thing politicians never really have the option to say is, I don't know. And I wonder what your take is on how we can become a little bit more flexible about people waiting a bit longer to make up their minds, or being able to say in the right circumstances that they don't have the answer.

Ed: Really interesting, isn't it. I wish we would have politicians who would say, look, I'm not sure. I mean, one of the things that in a sense politicians have had at their disposal and have had for decades, and this is sort of a device to say, oh, we'll stick this out for consultation.

We've had a process by which, in a sense, politicians and ministers are able to put off making a final decision. It's a process by which we say I'll hear views et cetera and then we will come to a final view. And it's funny that in a sense that that exists, but it hasn't translated to some extent in the way that politicians behave and talk and articulate in that public environment.

I think maybe there are elements that do exist within the existing system that we should elevate. Now, part of the problem that politicians fear is that, of course, if you say you don't know too often, is that you can quickly gain a reputation for indecision. And of course, as we know, in British politics, indecision is one of the cardinal sins and terrible crimes of politicians. You can never be indecisive.

And to some extent, it goes back to what I was saying before about some ministers sometimes being paralyzed by making decisions. So there's a balance here. I think it's a natural consequence of where we live in a much more complex world with a whole range of complex issues and that whole set of drivers and influences, which are going to impact decisions that the government makes. And some of these are issues that are more discursive. And I think, again, you see now a bit, I think, but citizens' juries, whole set of things. And I think that politicians have potentially have at their disposal, which can be, and that we have generally in politics, which we should use more.

Ali: Yeah. I know there's a lot of discussion around that and how to try and bridge divides using that work at the minute.

Alex: Just for context for our listeners, there's a great study by Mark Levine, he's a professor, I think he was at Sheffield when he did the study and he invested a bunch of Man U supporters, and told them that the study was about something that it wasn't really about. And then the first part of the study involved getting the Man United supporters to fill in a survey about why they supported Man U. It's basically kind of reaffirming their identity as Man United supporters.

And you then send them out and say, right, the second part of the experiment you need to go to this separate or different building across the street. And as they were walking across the street, a confederate, so kind of an insider in on the experiment, pretended to collapse on the pavement. And it was really interesting what proportion of Man United supporters helped the person on the street depended on the football shirt that they were wearing. So off the top of my head, these figures might be slightly out, but the general gist is right, is when the people who collapsed on the floor were wearing a Man United shirt, 90% of the time, they were helped. When they were wearing Liverpool shirts they were helped only 30% of the time. The point there is just to show that actually we tend to favor our in-group over our out-group. That's really nothing new, but the hopeful part is he did a second stage or second or third experiment. And what you did this time was at the beginning is rather than ask people to write down or answer a bunch of questions on why they were Man United fans, he got them to talk about the love of the beautiful game more generally, and why they were football fans and what that did was change people's identity from thinking about a team, they were football fans more generally. And he found that that dramatically increased the likelihood of helping the person on the street, no matter what football shirt they were wearing.

So I guess rather than thinking about Man United supporters, think about them as being fellow football fans and what you have in common versus that you support different teams and what's different between you

Ed: I'll remember that. So next time there's a City-United derby and I'm ranting at the TV, I'll remember that to remind myself that actually I need to widen my sense of identity to a larger group than just my own tribal team. Well, in some instances it makes sense. And I see you see that as a football fan, I see that, you know, I mean, you saw interestingly that the ridiculous European super league thing came up a few months ago. And that was a good occasion. That was a good occasion. Yeah. I mean, and including, by the way, mad City fans like me — Man City was one of the, what was it, four ? We were united, you know, we were completely in our identity as fans was greater than our attachment to our club.

And so yeah, absolutely. It's a really interesting study, that makes sense. I'll think about that, I won't allow my tribal loyalty to get ahead of me. And by the way, if a Man United fan did collapse, I would help them. So I would probably be of course, one of the 30%.

Ali: I like how you make that sound magnanimous. Of course I'd help them, as if there was a thought process that you thought you might not. Yeah. Well, on that note Ed, we should say thank you so much for joining us and for being so candid about your time in government and also reflective about why you've updated your views. We really appreciate you joining us. We'll move on to a quick discussion now.

Ed: Thank you.

Ali: Before we discuss this, let's have a quick word from our sponsors.

So Alex, what was the key takeaway for you from that conversation?

Alex: For me, I think it was the points Ed was making around that facts often don't work when people were trying to convince him or when he was trying to influence others to change their minds and what we've heard, I think throughout this series, but also is echoed in the academic research is that time and time again, facts are poor persuaders.

