The UK Covid disaster and the Tories’ ‘situational rationality’

Much of the mainstream comment about the Health & Social Care and Science & Technology Select Committees’ report on the government’s handling of Covid has focused on why the lockdown came so late.

This is unsurprising for two reasons.

First, a focus on whether or not SAGE’s advice on lockdown measures came far too late has allowed the usual suspects to please their paymasters, by suggesting that it’s scientists’ heads that should roll, not politicians’.

Second, the report itself is very weak on the failure to deal with the second wave, arguing incorrectly that the emergence of a mutation could not been predicted, even though mutating is what viruses do, and even though plenty of people, including me, predicted as the first wave subsided.

The early failure are, though, important to consider, because it created the conditions for subsequent failures; the length of the first lockdown, which could have been shorter had it come sooner, led Johnson to develop his “all over by Christmas” ‘Freedom Day’ promises and then his “all over by Christmas” hubris, and led Sunak, in competition with Johnson, towards Eat Out to Help Out, such that case numbers were never low enough to allow for very targeted trace and isolation on the Taiwan model.

Alongside this, the decision to outsource Test & Trace to Tory mates rather than invest in and trust NHS, public health and local government capacity was also largely down to late, panicked planning, and meant there was no later political possibility of rowing back on these arrangements and localizing the service.

So yes, the late lockdown killed thousands in the first wave, but italso largely created the conditions for the even bigger second wave. To that extent at least, a focus on the early failure is warranted from this Select Committee.

But there’s also an enormous gap in the report on the early failure — a gap we can only fill for ourselves if we grapple, as Phil B-C has been doing for us, with the history nature of the Conservative party.

The gap is this.

The report asks, more or less, why the government focused on questions of compliance or non-compliance and, till it was too late, favour the idea put fotward by some of the behavioural advisers that people might not follow the strict measures needed to reduce the R rate. But it doesn’t ask what the hell behaviourial psychologists were even in the room at that time?

This isn’t to denigrate behavioural psychology as a discipline [1], but I would suggest that in most other countries, the order of decision-making was different; instead of having a sub-committee to advise on how the public might react to whatever measures might be introduced and then deciding if the epidemiology could be made to fit those behavioural tolerance forecasts, in other places the ‘hard’ science of virus spread came first, decisions about what needed to be done to stop the spread were made, and then perhaps the psychologists were asked about the messaging needed.

So while other countries were getting on with actually controlling the virus, the behavioural committee Sci-B was arguing for a herd immunity approach as the best way of controlling the population.

One view is that explaining that members of the community are building some immunity will make this acceptable. Another view is that recommending isolation to only one section of society risks causing discontent.” (March 4th SCI-B minutes, March 4th 2020)

My explanation for this uniquely stupid way of doing things remains much the same as it was when I tweeted an angry thread on March 12th 2020, as the scale of the government’s failure to act was becoming clear (to me, if not to mainstream journalists) and a full 11 days before lockdown came into force (14 days before it became law):

My main contention here , then, is that the government’s failure to take early action was caused not just by Johnson’s personal mix of dilettantism, arrogance and ambition to Churchillian greatness, but was more deeply rooted in what Phil B-C has called the particular “situational rationality” (p.40) of the Conservative party elite which evolved under Cameron’s equally dilettante leadership, and under the influence of which many of the senior Tories now responsible for the disaster cut their political teeth (including Cummings, whatever he now protests).

Let me flesh this out a little.

Back in 2015, I wrote about how Cameron, from 2008 onwards, had courted two theories of how to do politics which were apparently incompatible with each other.

The first was behavioural economist Richard Thaler, who acted as adviser to Cameron around 2008. Thaler promoted what has become known as ‘nudge theory’ — essentially the idea that governments can modify the behaviour of their citizens by persuading them that lots of other people are modifying theirs, and that they should to. This led, in government, to the well-funded and still extant Behavioural Insights team in the Cabinet Office, with its particular focus on Randomised Control Trials as an effective means of keeping the people in their place.

The second was Nassim Nicholas Taleb, purveyor of Black Swan theory. By 2012, Taleb was a regular guest at 10 Downing Street, and his views on risk and uncertainty — interpreted as arguments in favour of conservative public financing — were sweeping the party hierarchy.

