We’re publishing a guest post today by Dr. Timothy Dunne, a consultant clinical psychologist, who is unhappy about the fact that the professional regulator for psychologists hasn’t followed up his complaint against a psychologist and member of SAGE whom he thinks has breached professional ethics.
The Health Care and Professions Council (HCPC) was set up by the U.K. Government as the official body which oversees the regulation, registration and safe working practices of the professions on its registers. Psychology is one of the health professions which the HCPC regulates.
As such, the HCPC has a legal obligation to investigate a complaint made against any member of a profession which it regulates. At least, that is what one is led to believe from its website.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t responded to my complaint against a psychologist who is a member of the BIT (Behavioural Insights Team) and who participated in a meeting of SAGE on March 22nd 2020 where it was recommended that frightening people was an effective way of gaining compliance with the coronavirus restrictions using such phrases as “the perceived level of threat needs to be increased”.
I made the complaint to the HCPC in relation to the unethical use of covert techniques by the psychologists in BIT without informed consent from the British public. My complaint was acknowledged in an email I received on April 23rd 2021 and given a case number (withheld for confidentiality reasons) and I was informed that “we will be in touch with you again shortly”.
I have heard nothing from the HCPC since then despite two email enquiries on August 27th and September 27th 2021.
I wonder what’s going on with the HCPC? No doubt they will probably trot out the old reliable COVID-19 lack of staff or staff working from home chestnut to try and explain (away) their lack of response.
A more sinister explanation would be that because the psychologist complained of is a member of a Government unit (BIT) he is being protected by this non-action.
This delay certainly raises a question mark over whether the HCPC is fit for purpose, given that it cannot investigate in a timely manner a complaint in relation to a member of a Government group, i.e., BIT.
The U.K. Government’s latest attempt to satiate Boris Johnson’s multiple, complex and apparently chronic penetrative insemination paraphilias will involve the private sector in bribing young people with discounted takeaway food and free taxi rides. Food delivery and taxi-hailing firms including Uber, Bolt, Deliveroo and Pizza Pilgrims have all been enrolled in this latest psychiatric intervention and are now offering incentives for young people to arouse the Prime Minister’s husband by receiving what he’s taken to referring to during Cabinet meetings as “the pharmaceutical boys’ ejaculate”. “How many disease vectors have the pharmaceutical boys ejaculated into this week?” he’ll ask excitedly, often several times a minute, the words oozing up and out of that capricious little slit in his head like smarmy treacle, mellifluous and full of privilege.
As you might imagine, the BBC got themselves pretty hot and horny about this, the policy’s underlying mix of messianic, full-throttle welfarism and Old Testament-style retributive psychopathy touching a sweet spot for the munificent totalitarians over at New Broadcasting House. Not that they were able to get off as many superlatives as they’d have liked. True, manipulation of the young is as essential to the BBC as it is to every other elite western institution currently waging war on that dangerous, socially harmful pathogen known as “cognitive diversity” – sorry, I mean “Covid misinformation”. But unlike, say, the Guardian, Independent SAGE or Emily Maitlis, the BBC’s efforts to save the povvy proles from wrongthink are forever getting ensnared in all sorts of tiresome, fuddy-duddy, neo-Victorian priggery: here, a Royal Charter blathering on about fairness and due impartiality; there, a Parliamentary Select Committee stuffed to the gills with white men all bloviating away about discredited colonial-era shibboleths like objectivity and truth, and everywhere you look hardworking reporters barely able to take a rhetorical step without some ghastly white supremacist popping out from behind a copy of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdomand demanding they stop acting like the public relations arm of the global pharmaceutical industry.
So what the BBC gave us instead was outsourced complicity. Subcontracted collusion. Not the direct and immediate backslapping, hip-hip hooraying support of a sycophantic apparatchik, but rather, the dry, Machiavellian inclusion of comparative statistics all too capable of proving the laggardly, anti-social deviance of the young vis-à-vis other jab-happy groups in society. “More than 68% of 18 to 29 year-olds have had a first jab,” Lord Reith’s proselytising neurotics declared, before immediately moving to morally shame those 18 to 29 year-olds with the revelation that: “More than 72% of U.K. adults have had two doses so far, while 88.5% have had one.” So really, when they write, “More than 68% of 18 to 29 year-olds…”, what they actually mean for you to hear is, “Only 68% of 18 to 29 year-olds…,” or perhaps, if you spent long enough rummaging around in your outraged adverbs box, “Disgustingly, only 68% of 18 to 29 year-olds…”. Can you see what they’re doing here? It’s called ‘othering’. Or, if you prefer, ‘seeding stigmatisation into a population’.
Still, if the BBC thinks a game of statistics top-trumps is the best way to nudge the country into accepting the need for specific political, economic and social responses to pressing public health issues, then I’m all for it. I’ve managed to dig up some interesting statistics of my own, you see; statistics pertaining to the economic costs and consequences of overweight and obesity to and for the U.K. Government. “Oh. That’s… good?” you hazard, no doubt hoping to humour me until the police can locate you. “But, uhm, what’s it got to do with the U.K. Government’s response to Covid?” “Plenty,” I respond, suddenly with real menace in my voice; and from somewhere up above, out there in the impenetrable darkness, you catch the unmistakeable sound of a hatch quietly being lowered.
This is, let’s not forget, a Government that’s apparently so desperate – so pitifully, frantically, hyperventilatingly desperate – to protect an already overstretched NHS from reaching some kind of ‘breaking point’, that it feels it has no choice but to begin bribing young people into visiting their local jabbatoir. And what do those bribes involve? The provision of discounted, fat-drenched, cholesterol stuffed, artery-clogging fast food with some free exercise cancelling taxi rides thrown in for good measure. Bribes, in other words, that could only ever reinforce bad dietary habits amongst the young, fuel the U.K.’s already alarming obesity epidemic and… yep, you’ve guessed it: push an already overstretched NHS closer towards some kind of ‘breaking point’.
Ah, the NHS. Do you remember those halcyon days back in early-2020 when the authorities actually bothered to articulate a semi-coherent rationale for why we were all being forced to destroy our lives, livelihoods and businesses? The NHS was in grave crisis. It couldn’t cope. Covid had broken the system. The future would be nothing but a faded song of wistful regret, and the time of our deaths would be felt as every fractured, dissociated moment of life, and the withering of withered flowers would not cease, and the wrinkles of our palms would whisper to clairvoyants of tragedy, and when we spoke, our voices, hollow and resigned, would be as rat’s feet over broken glass, and…
Unless, that is, we obeyed. Unless we unquestioningly, unthinkingly, obeyed every order we were given. Unless we stayed home. Unless we saved lives. Unless we protected the NHS. If we did exactly as we were told, and if we continued indefinitely to do exactly as we were told, then maybe, just maybe, the authorities might be able to save our poor, ailing NHS from the threat of human sickness. And so it began…
Silence! Stand back! Look at the floor, epidemiological porridge! Declare your pathogens! Confess to your exposures! Did any of you DARE put the NHS at risk during your lunch hour this afternoon? Did you [sharp intake of breath!]… MINGLE?!? Have you [shudders!]… ‘TOUCHED’ one another?!? What’s that – “No,” you say?! Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we? Strip search their thoracic cavities, Sergeant, every hour on the hour. (Oh, and Sergeant? Make it hurt, will you). I said SILENCE! Breathe intermittently, you dogs, and even then only in a shallow manner! Excessive diaphragmatic movements are being monitored from above by drones! We won’t be taking any chances with the NHS’s health, do you hear me, filthy bollock cattle! Put a mask on! And another one! And another! Now put one over your genitalia for good measure! Then another one… over your face this time; over your face! Now put a bag over your head to protect your masks! Then another one! Nice and tight, come on; nice and tight! Now asphyxiate yourself with the plastic bags – reassure the receptionist at your local surgery that you aren’t an asymptomatic spreader! Stay home, protect your tumours! Vacuum your tongue! Pasteurise your carpets! Bleach your disinfectant! Now clap for the NHS, you scum; clap! Smile and gurn, do you hear me; SMILE AND GURN! Whoop and holler! Dribble and burp – like you mean it, parasites; LIKE YOU MEAN IT!! Now repeat after your local celebrity gauleiter, slowly and with an imbecilic smile playing about your lips, “Thank you, NHS; Thank you, N… LOUDER, MITOCHONDRIAL SLUT WHORES; LOUDER… Thank you, NHS; Thank you, NHS; Thank you, N…”
So that was the rationale: the Government asked us to protect ourselves and each other from Covid because to do so would also be to protect the NHS.
But hang on a minute… because if that’s the rationale, then what about overweight and obesity? Doesn’t the NHS need protection from those things too? Aren’t they also putting existential pressure on the NHS?
A recent Government guidance document, “Health Matters: Obesity and the Food Environment“, also makes clear that “younger generations are becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese into adulthood”. These “younger generations” are, of course, the generations our Government is seeking to bribe with discounted fatty foods and free taxi rides to get them herded into the sheep dip, rinsed, ear-tagged and then corralled up the exit ramp and out into the pharma’s fields to await subsequent analysis and, as necessary, burial after what the media will no doubt euphemistically describe as “a short illness”. More specifically, we know that 24% of all 16-24 year-olds are “overweight” and 13% are classified as “obese”. That’s 37% of all 16-24 year-olds in the U.K. doing themselves a little too well on the starchy foodstuffs. Sadly, even more belts need letting out a notch or two in the 25-34 year-old category: 35% of this age range are “overweight” whilst another 23% have had to be winched into the “obese” category.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Ours is a culture with a rather romantic view of people at this stage of life. Young thrusters, we often say. The change-makers. Bright young things, dashing about hither and yon like extras trapped in a never-ending episode of Normal People: forming unnecessarily complicated relationships, agonising about how they’d probably rather be having unnecessarily complicated casual sex instead, breaking off unnecessarily complicated relationships in unnecessarily complicated ways, learning absolutely nothing in the process and then dashing off somewhere else to do the whole thing again. But what these stats reveal is that, far from dashing about anywhere, two thirds of them would probably struggle to climb a flight of stairs without pausing for a bit of a breather halfway up. If the world is their oyster, it’s an oyster that’s been topped with butter, spinach and parsley and served up in a Rockefeller sauce.
It’s not like you can even argue that successive Governments have managed to get a grip on the situation and that, as a result, obesity now constitutes less of a health challenge to the U.K. than it once did. Back in 1993, for instance, 53% of people in this country were overweight or obese. In and of itself, of course, that’s a terrible stat and unlikely to have any of us pointing with pride at the abstemiousness of previous generations. But as we’ve already seen, 1993’s “terrible” had gotten much worse by 2019, the percentage of people falling into one or other of these categories having reached 64% (i.e., a 21% increase on 1993). Scarily, the rate of increase in those classifiable as obese was even higher, virtually doubling over that same period, from 15% to 28%. What we also know is that fat is bound up with socio-economic issues like social class. Deprived children and young adults (i.e., precisely the people for whom bribes of free fast-food and discounted taxis might seem particularly appealing) are far more likely to be overweight or obese. That’s why obesity prevalence of the most deprived 10% of children is now approximately twice that of the least deprived 10%.
As this last little factoid suggests, the problem with fat is that it isn’t just a personal trouble. Much like Covid, it’s a complex social, economic, biomedical, psychological, cultural and public health-related issue too. According to Public Health England, for instance, the NHS spends around £6.1 billion every year on the direct consequences of obesity. This spending is “direct” in the sense that people who either are, or who’ve allowed themselves to become, overweight and obese need treatment for health problems caused directly by the excess weight they’re carrying: high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, stroke, asthma and so on. But these people also increase their risk of developing a whole host of other diseases. If you’re obese you’re more likely to develop liver and kidney disease; you’re three times more likely than those with a normal Body Mass Index to develop colon cancer; you’re two and a half times more likely to develop high blood pressure (a risk factor for heart disease, by the way); you’re five times more likely to develop type two diabetes; you’re at risk of gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia during pregnancy; you’re more likely to require psychological support from trained healthcare professionals; you’re… well, you get the idea. The list of secondary complications is enormous.
As is the bill.
So whilst the NHS does indeed spend £6.1 billion directly on obesity each year, the total cost of obesity to society has been calculated at a whopping £27 billion. You don’t have to be a right-wing economist to see that individual, lifestyle-related health problems that cost that much are going to have huge political, social and economic consequences in a society like the U.K. where a universal, free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare system is funded through general taxation.
That’s why the Royal Society for Public Health are suggesting that unless actions they describe as “urgent and radical” are taken to tackle the issue, we’re likely to see a 59% rise in the direct costs of obesity to the NHS by 2050. One imagines the “urgent and radical” actions they have in mind probably don’t involve the government in subsidizing young people’s bad dietary and exercise habits. By the way, if we were to see a similar percentage rise in the overall cost of obesity to society across that same period, annual spending would rise to around £46 billion (although, interestingly, Public Health England predict a slightly steeper rise in the overall cost of obesity to society, their estimate coming in at £49.9 billion). To put that into context, it’s more than the U.K. Government currently spends each year on personal social services (£35 billion), transport (£44 billion), public order and safety (£38 billion) and housing and environment (£30 billion), and it’s not that far behind what they spend on national defence either (£55 billion).
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the Government’s decision to bribe vaccine-hesitant kids with fast-food and exercise-cancelling forms of mobility is that they surely must know the sorts of problems these inducements are likely to store up for the medium to long term. There’s a section of a Public Health England report from 2017 entitled, “Factors behind the rise in obesity levels“, in which the authors note that “more than a quarter of adults and one fifth of children eat food from out of home food outlets at least once a week”. They go on to describe that behaviour as “an important factor contributing to rising levels of obesity”, because the meals in question “tend to be associated with higher intakes of sugar, fat, and salt and portion sizes tend to be bigger”. Later, they declare that “we are not burning off enough of the calories that we consume”. But not to worry, everyone. Don’t panic. Public Health England have got a plan, you see. Well go on then, Public Health England, relate your no doubt facile and unnecessarily bureaucratic plan: “Public Health England’s plan to tackle obesity includes looking at behaviour change relating to healthier eating and increasing physical activity.”
So the same people Public Health England have been trying to wean off bad diets and low-exercise lifestyles for the last couple of years are now to be given incentives to eat takeaways and ride around with their feet up in the back of discounted taxis? Hmm.
It’s all pretty cynical, isn’t it? The Government didn’t set about improving vaccination rates amongst the young by offering free fresh fruit and vegetables because they knew full well that that wouldn’t work. Then they remembered: “The nippers like fast food! It makes them feel good!!” So they set about knowingly exploiting a human weakness to bring about their desired political outcome. In fact, that’s not just cynical. It’s basic human conditioning. Two stimuli are being linked together to produce a new learned response: the actions of eating fast food and not exercising already create positive feelings for many young people [unconditioned stimulus]; Government policy then associates doing the right thing by society with eating fast food and not exercising [conditioned stimulus]; and finally, when the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli have successfully been associated, a new conditioned response is created such that eating fast food and not exercising comes to be associated with doing the right thing by society.
But is this [choke!]… deliberate? Would they [gasp!]… knowingly set out to achieve such a thing? Are they [gulp!]… intentionally fattening up the kids because they’ve got ambitious, non-negotiable net-zero targets to meet by 2035 and the bloke who changes the bins and mops the floors for Professor Ferguson’s team over at Imperial College reckons teenage visceral fat might release fewer harmful emissions than fossil fuels if it’s fed into an internal combustion engine, so Boris has decided to give the thing a whirl with phase one of a mass culling exercise set to commence as soon as the average BMI for 16-21 year-olds hits 25.2?! Or are we to assume that [splutter!]… where Ivan Pavlov spent the 1890s showing that animals could be trained to salivate at the sound of a bell being rung because the ringing of that bell had previously accompanied the arrival of their food, the Government is now actively planning to coax its own livestock into salivating at the thought of falling Covid case numbers because similar declines previously always accompanied them getting on the outside of a double cheeseburger?!?
Deliberate intent, preparedness, meticulous planning… and Boris Johnson? One smiles. An administration led by Carrie’s parliamentary envoy could no more design and implement a policy capable of achieving its stated objectives than the man himself could organise a bukkake party in a Turkish brothel notorious even amongst its local competitors for operating rather a lax moral code.
But just because this eccentric little homage to human conditioning is the accidental side-effect of a poorly designed initiative, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should immediately dismiss it as meaningless or politically insignificant. Too often in life, we demarcate the deliberate from the accidental on the basis of intentionality. Deliberate acts, we say to ourselves, must mean something, must knowingly have been undertaken and must therefore reveal something of a person’s intentions. Accidents, on the other hand, we determine to be meaningless simply because they weren’t performed intentionally: “I’m sorry,” as the exculpatory saying so beloved of all recently exposed philanderers has it. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” But what if meaningful phenomena sometimes leaked out unknowingly when people caused accidents? What if slip-ups, stumbles, mispronunciations, repeated patterns of odd behaviour (etc.) could reveal someone’s intentions, motivations or desires without that person ever realising that that was the case?
Certainly that well-known white supremacist, Sigmund Freud, believed that these apparently trivial moments – what he referred to as ‘parapraxes’ but that we know simply as ‘Freudian slips’ – had the power to reveal the unconscious; those deepest, darkest, most powerful ideas that prey on a person’s mind, influencing their actions and their lives. Freud’s claim was that a person’s superego, normally so capable of repression, sometimes flickered momentarily, like a current switched off and on; and in those moments our actions would often betray us: grief still too raw to be processed after half a century, caught in the slip of a tongue; libidinal attachments to a particular prohibition, petrified in the repeated and apparently accidental mispronunciation of a word; or sadistic impulses embedded within a predictive computer model that consistently over-exaggerates epidemiological risk.
That’s not to say that all accidents constitute parapraxes. Naturally, there are events that are accidental in the original meaning of that word and are brought about by chance or fate. Where a government rarely if ever ends up salving one crisis by generating another, for instance, we may feel confident in describing those rare instances as “accidents”. But where that same government repeatedly responds to crises with initiatives that cannot help but generate other crises, we are perhaps entitled to consider whether something a little more parapraxis-like than chance might lie at the root of the problem…
…which is exactly the issue we need to consider here, because although the Government’s attempt to bribe kids into taking a jab today on the promise of flab tomorrow is indeed “accidental”, it can hardly be dismissed as a one-off. On the contrary, it provides further, highly suggestive empirical evidence that something akin to a Freudian “repetition compulsion” has recently taken hold across Government departments and the civil service more generally. Consider the highlights reel from this burgeoning dataset:
The Government bribes young people with fast-food and free taxi rides to coax them into taking a vaccine capable of reducing Covid-related pressure on the NHS… only to “accidentally” generate increased obesity-related pressure on the NHS; they mandate the wearing of single-use plastic masks in all public places to save the NHS from Covid-related pressure in the here-and-now… only to “accidentally” end up generating multiple and complex environmental and climate-related crises for the future; they force people to stay at home through lockdown policies designed to save the NHS from what they claim would otherwise have been unmanageable numbers of Covid-related hospitalisations in the here-and-now… only to “accidentally” end up generating unmanageable numbers of mental-health-related referrals and hospitalisations for the NHS in the future; they order the cancellation of many standard and pre-booked NHS appointments and operations to free up hospital beds during a global pandemic… only to “accidentally” generate a different type of health crisis as the NHS starts to come under pressure from conditions left untreated during lockdown, including cirrhosis, heart disease and diabetes; they order… and so it goes, policy after policy, month after month; a Government now so lost amidst the rubble of its own electoral mandate that it’s forgotten why or even when it started gambling away the country’s future in this giant, seemingly endless game of bureaucratic Whack-a-Mole.
Writing about the psychoanalytic import of parapraxes in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud likened them to “unnoticed openings which let a penetrating eye at once into a man’s soul”. I wonder. Could it be that the Government’s crisis-generative behaviour represents just such an unnoticed opening? Is what we’re seeing when we peer at these accidents with a “penetrating eye” not incompetence, but the very soul of power? Do these repeated Governmental slip-ups, in which crises proliferate rather than dwindle, mark the irruption into political life of power’s deepest, darkest unconscious desire; a desire to ‘take care of people’?
Now at this juncture, it’s likely that that part of us which still believes in the importance of welfarism to any civilised society might interject with a curt, “Yes; and what of it?” “True,” our better selves might concede: “It’s a little odd that bunglers like Johnson and Javid can’t seem to look at a crisis without about half a dozen others popping up all around them. But if these peculiar little fellows mean well; if their hearts are in the right place and all they’re trying to do is look out for us, then what’s the problem? It’s alright for the Toby Youngs and James Delingpoles of this world, isn’t it,” we’d continue. “Muscle-bound young Adonises that they are, roaming the countryside in unnecessarily tight-fitting loincloths, hunting wild boar with their bare hands and shagging all the birds in sight. They can take care of themselves, can’t they? But what about the rest of us, staggering from one hospital appointment to the next, hawking our irritable bowels, chronic gout and erectile dysfunction around what few clinicians remain who can still bear to look at our corpusculent bodies without retching involuntarily? Don’t we need a bit of support every now and then? Don’t we deserve a government that’s eager and willing to… take care of us?”
All true, no doubt. But the phrase, “to take care of someone” is peculiarly polysemic. It is of course easy to imagine it falling from the lips of a slightly plump, middle-aged adult care nurse named Bev, as she seeks to reassure a group of anxious parents that their sons and daughters are going to be just fine on their first-ever day-trip outside the confines of the institution. “Don’t worry,” one pictures this buxom Beveridgeian paternalist cooing, perhaps even lightly touching the elbow of the parent closest to her with her palm as she does so; “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of them.” But it’s just as easy to imagine the phrase cropping up in conversation between a gangland boss who feels he’s exhausted every means of mediation available to him during a protracted legal dispute with two entirely refractory business rivals, and a man known only as “Bang Bang Tony” whom he’s employed to break the impasse and bring negotiations to a satisfactory conclusion. “Don’t worry,” Bang Bang Tony murmurs, his voice echoing around a disused warehouse as they both stare dispassionately at two gagged, bound and badly beaten bodies in the boot of a car. “I’ll take care of them.”
Governments have been attempting to ‘take care of us’ (a la Bev), and at the same time ‘take care of us‘ (a la Bang Bang Tony) since the birth of modernity. Everywhere you look, you see the same benevolent illiberalism baked-into the very fabric of our social system, from the psychological sciences (“We want to know what makes citizens tick so that we might help them better adjust to social life [Bev]… and then manipulate them into doing what we want them to do” [Bang Bang Tony]), the spectre of vaccine mandates (“We want our citizens to be kept as safe as possible… which also means culling any undesirables who won’t allow us to force our vaccine into their bodies”) and the pension system (“We want our citizens to have the best quality of life possible in their old-age… which means that they’re going to have to do exactly as they’re told in the workplace until they reach the age of 67”), through to mortgages (“We’re committed to building a global, credit-based financial architecture capable of empowering all citizens to own their own home… which means they’ll have to behave like good little boys and girls, maintaining excellent credit scores throughout their lives and never, ever stepping out of paid employment and into those spaces of self-employment where we can’t so easily discipline them”), national curricula (“We want our young citizens to learn the skills necessary to succeed in a global, complex and increasingly interdependent world… so we’re going to indoctrinate them with all the globalist values and beliefs that we, and not you – their parents – believe to be the right – indeed the only – values and beliefs to hold in the 21st century”), and, well… just about every other structure, process or institution you care to think of, really.
The only thing that’s ever stood between this desire to ‘take care’ of people and the governmental colonisation of every aspect of everyday life has been a democratic system of government that, frankly, the British establishment has had buyer’s remorse about ever since Lord Grey, in a typically Whiggish moment of fat-headedness, signed them up to the blasted thing on an unbreakable, long-term leasehold contract. A nice sense of the proprieties of modern, egalitarian living prevents those who move within the rarefied upper echelons of our society from publicly endorsing the concept of feudalism, but one can’t help picturing them sighing a little wistfully whenever the topic of their forebears crops up over the breakfast table: Masters slaughtering Serfs, Serfs cowering in fear of Masters, and everything so arranged as to make for the best of all possible worlds.
It’s easy to celebrate democracy from below, isn’t it? Chartism, Peterloo, the Suffragettes – all that Ken Loach-y stuff where it never stops raining and everyone’s forever popping off home to die of consumption. Viewed from the perspective of those it dispossessed, however, it’s a total car crash. Not only does it render feudalism’s hitherto unbounded Masters into electorally ensnared Politicians, but then, as if that weren’t bad enough, it transforms their hitherto docile and unquestioningly obedient Serfs into ‘The Masses’, that is, a semi-literate, prematurely enfranchised rabble who’re always too busy rutting, boozing and fighting for you to ever properly be able to catch their attentions and persuade them that their interests would actually best be served by voting for you – as a Politician now, of course – and letting you ‘take care of them’, for the duration of a short Parliamentary term.
Can you even begin to imagine how maddening that must be for our contemporary elites, harbouring all the same urges as the Masters of old [“You will be taken care of, scum, or you will die…”], but now forced to parade about like a lot of silly asses in the garb of a Politician [“Hello madam, we’re from the government… would it be possible, do you think, for us to talk with you abou… oh yes… yes; yes of course… no… no, no… only for a few minutes, of course… yes, you’re very busy… yes, I understand entirely … well I’ll try and keep this short, then… ahem… so what we were hoping to talk to you about today was how – only with your permission, you understand – we’d like to bring some proposals before Parliament that have the express aim of taking care of you…”]?
Think about it counterfactually for a moment. Picture yourself as the scion of an immensely wealthy, privileged and well-connected British family. You were educated at Eton and Oxford. True, you only graduated with a third in PPE, and, in all honesty, you’d probably struggle to pour piss out of a boot even if someone told you there were instructions printed on the sole. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that while you were there you spent a goodish chunk of time hanging out with other, similarly vapid scions from other similarly wealthy, privileged and well-connected families, all of whom were just as keen as you to develop answers to all the world’s most pressing problems…
Entering the labour market soon thereafter, you swerve any actual engagement with the actual world, leveraging your family’s connections to secure a string of well-paid advisory positions with various, high-ranking government ministers. Working behind the scenes in Whitehall, you connect with many other likeminded morons, all of whom are just as keen as you to develop answers to the world’s most pressing problems…
… Babies made out of falafel! Carbon credits for non-binary parrakeets! Digital runner beans! Eco homes built from quinoa and soy wax!…
Before long, Conservative Party H.Q. are paying for you to have your head varnished in media-friendly light teak waterproof gloss, an important rite of passage that can only mean one thing: the Prime Minister feels you’re ready to appear on TV as a government spokesperson, no doubt because he’s heard you’re as keen as he is to develop answers to the world’s most pressing problems…
… Meat that photosynthesises! Windmills threshing greenhouse gases into rye flour! Solar-powered gas boilers!…
You become a regular at Davos. Klaus Schwab looks upon you as one of his closest friends and allies. Whenever your respective people can make it work diary-wise, you wrestle with Tony Blair on a specially designed, massage oil resistant foam crash mat in his private gymnasium. Bono sometimes pops by, just to watch (although sometimes you play “winner stays on”). In a sure sign, you’re being groomed to take over a major ministerial portfolio, the Conservative Party select you as their Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for a safe Conservative seat (CON +16,547) in a part of England that, apparently, the locals refer to as “South Yorkshire” (“Look it up,” you tell your special advisor during an early general election campaign strategy meeting,. “It might be significant”).
At last, you say to yourself. A chance to persuade the great unwashed that you’re ready, willing and able to take care of them. You’re excited, rightly so, and you turn up to your first hustings event prepped and ready to deliver a two-hour PowerPoint presentation. It’s your hope – indeed, your expectation – that its contents will inspire The Masses to become as keen as you are to develop answers to the world’s most pressing problems…
… Farms repurposed as nature reserves! Sex factories harnessing renewable energy from the force of thousands of incarcerated testicles slapping against thousands of gap-year volunteering arse-cheeks!…
Oh yes. You’ve got all the answers haven’t you, smarty pants. But do The Masses care? Not one bit. Society, the climate… planet Earth: they’re all dying, right now, right this minute, and you’ve only got about four minutes and 23 seconds to save everyone from disaster. And what do The Masses plan on doing about it? Nothing, that’s what. It’s almost as if they aren’t actually bothered about developing answers to the world’s most pressing problems. Certainly, all they seem to want to heckle you about, slide after slide, are laughably inconsequential local issues like mass unemployment, rising levels of homelessness, hyperinflation, widespread food shortages, children starving to death on the streets, civil war and a state-sponsored pogrom against the unvaccinated; issues which, in any case, are more properly addressed to their respective parish councils, town clerks or the organisers of their local Neighbourhood Watch schemes. Spiritually bloodied yet intellectually unbowed, you continue to lecture them right through to your final PowerPoint slide – slide number 152, to be precise – not because the audience is captivated – they aren’t – but because you enjoy the sound of your own voice; it is, after all, the voice of the only person in the room who appears keen to develop answers to all the world’s most pressing problems…
… Wheelchair friendly political re-education camps! Sustainable snuff films planting a tree for every corpse they generate! Post-colonial cucumbers!…
“Oi, mate,” one of these provincial inadequates – white, of course – interrupts just as you’re discoursing on the environmental harm caused by salaried jobs and how the government intends to replace them by 2030 with a state-sponsored programme of stay-at-home knitting, sourdough bread making and online pottery classes; “Oi, mate,” he micro-aggresses, “I’ve got to be able to pay my bills; I’ve got to be able to survive, haven’t I?” Enraged at his impudence, you feel like pointing out that there are more important things in life than survival, particularly his, but thankfully, wiser counsels prevail.
And why must you be thankful?
Because as amazing as it would no doubt seem to your feudal ancestors, you depend on these people. Once every four years or so democracy requires that you, the scion of an immensely wealthy, privileged and well-connected British family who, lest we forget, is already in receipt of pretty much all of the answers to pretty much all of the world’s most pressing problems, must chase around after these ill-bred peasants and plead with them to lend you their votes so you might then take care of them properly.
…and it’s at that moment, just as you’re reflecting on the unfairness of it all, that you realise the truth: democracy’s nothing but a tawdry pantomime; a tawdry pantomime in which people with appalling names, like Karen – white, of course – from ghastly sounding places you’ve never heard of, like Doncaster, who claim to own things you don’t even believe exist, like Nail Bars, get the opportunity to stand up at hustings events and call people such as yourself names, like “shithouse”…
…and just as Karen’s unexpectedly standing up and calling you a shithouse, you realise that democracy also involves the local South Yorkshire media standing about, tittering away to themselves and filming the whole debacle for the nightly news…
…and as you’re stood there watching the media tittering away to themselves and filming the whole debacle for the nightly news, you realise that democracy also involves women like Karen doing other, similarly unexpected things, like climbing up onto stage, grabbing a microphone and then not asking the question a member of your campaign team had pre-prepared for her – “Why are you so amazingly, awe-inspiringly keen to develop answers to the world’s most pressing problems? P.S. You’re well hunky, can I have your autograph?” – but instead recounting a story that everyone in your campaign team had expressly warned her not to recount; a story about how her 92 year-old grandma – white, of course – died of hyperthermia last winter because the government – “your c*** of a f***ing government,” as she puts it – took away her gas boiler and replaced it with a giant hamster wheel, which the local council told her she’d have to start running around in if she wanted to keep warm; and besides, even if she didn’t want to keep warm, they added, the only way she’d be able to generate enough electricity to power that environmentally harmful toaster she seemed so fond of would be for her to run around in that hamster wheel all night for at least eight hours, they stipulated, at high-speed, they insisted, probably just as fast as Usain Bolt, they speculated, and if she managed to do all of that, they continued, she might be able to generate just enough electricity to lightly toast one side of a bagel come the morning, not that they were going to guarantee it, they hedged, certainly not in writing, they shrieked, are you mad, they asked, that was more than their jobs were worth, they laughed, and so it was left that they’d come back in a week or two to see if her corpse were ready to be composted and its carbon resources harvested to pay back all of that costly environmental debt she’d gotten herself into with the council on account of her having insisted on being able to use an environmentally harmful toaster whilst she were still alive, and apparently Karen had found her grandma only the next morning, and…
…and although you’re not really listening to her, because she’s called Karen, and she’s from Doncaster, and she owns something you don’t really believe exists called a Nail Bar, you suddenly realise that democracy also involves the scions of immensely wealthy, privileged and well-connected British families in thinking on their feet and spotting opportunities to slip media-friendly sound-bites into hustings events regarding the government’s “build back better” campaign; so you cut into her incessant, self-pitying babble just as she’s starting to cry for what seems like the umpteenth time, and you start off by giving her a bit of the old flannel about how hard it must’ve been to find her grandma dead in a giant hamster wheel like that, what with her half-frozen body still spinning around and around, almost as if, you add, in an attempt to lighten the mood and draw a laugh from the rest of the audience, her spirit had lingered in the room and was still hellbent on having that toasted bagel for breakfast, haha, but no, you go on, suddenly serious again; no Karen, if you were to be as honest as everyone here tonight would want their local constituency MP to be, you say, throwing a coquettish look out towards the audience as you do so, you’d have to say that it was actually quite selfish of her grandma to have been asking for luxuries like heating in the first place, particularly given how hard the government’s been working to [ever-so-slight pause for effect] … ‘Build Back Better’ ever since last year’s 11-month long climate change lockdown; but if it’s any consolation, you go on, the Environment Agency’s Chief Executive – a good friend of mine, you remark chattily; we often play squash together, you add – has been saying for years now that the delicate ecosystem of Shropshire’s great crested yellow newt is under threat from climate change, so surely, you go on, throwing that same coquettish look as before, only now towards the media, and thinking as you do so that if this next little soundbite doesn’t make the local evening news and seal the deal on Karen’s ballot paper then you’re not the politician you thought you were; surely, you say, the death of a selfish old grandma who insisted on running around in a giant hamster wheel all the time just to avoid spending a little bit of her citizen’s wage on an extra jumper or two is “a price worth paying” if it saves the life of even one Shropshire great crested yellow toad…
…and then you realise that democracy also means learning to cope when The Masses react in unexpected ways, because for some unfathomable reason, your little sliver of ad-libbed brilliance hasn’t calmed Karen down at all; quite the opposite, in fact, because now she’s calling you a c*** and a w***** as well as a shithouse; and then, just as you’re looking around the room a little nervously, unsure how to react because Karen’s shouting incoherently, you suddenly realise that she isn’t actually shouting incoherently at all, but in fact asking you a question, specifically, whether it would interest you to learn that that 11-month climate lockdown you seem to be so f***ing proud of cost her and her family – white, of course – their home, because thanks to t***s like you in your little b****** sucking c*** bubble down in Westminster, her husband – white, of course – and her were forcibly stopped from going out to work by the army, and all because the temperature of the f***ing country had apparently risen 0.3 Celsius above what those sanctimonious, salaried c***s in SAGE deemed to be safe for human existence – 0.37 Celsius, Karen, you try to interject with all the prim, iconoclastic righteousness of a BBC fact checker, but she’s not interested in the truth; sadly, you remind yourself, people like her never are – and now they’re having to live in their car, she says, and there’s not a night that goes by without her wishing she had the mental courage to f***ing hang herself…
…scarcely feasible in the make and type of car you’re likely to be able to afford, you find yourself thinking; and just as you’re about to put that point to her, you remember that democracy’s also about communication and dialogue and nudging people like Karen into understanding that our collective, democratic ability to find answers to the world’s most pressing problems is far more important than her footling little personal tragedies, so instead, you try to coax some tenderness into a voice that, frankly, has had just about enough of Karen for one lifetime, and you reach out to put a compassionate hand on her vulnerable arm, hoping that at least some of the media’s cameras caught the fleeting moment of attempted tenderness that ensued before Karen backed away, her face registering utter revulsion, and then you put your hand back down by your side and you quietly remind her that she’s only angry about losing her home because she owned one in the first place, and if she votes for you in the upcoming election, you promise that you’ll fight as hard as any local constituency MP the length and breadth of the country in order to ensure that people like her will never, ever have to worry about owning anything ever again, and what’s more, you add with a flourish, you can guarantee that she’ll be happier because of it…
…but then she starts crying again, and calling you a c*** again, and, frankly, you start to wonder whether she might not have a learning difficulty, but before you have a chance to pursue the implications of that thought and whether it might or might not help your media relations team to smear Karen as an anti-vaxxer, you suddenly realise that democracy doesn’t just involve the local media in standing at the back of a hustings event and tittering away to themselves, because apparently it also involves them in starting to cluster around you, invading your personal space with cameras, microphones, booms and all sorts of other recording devices and letting plain but sensible-looking female political correspondents, all of whom seem to be sporting unnecessarily low-cut tops, ask you all sorts of impertinent questions, like whether you’re planning to stand aside from the election contest what with having been so insensitive to a recently bereaved daughter, and, more generally, having made such a colossal ass of yourself…
…and then you realise that democracy is also about responding nimbly to unexpected questions whenever they’re put to you at hustings events by plain but sensible looking female political correspondents, all of whom seem to be sporting unnecessarily low-cut tops, so in less than ideal circumstances, what with Karen now standing just a few feet away from you, sobbing uncontrollably and, every so often, whimpering that you’re a *****, a **** and a *******, you respond as best you can, and you say, no, not at all, not at all, uhm, the thought has, er, never crossed your, ah, mind, haha, because [“…cold-hearted f***ing c***…”]… er, hmm… ahem, er, because, you see, you’re passionate about, uhm, South Yorkshire and it’s been a, er, long held ambition of yours to, ah, represent a run-down, ex-coal mining community like, um, Liverpool, and that, er, what impresses you most about Geordies, as they like to be known down at the rugger stadium, haha, is that they’re all so, uhm, authentically poor [“…psychopathic sh*t weasel…”] …er, yes, they’re all so authentically poor, uhm, and not just, you know, er, putting it on for a laugh, but, uhm, actually really passionate about being poor, haha, and, ah, you know, despite the many chances that your government has, er, given these people to succeed in life [“…shithouse w***er…”] …er, yes, as you were saying, to, uhm, succeed in life, and, ah, to better themselves, they’ve, uhm, always wanted to honour the memories of their fathers and their fathers before them, all of whom were, ah, desperately poor too [“…delusional f***ing d***head…”] …yes, quite… ahem, so they’ve, um, steadfastly remained in the gutter themselves, and you can, ah, absolutely, wholeheartedly respect that kind of personal [“…heartless b******…”] …uhm, as you were saying, you can absolutely, wholeheartedly respect that, er, kind of integrity, haha, even though you might not be able to understand it yourself, or, you know, haha, even condone it, really…
…and then you realise that democracy is also, in the end, about polling stations, and poll clerks welcoming voters to polling stations, and voters popping ballot papers into boxes, and tellers counting the ballot papers that have been popped into ballot boxes, and presiding officers whispering the likely results into candidates’ ears, and returning officials announcing the actual results… and then it’s also about your campaign team manager sidling up to you to confirm that, yes, the presiding officer was right and that, no, no noughts had been left off your count, and that, yes, you did receive only 367 votes – on a 72% swing away from the Conservative Party, he adds, but without being able to look you in the face at any point – and that, yes, as a result, you’ve lost your deposit. (“Forgive them father,” you plead with a grim-faced Tony Blair later via Zoom. “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do…”)
…and then, in the end, you realise that democracy also means ill-educated, appallingly common women with names like Karen, from ghastly sounding towns like Doncaster who own things that you still, even now, don’t really believe exist, like Nail Bars, being able to thwart the scions of immensely wealthy, privileged and well-connected British families as they attempt to gain democratic office and implement their answers to all of the world’s most pressing questions…
…and it’s only a few days later, as Tony Blair’s throwing you to the massage oil resistant foam crash mat in his private gymnasium and Bono’s rushing over to massage your inner thighs (“But it’s my back that hurts,” you protest), that you realise what should have been obvious to you all along: that democracy isn’t working; that it can’t help you to answer the world’s most pressing problems; that it doesn’t work in the best interests of The Masses; that it doesn’t keep The Masses safe from themselves; that it doesn’t help you to…
…take care of them.