And it reminds me of the various studies done. This was back in the US by various researchers at most universities investigating whether correcting Americans' misperceptions on immigrants would change attitudes. And like many, this definitely is not just the case for Americans. We also see it in the UK and many of the parts of Europe that we are prone to exaggerate the size of immigrants and foreign born populations and also the size of minority groups in our countries.

And it seems that such misperceptions are linked to unfavorable views of immigration. So it kind of makes logical sense to assume that well, if you're hostile to immigrants and you're given correct information about how many there actually are, then you'll change your views accordingly. But what these studies found is that this isn't the case and that although providing accurate facts and figures had an impact on people's knowledge, it had no knock on effect on attitudes.

So it kind of suggests it was similar to your, your point around the weapons of mass destruction study that facts don't really form opinions as much as we would like to believe rather their opinions come first and then facts are interpreted to support them. So for me, that really just echoed the common themes of the podcast, and also the research as well.

Ali: And I just wanted to dig into that because what really struck me was Ed was, you know, very honest, in many ways and thoughtful about talking about how we can be emotionally driven as well as logically driven, but when he explained why he changed his views on both Iraq and on PR, he hung it on actual logic and reason rather than on emotion.

That was the reason he gave for why he changed his mind. And I just wondered if you had observed the same thing, you know, when he was saying, well, the facts were wrong or that weapons of mass destruction weren't there and we all thought they were, he didn't recognize it as an emotionally charged decision, even though, as he described, you know, the atmosphere was electric. Is it a common phenomenon that people still try to use facts to explain why they've changed their mind, even if it might not be?

Alex: Yeah. So I think two things, first of all, I think it's incredibly difficult to accurately self introspect. Sometimes it is, but on bigger issues often it is really hard to figure out why we came to a certain judgment or decision.

And then secondly, yes, I think there is often some degree of post rationalization. And of course it sounds better to say that you change your mind based on logic and facts versus emotion. And it makes me wonder, I wonder how much the kind of, again, we know that when beliefs and opinions are tied to your groups, you know, beliefs and opinions, it becomes much more about who you are necessarily rather than actually what you think.

And I wonder how much that had to do with it as well. Again, it's often less obvious or people are less aware of the effects that their group identity has on their own beliefs, which we tend to think are from us alone. And we've come to them from our own thinking and logic and it's often not the case.

Ali: Yeah. I was very struck by the warmth with which he discussed Robin Cook, who obviously as a cabinet minister had resigned over the Iraq war and going against his own tribe. And there was, you know, Robin passed, not that long after that and that might have influenced them, but that warmth, as opposed to feeling that someone had been a traitor to your group, I think is at times quite unusual and quite unhelpful.

Laura, I wonder if you had any extra reflections on what Ed had been saying.

Laura: Yes, thanks Ali. I was really struck by the way Ed talked about the pressure leaders are under both, obviously at that ministerial level, but it's often very much the same in business where you're expected to form a view very quickly and indecision can be seen as a big weakness.

And obviously that combines with other pressures to sometimes make it very difficult to pause, very difficult to take stock of things and seek other viewpoints before you take a view yourself. I thought it was interesting that Ed talked about the different mechanisms that exist there.

And we touched on some of those in Poles Apart, actually, in terms of the different ways to get that variety of views, be that deliberative democracy or consultation or also expanding the types of conversations you have in different groups.

I also found it interesting, the points he made early on about those ministers who really did have the strength of character to get a real variety of views from those in the room. It's not always the most obvious thing to do as a leader to seek out those lesser heard voices. It can be very easy to go with the people in your group, the people in your tribe that, you know, might hold the same views to you or who you can expect to agree with your take on a situation. And I thought it was really interesting that he called out positively the leaders who'd really tried hard there, the ones that really did seek out those lesser heard opinions.

Ali: Yeah, that's definitely something we could all aim for a bit more of.

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 then, well, you can go and buy our book Poles Apart, which is out next week, or you can look for the full back catalog of our interviews with leaders. Find them by searching, Changed My Mind in wherever you listen to your podcasts. We'll be back next week with a cracker of an episode.

We're moving to the States to talk to one of the world's most preeminent behavioral scientists. So make sure you're subscribed and do go and check out buying Poles Apart.

Thank you very much for joining us. Thank you to openDemocracy for their support of the show, to Caroline Crampton for editing and to Kevin McCloud, whose "Dreams Become Real" is our theme music.

Further reading

How Weapons of Mass Destruction Became 'Red Lines' for America - https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/04/america-trump-kennedy-syria-atomic-war/523092/
Helping Friends and Foes: Why We Help Sometimes and Not Others - http://socialpsychonline.com/2015/07/helping-friends-and-foes-why-we-help-sometimes-and-not-others/

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData