How can we explain Liz Truss?  

How did this happen? Why did the newly elected Conservative leader announce fiscal measures which showed that it was not the party to be trusted with the nation’s finances more than Labour, (hitherto one of the party’s most valuable electoral assets) and at the same time confirmed Labour’s charge: that “the Tories” care most about the rich.

This was effortlessly achieved by a mini-budget abolishing the top rate of tax during a “cost of living crisis”, the abolition of limits on bankers’ bonuses and an indication from No 10 that it would break the pledge to raise benefits to the poorest people in line with inflation.

In her student days, Truss was an active member of the Liberal Democrats. Three weeks ago Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrat leader, tweeted: “Farron to agent Truss: you might need to tone it down a bit now, it all looks a little too obvious, some people are beginning to suspect ...” He followed up: “Obviously we have contingency plans to extricate her and move her to a safe house for debriefing if needed.”

But it is not the Lib Dems who have benefited from Truss’s actions. The opinion polls show instead a massive swing to Labour. Perhaps Truss is instead actually an agent for ... Labour. Indeed, Truss’s peculiar speech patterns sound as if she is mindlessly repeating what is being dictated to her by Labour Party HQ through a concealed earpiece.

No-one actually suggested her sleeper role during the leadership election, even though Rishi Sunak said that her promise of tens of billions of tax cuts, without the slightest suggestion of how to fund them, made her not “suitable for the job of prime minister” and that they would “bankrupt the country”. At a dreadful meeting with Conservative backbenchers just after the market melt-down, Truss was told by Robert Halfon that she had trashed the past ten years of Conservative government. Mission accomplished?

In The Times, the columnist James Forsyth revealed: “As Liz Truss left the meeting ... she had a cheery smile ... not the haunted look Theresa May wore during the dark days of Brexit deadlock. But her preternatural calm spooked Tory MPs.” Just as if it were all going to plan?

So, is there any alternative explanation for Liz Truss?

'There's no use trying,' Alice said. 'One can't believe impossible things.' I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ― Lewis Carroll

Do we perhaps have a prime minister who really does believe 6 impossible things before breakfast?

While at the University of Minnesota, Leon Festinger read about a cult that believed that the end of the world was at hand. A Mrs. Keech reported receiving messages from extraterrestrial aliens that the world would end in a great flood on a specific date. She attracted a group of followers who left jobs, schools, and spouses and who gave away money and possessions to prepare to depart on a flying saucer that, according to Mrs. Keech, would arrive to rescue the true believers. 

He and his colleagues, posing as believers, infiltrated Mrs. Keech’s group and kept notes on what happened. Given the believers’ serious commitment, Festinger wondered how they would react when the prophecy failed. Would the cult members admit their error? Would they abandon their beliefs and go back to their old lives? In fact Festinger, who had spent his career examining dogmatic thinking in all its forms, had a surprising expectation. He thought their convictions would become even more entrenched. It would be too psychologically threatening to admit they were wrong, too mortifying to confront those who had warned them of their folly.

As the clock ticked past midnight, the cult members found an alternative explanation. Because of their faithfulness, the planetary timetable had shifted: the spaceship would now come two years later. Within a week they were back out on a recruitment drive.
The believers had not sought publicity while they awaited the flying saucer and the flood. But when the prophecy was shown to be wrong, almost immediately the previously most-committed of them made calls to newspapers and started actively proselytizing.

Festinger was unsurprised by the sudden bout of proselytizing; he saw the cult members as enlisting social support for their belief to lessen the pain of the ‘failure’ of the prophecy.

Their behaviour confirmed predictions from his cognitive dissonance theory. Its central premise is that people need to maintain consistency between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours as inconsistency among beliefs or behaviours causes an uncomfortable psychological tension (i.e., cognitive dissonance). This leads people to change one of the inconsistent elements to reduce the dissonance or to add consonant elements to restore consonance.

Mrs. Keech’s followers therefore actively enlisted new believers to obtain social support (and thereby add consonant elements) in order to reduce the dissonance created by the failure of the flying saucer to arrive.

Perhaps the theory of cognitive dissonance and Mrs Keech offers the only way in which we can make actual sense of the past six years of British politics.

For what we are seeing now is a sequence of events which stretches back to the defining prophecy of recent British political history: Brexit.

It is Brexit that sits behind all that has unfolded. It was the true believers who prophesied that the economy would grow ever faster when unshackled from the Franco-German chains of the EU; who were positive that, having taken back the sovereignty looted by Brussels, we would be able to secure advantageous trade deals around the world; who foretold that we would be able to cut immigration to a fraction of its previous size while turbocharging productivity and growth.

Each of those predictions was flatly disputed by those who voted against this historic error, but we were told we simply didn’t believe fervently enough, or that we were talking Britain down.

The language became ever more cultish as each prediction collided with reality and was found wanting.

Believers amongst the backbenchers jeered in the Commons when reference was made to estimates that the economy had shrunk by 5.3 per cent; made accusations of ‘remoaning’ when the figures showed that investment had plummeted by 13.7 per cent; howled with derision at damaging declines in exports. And of course, they demanded even stricter immigration rules.

The more our economy suffered, the more our credibility was eroded, the more they cleaved to the cake-and-eat-it fantasies that got us here. All opposition was condemned as part of ‘project fear’.

The election as PM of Liz Truss, our own Mrs Keech, based on fairy tales of growth coming from spending but not taxing was the (we hope) high point of the cult.
But at times the nonsense reached proportions that might have surprised even Festinger.

Seeing the carnage on the gilt markets after Truss’s mini-budget, one of the true believers, Daniel Hannan MP, in a supreme act of self-delusion, detected as its cause an all-pervading fear of a Keir Starmer government.

The most ardent Brexiteer columnist for the Telegraph glimpsed a remainer cabal working to scupper a heroic Tory administration.

In an interview with Mishal Husain on the Today programme Jacob Rees-Mogg questioned the impartiality of the BBC. He regarded it as a betrayal that Husain had linked the rise in gilt yields to the mini-budget, even though one directly followed the other. Somewhere in his shallow mind an alternative reality existed which meant that his Brexit beliefs were true, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But there need be no dissonance if he could only show that the BBC was the enemy, a leading member of the anti-growth cabal...

28 September 2022

Paul Buckingham


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