Perhaps now we understand why, in the deepest, darkest recesses of these peoples’ souls, there are leftover resides, remnants from a different age; feudal desires that have lingered in the half-light of the unconscious for many centuries, repressed but never forgotten; unconscious, id-like dreams in which democracy’s Masses appear altogether different; in which a succession of crises render them a little more Serf-like, a little more obedient, a little less impudent; a type of democracy in which the Karens of this world are all morbidly obese, vulnerable, bed-bound, diabetic, wheezing asthmatics who’d need a specialised team and a mechanical winch to get up before they could even think about attending hustings events; a type of democracy in which morbidly obese, bed-bound, diabetic, wheezing asthmatic Karens who’d need specialised teams and mechanised winches to get up would no longer call their Masters shithouses, but, on the contrary, would be grateful to them for taking care of their complex medical needs via a free at the point of use healthcare system; a type of democracy in which morbidly obese, bed-bound, diabetic, wheezing asthmatic yet oh-so-grateful Karens would unthinkingly trust their political Masters to take care of their complex medical needs via a free at the point of use healthcare system, and, as a result, would quickly learn to unthinkingly trust those same Masters to implement all of their other answers to all of the world’s other problems; a type of democracy, in fact, that would be almost entirely feudal in its outlook.
Serfs, not citizens. Noblesse oblige, not citizenship. Confession, not debate. Corvee not wages. Lineage, not meritocracy. Outlaws not intellectual dissenters. Dispensations and indulgences for the rich, not equality before the law. The Lord’s bailiffs, not the state’s police. Banalities, not rent. Tithes, not taxes. Forelock tugging, not freedom of assembly.
Sometimes, of course, the details of these Freudian phantasies vary: Karen losing her Nail Bar business during a lockdown crisis; Karen losing her home thanks to an inflation crisis; Karen’s Nail Bar business taxed out of existence due to a climate crisis; and so on and so forth. But however much they vary, these dreams always have the same ending: Karen getting finagled into a position where she can be taken care of by the state… and then taken care of by the state.
That’s why the Government’s recent policy of incentivising young people to take a vaccine by stuffing them full of discounted fast food is about more than just an ill-judged, poorly thought-through initiative. It’s indicative of a wider repetitive compulsion that’s taken hold across Government more generally, wherein the treatment of one crisis via government intervention will always – accidentally, of course – proliferate crises that, in their turn, will require further government intervention that will always – accidentally, of course – proliferate crises that, in their turn, will require government intervention that will always – accidentally, of course – proliferate crises that, in their turn, will require government intervention that will always – accidentally, of course – proliferate crises that, in their turn, will require government intervention that will always… and so on and so forth, the state slowly but surely abrogating to itself ever more of the interventionist powers it regards as necessary to take care of citizens during the course of multiple, unending crises. Thus do we find power’s unconscious desire to ‘take care of people’ slowly leaking into the social realm, each successive crisis taking away just that little bit more of a person’s individual autonomy, independence and self-reliance:
…Karen the Nail Bar owning victim of an obesity crisis, now too fat to move unaided and thus entirely dependent on, and oh-so-grateful for, healthcare that’s paid for by the state…
…Karen the morbidly obese Nail Bar owner, subsequently the victim of a financial crisis, now too indebted to continue running her own business and thus entirely dependent on, and oh-so- grateful for, the state’s largesse…
…Karen the morbidly obese, bankrupted, former Nail Bar owner, subsequently the victim of a climate crisis, now too poor to afford the ground source heat pump her mortgage company insists she must install before agreeing to re-mortgage her home and thus entirely dependent on, and oh-so-grateful for, the state’s sheltered housing programme…
…Karen the homeless, morbidly obese, bankrupted former Nail Bar owner, now so emotionally and psychologically damaged by successive crises that she struggles to get angry about anything and is just oh-so-very-very-grateful to the state for everything it’s done for her…
…“Thank you, NHS,” wheezes Karen, the multiple crisis survivor. “Thank you, Boris; thank you, SAGE; thank you, Professor Neil Ferguson; thank you, Sajid; thank you, Greta; thank you the Bank of England; thank you, AstraZeneca; thank you, the mob that stabbed and then mutilated my selfish, unvaccinated son; thank you, The Samaritans; thank you, Alcoholics Anonymous; thank you, my wonderful pawnbrokers; thank you, mental health crisis intervention teams; thank you, the outreach team that looks after my homeless daughter; thank you, Rishi; thank you… Sire… ☺️☺️☺️…”
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Feudalism of our near-future.
Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating. So let me finish by asking you this question: If you were an over-centralised governmental apparatus; and if you were sliding ever closer towards a form of benevolent authoritarianism in which Parliamentary democracy was regarded as some kind of luxury; and if you were quietly signing contracts with private tech companies so as to better develop a digital vaccine passport system that could one day segue into a Chinese style social credit system capable of rewarding the compliant and ruining the recalcitrant; and if you had a digital currency to develop so as to better keep tabs on everyone’s spending; and if you had computer automated vehicles to roll out so as to better understand where everyone’s driving, when they’re driving there and what they’re doing when they get there; and if you had a Green Agenda to push that won’t do a single thing to protect the environment but will cause irreparable harm to small and medium-sized homegrown businesses, pushing their bankrupt owners and redundant employees back into the normative disciplinary clutches of salaried jobs at large, bullshit globalist corporations; and if you had unpopular, post-colonial pedagogies to foist on children and students so as to better cultivate their hatred for their own heritage, their own identity, their own success in life; and if you had net-zero Carbon targets to chase so as to better win bragging rights amongst your G20 pals while simultaneously handing every last drop of geo-political power you ever thought you had over to the Chinese: if you were that type of government, then what type of citizen would you rather be dealing with 10-20 years from now: those who were self-reliant, resilient, rebellious, critical, sceptical, truculent, autonomous, individualistic and capable of taking care of themselves… or those who were morbidly obese, bankrupt, ill-educated, dispossessed, broken, ground down, indoctrinated, apathetic and generally incapable of doing anything other than letting the scions of immensely wealthy, privileged and well-connected British families take care of them?
Freddie Attenborough is a former lecturer in sociology.You can find his blog here.
