The UK cut adrift from its European allies, fighting a pandemic caused by a mutating virus that the government insists is beaten, despite rising levels of sickness in children. Soaring inflation. The government suspected of profiteering. The prime minister under investigation by the police. This is not an advertisement for a new dystopian movie that has been panned by critics for being too unrealistic, it is where we stand in the UK at the beginning of 2022.
How did we get into this position? Two somewhat obscure psychological theories – coercive control and chimpanzee politics – might help us begin to understand how the British people entered into a dysfunctional relationship with our charismatic but deeply flawed prime minister, and how, like Dorothy in the classic tale of the Wizard of Oz, we might begin to find our way back from the Illusionary ‘Emerald City’ he has built around us.
The concept of coercive control was created to describe a certain type of dysfunctional personal relationship style, which involves exploitation, control, domination and dependency. One partner habitually ‘gaslightings’ the other, coercing them to replace their own perceptions of the world with that of the gaslighter. The victim quickly becomes deflected from protecting their own wellbeing in order to service their controller’s endless emotional and material demands.
The ‘power and control’ wheel has been developed as a tool to analyse such relationships.
We can see elements of coercive control and gaslighting in Boris Johnson’s relationship with the British public. An excellent example is the process through which he has manipulated the population since early December with a rapid, fluctuating catalogue of ‘explanations’ of events at Downing Street which broke pandemic lockdown laws (not rules, as Johnson and his allies have tried very hard to feed into the surrounding rhetoric).
As these were revealed as lies and obfuscations, Johnson tasked senior civil servant Sue Gray with the creation of a ‘fact finding’ report. But as this process began to fall into confusion, the Metropolitan Police, who had earlier ruled themselves out of the investigation, decided that they must now take over, further moving forward the time at which the British public can expect final clarity on the situation.
With the release of a redacted version of the Sue Gray report, Johnson once more took to the floor of the House of Commons in a stunning display of gaslighting, refusing to answer questions about misleading the house. Because of course, he had. And the evidence is on film.
And so, incredibly, in the end it was Ian Blackford MP who had to leave – for speaking the truth.
When laid out in this fashion, it seems incredible that Johnson could have taken his colleagues, employees and a large percentage of the British public along with this charade for such a long time, and indeed that some Tory politicians are still supporting him.
But skilled coercive controllers typically manage to hold their victims in just such a state of confusion, whilst implicating others in their web of lies and evasions, which are crafted to make them complicit via threats and promises. To better understand how this might work across an entire nation, we have to briefly explore an additional psychological theory, that of evolved primate dominance.
There is a standard pattern of populist political dishonesty that is commonly mobilised to enhance electoral success. It begins with the creation of a potential threat that suggests that there is a need for a ‘strong leader’ who will protect the public against a fabricated ‘enemy’. Here we find Dominic Cummings explaining in the Spectator exactly how this process was used by Johnson and his associates in the EU referendum of 2016. The threat of unregulated immigration to the UK was highlighted in order to become, in Cummings’ own analogy, a psychological ‘baseball bat’.
In 1982, Dutch anthropologist Frans de Waal conducted a long-term observational study of a troop of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo, most particularly the alpha males vying for the leadership of the pack. It became clear that some of the tactics the chimps used to dominate each other were remarkably similar to those used by human beings: deliberately instilling fear in others and subsequently posturing as an alpha male who can protect them from that ‘threat’. For example, one of De Waal’s chimps banged loudly on the back of a cage, then emerged to comfort the associate he had scared by doing so.
Correspondingly, during the December 2019 election, Boris Johnson adeptly swung Cummings’ baseball bat yet again, convincing the British electorate that he was the right “strong man” to “get Brexit done” with an “oven ready deal”; that all voters had to do was trust him. Consequently, he convinced a large enough percentage of the British public to elect a Conservative government. Using the same process as De Waal’s chimp, he adeptly manipulated emotions buried deeply within the ancestral primate brain with chicanery and empty promises.
Replacing the leader, chimpanzee style
On 26 January, Newsnight journalist Lewis Goodall set up a focus group with eight ‘floating voters’ from Bury, asking them about their feelings towards Boris Johnson and the opposition leader, Keir Starmer. The one-word/phrase associations voiced by the audience relating to Johnson included ‘comic character, buffoon, television personality, unpredictable, liar’. Their impression of Starmer was very different, generating adjectives such as ‘drab, clever, boring, unknowable’.
They were generally in agreement that Starmer had far more integrity than Johnson, about whom they had a catalogue of complaints: that he was mocking the public with his partying, that he was irresponsible and did not understand the accountability required from a British prime minister, that he was clearly an effusive liar, that he had made a real mess of the job.
However, one member of the panel voiced an opinion that although he was “sick of Boris”, Starmer did not appeal, and that there was no other obvious candidate in the Conservative party who appealed as prime minister. This was generally agreed by the others.
Overall, as Goodall pointed out in his conclusion, there was clearly a “deep exhaustion” towards politics and the way in which it was reported, and a strong thread of “buyers’ remorse” about Johnson. But ultimately, his sample were looking for another ‘strong leader’ and had thus far been disappointed.
Curtailing toxic relationships
Psychologists have long been aware that victims of coercive control become angry with those who point out what is happening to them, because they resist admitting to themselves that they have been ‘had’. And this additionally reflects the fact that, compared to the false reality the coerced have been programmed by their abuser to believe, reality appears drab and boring, and the reconstructed view of the future appears dark and hopeless in comparison.
Unfortunately, a majority of victims only start to believe those trying to help them after their controller has bankrupted and abandoned them to move onto the next victim. And alarmingly, it is not unusual for individuals to move from one toxic relationship to another over a period of many years.
So how can we stop this happening to the British people en masse? Certainly not by offering them yet another charismatic, gaslighting leader.
Perhaps then, the only effective answer lies in social scientists redoubling their efforts to share their theoretical insights with the public in easily understandable formats, assisting them to move towards acceptance of the less rosy reality that they have been coerced to deny.
In 1969, with disastrous 1930s populist governments still looming large in public memory, George Miller, then President of the American Psychological Association proposed that, partly for this reason, psychologists had a public duty to ‘give psychology away’. It is in that spirit that this text is written, and in the hope that we may see far more such reflection in the mainstream media as our inevitably challenging situation is revealed over the coming months.
Like Dorothy in the classic story, the time has come for the British public to accept that their charismatic Wizard of Oz is a fraud, that the Emerald City was a dream, and to wake up, albeit to reluctantly, to reality – where there are sadly no roses to smell.