MPs face public fury: The morality of crowds?

June 9, 2009

Sharon Bedford

Sharon Bedford

The unfolding drama at Westminster sees British MPs forced to resign after public meetings which have demonstrated the anger of the public against their elected representatives. Are we seeing another facet of group behaviour which could be termed the morality of crowds?

The wisdom of crowds

There is understandable approval for the ideas that crowds exercise ‘group smarts’ that go beyond the judgement of an elite few. This concept was popularised and the opposing view rejected by James Surowiecki who noted

“No one in this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
-H. L. Mencken

H. L. Mencken was wrong.

In [his] endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

The fury of crowds

The appeal of Surowiecki’s idea should not blind us to the evidence of the fury of crowds, and the potential for this fury to be exploited by popularist leaders. One of the criticisms of the power of charismatic leaders, is the apparent impact of a powerful well-delivered speeches.

The morality of crowds

Crowd behaviour exhibits other tendencies. I have recently been struck by the manifestation of righteous indignation in the public mood against their elected representatives.

Public outrage in the UK, a month ago directed at anyone implicated in the credit crunch, has been partially redirected toward the new villains, our own appointed parliamentary representatives

Perhaps righteous indignation contributes to public displays of anger against the immorality of others and the justification of direct action against the targeted individuals.

The case for tax avoidance

Western society has developed (evolved if you like) mechanisms through which individuals seek to contribute as little as they are obliged to, towards the State. A complex set of scrutinizers are engaged by the State on one hand to oversee the individual payments, and individuals hire another complex set of advisors to help them avoid paying more than they have to. Financial advisors are taught the principles and practice of tax avoidance, as one of their professional skills.

Sharon Bedford, an accountant, outlines the subtleties of tax avoidance in an interesting article on the BBC website.

While MPs have now been forbidden to [claim tax allowances on second homes through their Parliamentary allowances] this tax break is still available to anyone who has a second home, and who has the means to fund relatively short- term property gains … However, the ability to sell a second home, avoiding tax on all the recent capital gains, relies on a new bit of the tax law which was extended during the last recession to help individuals forced to move home to find work.

Bedford demonstrates the way in which the system permitted claims which have been revealed as far too advantageous to those MPs willing to make them. Bedford also shows a rationale behind ‘second home’ allowances, and warns against hasty and ill thought-out new legislation

An ancient morality tale

Once upon a time there was leader who led a revolution against injustice. He was able to channel the anger of his people so successfully that an oppressive regime was brought down. The people called for justice against those who had wronged them. The leader worked diligently to convince the people that there was a path forward which addressed both needs for justice over past wrongs and commitment to shared goals in the future.

But that was just a dream wasn’t it? It couldn’t work today.

…Or could it?

Righteous Indignation and Leaders we Demand

May 26, 2009
Righteous Indignation

Righteous Indignation

The UK political scene has been rocked by daily revelations in the Daily Telegraph of inflated expenses of MPs, including those of Government ministers. The episode is having profound damaging consequences for politicians of all parties. Will it prove a tipping point for political change?

The build-up to all this had been earlier stories of malpractice among MPs which had already prompted a Government enquiry, which was due to report later this year [July 2009].

The Telegraph appropriated (well, OK, bought for a rumoured £300,000 according to the Guardian) the leaked and unexpurgated information made available to the official investigation.

The Guardian was later to set aside its moralistic tone and offered a more generous account of the Telegraph’s coverage and of its young editor Will Lewis

The Daily Telegraph’s young editor has the scoop of the decade with the revelations about MPs’ spending. He has kept a low media profile, but he could go down in history as the man who shook Parliament to the core.

MPs speak of a suicidal atmosphere in Parliament, the Speaker has resigned, several political careers have come to an end and more may follow, and there is talk of wholesale constitutional change

The expenses furore

An excellent briefing by the BBC explained the expenses furore, and noted

There is genuine concern among MPs that Parliament has never been held in lower regard by members of the public. Even MPs who have done nothing wrong are reported to be considering quitting as they are considered “crooks” by the public. Some [commentators] fear that Parliament may take years to recover from the furore, while others warn that voters may take out their anger with the main parties by backing fringe and extremist parties at next month’s local and European elections.

MPs take their medicine

Those MPs who speak out, do so out from painful necessity. They seem to be addressing what is regarded as general mood in the public regarding all MPs as self-seeking scoundrels. A few MPs ’fessed up to their constituents and took the pain with some hope of being granted a second electoral chance (Michal Gove was one). Other attempts in public meetings, such as that by Andrew Mackay, merely served as lightening conductors discharging the wrath of the electorate and party leaders.

The people are speaking

It is hardly surprising that MPs, if they can not remain invisible to media attention, are finding ways to demonstrate visibly as possible their inherent decency. The exceptional cases of defiance appear to show how misguided is such lack of displays of repentance.
The people are speaking, and MPs have somehow to show they are listening.

A similar gesture to popular opinion by Harriet Harman recently suggested that judgment at the court of public opinion was needed for dealing with morally abhorrent cases (she was referring to Fred the Shred’s pension arrangements.

Public outrage in the UK, a month ago directed at anyone implicated in the credit crunch, has been partially redirected toward the new villains, our own appointed parliamentary representatives.

Public reporting, informing, and guiding

The process of capturing the mood of the public is one of the roles of the mass media. The journalistic device of encouraging interviewees to reveal their emotions is ubiquitous, although too easy to extend into intrusion on private grief. (‘How did you feel when the police rang on your door at 1 am in the morning with news of the terrible accident? …What sort of little girl was your daughter?’).

Over time, a shaping process takes place. Interviewees are unconsciously conditioned to supply a rather narrow range of responses. Righteous indignation is one.

This social reinforcement of convergence of accepted behaviours can be detected in style and of ideas expressed in letters read out in ‘points of view’ broadcasts, letters which begin ‘why, oh why…?’, read out in tones of genteel frustration.

The routinization of righteous indignation may also be detected in phone ins. ‘I’m boiling mad at what that earlier caller said, Nicky …’. Media and mediated collude towards the performance.

The sanitized protest

Then there are the sanitized protests on shows such as Question Time, in which audiences present themselves as well-screened and bizarrely fragrant bunches of righteously indignant camera-fodder.

A recent BBCTV Question Time show acted out a memorable version of ‘I’m appalled at your hypocrisy and amoral abuse of public funds’ to the MPs on hair-shirt duty. The show was later cited by the BBC as demonstrating the mood of public anger over MPs expenses. An example of co-creating the headlines.

The leaders we demand

I suspect that these are socializing forces currently amplifying feelings of betrayal and encouraging demands for morally superior leaders.

Forces that produce leaders we deserve become overtaken by forces encouraging support for leaders we demand.

What do we want? New leadership. When do we want it, Now.

Note on Righteous Indignation:

The image is a cartoon illustrating the conceit of Righteous Indignation of two [King] Richards portrayed as attacking their literary creator William Shakespeare. I just liked the cartoon, reproduced in Humanities, September/October 2008, 29,5