A middle-aged woman, walking along a pavement in the afternoon sunshine, sees a young family approaching and instantly becomes stricken with terror at the prospect of contracting a deadly infection. A man in a queue in a garage kiosk leans into the face of another and screams, “You selfish idiot! Hundreds of people will die because you don’t wear a mask.” The aggressor is oblivious to the fact that his victim suffers a history of asthma and anxiety problems. A neighbour puts on a face covering and plastic gloves before wheeling her dustbin to the end of her drive. These are three recent examples of many similar events I’ve observed or read. What could be the main reason for such extraordinary behaviour? Has the emergence of the SARS-COV-2 virus magically re-wired our brains, transforming many of us into vindictive germaphobes?
No, of course not. These extreme human reactions are, I believe, primarily the result of the Government’s deployment of covert psychological ‘nudges’, introduced as a means of increasing people’s compliance with the Covid restrictions.
In an article in the Critic, I discussed the remit of the Government’s behavioural scientists in the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE which offers advice to the Government about how to maximise the impact of its Covid communications strategy. The methods of influence recommended by the SPI-B are drawn from a range of ‘nudges’ described in the Institute of Government document, MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, several of which primarily act on the subconscious of their targets – the British people – achieving a covert influence on their behaviour. The three ‘nudges’ to have evoked the most controversy, among both psychological practitioners and the general public, are: the strategic use of fear (inflating perceived threat levels); shame (conflating compliance with virtue); and peer pressure (portraying non-compliers as a deviant minority) – or ‘affect’, ‘ego’ and ‘norms’, to use the language of behavioural science. (Specific examples of how each of these covert strategies have been used throughout the Covid crisis are described here).
The British Psychological Society (BPS) is the leading professional body for psychologists in the U.K. According to their website, a central role of the BPS is: “To promote excellence and ethical practice in the science, education and application of the discipline.” In light of this remit, I – together with 46 other psychologists and therapists – wrote a letter to the BPS on January 6th, 2021, expressing our ethical concerns about the use of covert psychological strategies as a means of securing compliance with Covid restrictions. In particular, our alarm centred on three areas: the recommendation of ‘nudges’ that exploit heightened emotional discomfort as a means of securing compliance; implementing potent covert psychological strategies without any effort to gain the informed consent of the British public; and harnessing these interventions for the purpose of achieving adherence to contentious and unevidenced restrictions that infringe basic human rights.
Responses from the BPS to our initial letter were slow and circuitous. However, on July 1st we received an email from Dr. Roger Paxton, the Chair of the Ethics Committee, which clarified the BPS’s position: in the Committee’s view, there is nothing ethically questionable about deploying covert psychological strategies on the British people as a means of increasing compliance with public health restrictions.
An in-depth inspection of Dr. Paxton’s defence of the BPS reveals that it is evasive, disingenuous and wholly unconvincing.
First, he quibbles about the use of the word “covert”, arguing that the compliance techniques under scrutiny are more appropriately described as “indirect”. Behavioural-science documents routinely refer to the psychological strategies underpinning Government communication campaigns as evoking responses from people that are “unconscious”, “subconscious” or “automatic”. The crucial point is that the human targets of these ‘nudges’ are often unaware that the intention of the SPI-B psychologists is to scare, shame them and socially pressure them to conform. The MINDSPACE publication – co-authored by Professor David Halpern, an SPI-B and SAGE member – seems to concur: “Citizens may not fully realise that their behaviour is being changed… Clearly, this opens Government up to charges of manipulation… [as] it may offer little opportunity for citizens to opt-out.” (p. 66)
Second, Dr. Paxton rejects the idea that it would be ethical to offer citizens an opportunity to opt-out by asserting that the application of covert psychological strategies to shape people’s behaviour falls outside the realm of individual consent. The BPS appears to be claiming that an appeal to some nebulous, ideologically-driven concept of social decision-making exempts psychologists from the fundamental requirement to seek a person’s informed agreement before delivering an intervention. So according to the BPS – the formal guardians of ethical practice in the U.K. – the Covid communications strategy, aimed at achieving mass behavioural change, was intended to influence some anonymous collective rather than the actions of as many individuals as possible.
Again, the BPS stance is at odds with Professor Halpern’s position. In his 2019 book, Inside the Nudge Unit, he states: “If Governments… wish to use behavioural insights, they must seek and maintain the permission of the public. Ultimately, you – the public, the citizen – need to decide what the objectives, and limits, of nudging and empirical testing should be.” (p. 375)
Third, Dr. Paxton’s claim that the levels of fear throughout the Covid pandemic were proportionate to the viral threat is ill-informed and does not stand up to scrutiny. The minutes of the SPI-B meeting of March 22nd, 2020, demonstrate that its endorsement of a covert psychological strategy was a calculated decision to scare the British people, recommending that: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent… using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” In her book, A State of Fear, Laura Dodsworth interviewed members of SPI-B who confirmed that there had been a concerted effort to elevate the fear levels of the general public. One committee member, Educational Psychologist Dr. Gavin Morgan, admitted: “They went overboard with the scary message to get compliance.” Another SPI-B member – who wished to remain anonymous – was even more forthright: “The way we have used fear is dystopian… The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable. It’s been like a weird experiment. Ultimately, it backfired because people became too scared.”
The mission to indiscriminately instil fear in the British public has been highly effective. An opinion poll prior to ‘Freedom Day’ suggested most people were worried about the prospect of lifting the remaining Covid restrictions. Even now, when all the vulnerable groups have been offered vaccination, many of our citizens remain tormented by ‘Covid Anxiety Syndrome’ – a disabling combination of fear and maladaptive coping strategies – with 20% of the population ‘markedly affected’. And this psychology-assisted fear inflation will be responsible for a substantial proportion of the extensive collateral damage associated with the restrictions, including excess non-Covid deaths and mental health problems.
Fourth, Dr. Paxton’s response makes no reference to the use of shame and scapegoating, and whether these are acceptable strategies for a civilised society to use. One can only assume that the BPS either views these tactics as acceptable, or that they seek to avoid acknowledging that psychologists have recommended practices that, in some respects, resemble the methods used by totalitarian regimes such as China, where the state inflicts pain on a subset of its population in an attempt to eliminate beliefs and behaviour they perceive to be deviant.
The dismissal of our ethical concerns by the BPS was predictable: a cursory glance at the scientists comprising the SPI-B shows that several of its members are also influential figures in the BPS; a major conflict of interest that renders the impartiality of their views highly questionable. What was surprising was the strident tone of Dr. Paxton’s rejoinder, as exemplified by his assertion that the psychologists’ role in the pandemic response demonstrated “social responsibility and the competent and responsible employment of psychological expertise”. I suspect the lady trembling on the pavement, the young man being verbally abused in the garage, and the neighbour donning mask and gloves to wheel out her dustbin – along with the many others in similar positions – might all beg to differ.
Dr. Gary Sidley is a retired NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist.