The elite have not had to overcome adversity and are therefore ill-equipped to cope in a crisis – sound familiar, Boris?

Behavioural neuroscientist Kelly Lambert argues that the wealthy do not make contingency plans, which might explain this government’s disastrous response to coronavirus

Sean Smith
Monday 02 November 2020 09:17
Boris Johnson announces second national lockdown

“If you’re going through hell, keep going,” exhorted Winston Churchill. Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, was not for turning. The Conservative Party’s engine doesn’t generally come with a reverse gear but boy-racer Boris Johnson can’t stop pulling handbrake turns. It’s not sustainable and he knows it. He must hear the murmuring ghosts of a party that has always conflated power with the “true grit” of resolution.

This government is out of step with modern Britain; ours is an austere age, where ordinary people have learned to just about manage by hoping for the best, while preparing for the worst. We make contingency plans, we put safety nets in place, because we have to. Agile, strategic planners have long been the most sought-after workers in the job market. But this government seems to have missed that memo.

A central premise of Kelly Lambert’s fascinating book, Well Grounded: The Neurobiology of Rational Decisions, is that privilege compromises the brain’s ability to contingency plan. Lambert, a behavioural neuroscientist, argues that people who have not had to overcome adversity are particularly ill-equipped to cope when the status quo tips over into crisis.

Lambert believes that the rich are disadvantaged when it comes to “building the brain’s contingency circuit”. They tend to see the time and energy spent on back-up plans as an unnecessary waste of mental resources because, for those with a gilded back story, Plan A has almost always sufficed. She argues that, in extremis, privilege reverts to “warped neural processing” and “brain bubbles” destined to burst on first contact with reality.

Sound familiar? Two-thirds of the current cabinet were privately educated, which might go some way to explaining the magical thinking behind air bridges, “world-beating” tracing apps and moonshots. 

No surprise, then, that when crisis has struck in recent years, we were underprepared. Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council, warned of there being “a special place in hell” for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out”.  

And Covid’s Karma has blindsided this cabinet of Brexiteers, too. Johnson’s front bench lacks the problem-solving skills to navigate this pandemic because most of them didn’t get where they are today by having any truck with tricksy nuance. Johnson can no longer dismiss detail as the purview of his “girly swot” predecessors in Downing Street.

In a true meritocracy, leaders graduate through the tempering tiers of middle management, where they learn to overcome obstacles by anticipating, mitigating and detailed action planning. It is often tedious, tiresome forensic work that the privileged can by-pass on their way to senior positions. Lambert argues that by identifying and allying yourself with an organisation’s prevailing orthodoxy, an elite can sidestep the engine room on the way to the boardroom. It’s a form of institutionalised confirmation bias and Brexit’s turbo charging effect on the careers of today’s cabinet ministers would appear to be a fine example.

The prime minister presides over an administration that seems to regard contingency planning as a precursor to compromise. Brexit posturing has hardwired this reflex into the government’s standard operating procedure. As a negotiating strategy in Brussels it might have some merit but, domestically, it’s led to a disastrous series of avoidable government climb downs on everything from exam algorithms to free school meals and fatally delayed circuit breakers. 

Ordinary people chalk failures down to experience and try to learn from them by reflecting on their own performance. But the truly entitled are spared that indignity and can outsource failures to others through an unedifying round of blame games. Lambert thinks that institutionalised confirmation basis indemnifies ascendant elites by discrediting and marginalising non-believers.

Look at Dominic Cummings’ feud with Whitehall, for example. Expecting a government to operate without working closely with its senior civil service is like expecting a car to run without an engine. As cabinet ministers pull levers that don’t connect to gears, government stalls.

This generation of jaunty journalist politicians did not have to manage people or events as they climbed the greasy pole of politics. Boris Johnson has always had a newspaper columnist’s tendency to skim over the facts, selecting only those that served his viewpoint.

But Covid-19 is a formidable foe from every angle. The prime minister’s tendency to see detail as beneath his pay grade is no longer an option; he needs to earn the £160,000 salary he is struggling to survive on.

Command of detail has been a familiar failing throughout Johnson’s colourful career, from misappropriating fictitious quotations to infamously misleading his former leader, Michael Howard. The Tory grandees must be beginning to wonder how much longer they can overlook his frailties. Their out-of-touch star has been comprehensively outclassed  by a “well-grounded” young man from Manchester. Marcus Rashford has taught this government a lesson in integrity.  

Those Tory grandees may well conclude that this war, as well as the war on the virus, was lost years ago on the playing fields of Eton. Kelly Lambert would no doubt agree.

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