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Sat, 23 January 2021

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'How Not To Be Wrong': why there's no disgrace in the occasional U-turn

'How Not To Be Wrong': why there's no disgrace in the occasional U-turn

October 2018: Sarah Wollaston addresses anti-Brexit campaigners | PA Images

3 min read

A frank and deeply personal account of how he confronted his own prejudices, Sarah Wollaston finds James O’Brien’s new book a beautifully written exploration of the art of changing your mind

James O’Brien’s insightful and beautifully written book should be on the reading list for anyone starting out in public life. Even more so for those already in the water and heading for the rocks.

How Not To Be Wrong is a frank and deeply personal account of how, and why, O’Brien set about confronting his own prejudices and embraced the life-changing art of changing his mind.

You don’t have to look far in Westminster to find plenty of others living with what O’Brien describes as survival personality. Defensiveness, aggressive refusal to accept other points of view, bullying and winning whatever the cost are all personally exhausting and damaging. The problem with these behaviours in politicians, and others in positions of power, is that the consequences don’t just explode in their own personal lives but can have serious repercussions for whole populations.

O’Brien’s unsparing account of the violence and humiliation routinely inflicted on himself and other small children at boarding school allows us to see the roots in his own life. This is as powerfully delivered as his determination to tackle the long term fall out.

Never dull, that journey unfolds with pace and humour as he describes the transformational impact of really listening to the lived experience of callers to his show and allowing them to challenge and to change his own opinions. Not easy for a talk show host who had previously spent years mocking people as “fatty fatty fat fats” for example, and too often defending what he knew to be indefensible.

Saying publicly I could not support Brexit unleashed a torrent of abuse and threat

Publicly stating that you have changed your mind isn’t easy in politics. Such is the tsunami of crowing and derision that greets any change of direction, that necessary decisions are too often delayed or don’t happen at all. Perhaps the Prime Minister would have relented sooner on the holiday hunger campaign led by Marcus Rashford had he not known he would have to face down the howls about another U-turn. Our politics would be far healthier – and the outcomes better too – if we didn’t treat necessary and positive changes of policy like an embarrassing discharge or even an act of treachery.

During the course of the Referendum Campaign in 2016, listening to the mounting evidence of harm to our health and care systems and wider economy that would result from Brexit, I knew I could not support it. Saying so publicly, however, unleashed a torrent of abuse and threat. Being frank about the evidence does not make politicians an ‘enemy of the people’ – it is far more dangerous for them to have sealed minds.

We would all benefit from a more honest and open approach to listening to the evidence and it is time to stop treating sticking rigidly to a previously expressed opinion, whatever the evidence, as a badge of honour in politics. As James O’Brien points out, there is no point having a mind if you never change it... 


Sarah Wollaston is the former MP for Totnes 2010-19.

How Not To Be Wrong: The Art of Changing Your Mind is published by WH Allen


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