These tow political routes can be considered incompatible because the former assumes that human actions can be moulded into regular patterns which create desirable outcomes on a regular basis, and is a form of central planning, while the latter is based on the view that central planning is an irrelevance in the face of the inherent uncertainty of complex human interactions taking place in a complex and uncertain natural environment.

But such consideration, and conclusion of incompatibility, comes from outwith the “consciousness of the lifeworld they [the Tory elite] inhabit” (to quote Phil again.

The key to understanding Cameronism lies, I suggest, with Tory historiographer James Bulpitt, writing from within the Tory tradition (though he was not part of the elite himself), and therefore with a real grasp of how that Tory lifeworlds forms the situational rationality of the (often) governing party). As I said back in 2014, invoking Bulpitt’s 1983 work on the distinction between high and low politics in the pre-Thatcher era:

The best way to assess Conservatism under Cameron is less through the lens of overt ideology, but more through that of the ‘operational code’ of government. The operational code of Cameronism [is]much more linked to the high politics/low instincts which informed governing styles before Thatcher, than it was to the managerialism that emerged in the Thatcher years. This return to an earlier operational code…. is largely rooted in the upper class backgrounds of our new rulers.

The way this new-but-old operational code played out in the Cameron years is familiar to us, and many of the details are in Phil’s book.

At a’high politics’ level, a twisted, Etonian version of Taleb won out: the disastrous Boys’ Own Adventure in Libyan was fought on the basis that it was a necessary show of strength in an uncertain world, and the Little Englander politics that led ultimately to Brexit was in the same statecraft vein of “collecting opportunities” at the expense of neighbours and soon-to-be ex-partners, although of course it was also driven by the increasing need to shore up the vote with right wing nationalist votes.

Domestic policy, on the other hand, was dominated not by the Talebian advice to “collect opportunities” (p.170 of Black Swan), but by the Thalerian game plan: to micro-manage the populace, and narrow down different modes of action, on the basis that some are not socially desirable. Think Big Society, think Tory-style Community Organisers but also think benefit sanctions, think bedroom tax, think traditionalization of the curriculum. Think the Troubled Families programme. Think, as time moved on and ‘nudge’ became ‘starve in non-compliant’, of the approach to tackling addiction and obsesity (p.214 in Phil’s account).

All terrible ideas, badly implemented, all rooted in a desire to get people to conform to the rules set for them.

Fast forward to March 2020, and the new-but-old political elite had a choice. Choose Taleb [2], Choose Life. Or choose Thaler. Choose death for tens of thousands.

Johnson and coterie chose Thaler, by putting in a strong position of influence the Sci-B sub-committee, heavily influenced by the Nudge Unit’s very own David Halpern, veteran of the Cameton administration.

Ultimately, the Tory elite chose mass death for its subjects because that fitted better with their deep-rooted distrust of those subjects, and because they had developed over the previous decade the methods of social control that allowed them to rest easy. It also, of course, sat neatly with the myth of British exceptionalism promulgated for Brexit purpose, but the actual structures of decision making, and the choice of people in room making ot influencing those decisions, was more deeply rooted in the class politics of the Tory party.

Perhaps the deepest insult of all, though, is that the key lesson that the Tory elite has learned from its social murder campaign of 2020 is not that you should act responsibly in an emergency. It is that, when the subjects they despise were faced with that emergency, they played by the rules they needed to play by, and didn’t riot in the streets. Charlie Mansell gets it dead right when he says of the current supply crises:

Still, as Phil says, time is running out on the Tories, and even if killing tens of thousands of people doesn’t bring about their final decline, another ruined Christmas might.


[1] One of the better such behavioural psychologists, Stephen Reicher, issued a useful tweet thread in response to the developing ‘blame the scientists’ narrative being build around the teport. In it he is clear that many of his colleagues wanted swifter, more decisive action, but what is most interesting is when he talks of ‘co-production’ of messaging; here, he seems clear that the epdemiology should have been the driver for action, but that action could be supported by coherent, intelligently developed messaging. As it turned out, the messaging was out of synch with both the public and the virus.

[2] This, incidentally, was Taleb’s outraged response to Tory inaction in March 2020, a day after my own outraged response

Where he saw ‘UK lunacy’, I saw the class politics of mass death.

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.