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9 February 2022

The psychology of the partygate scandal

The delayed backlash over the misconduct in No 10 shows that scandals often erupt not when people uncover the behaviour, but when enough people decide it is wrong.

By Martha Gill

There is a single answer to the three questions that hang over the Westminster scandal known as partygate. One: if dozens of illegal parties were attended by hundreds of political staffers over the course of a year and a half, how was the scandal contained for so long? Two: why did Boris Johnson’s enemies, who had for months been leaking stories to discredit him, not disclose this story earlier? Three: reports of the parties did reach newspapers at the time, but they were framed casually, as “colour”, not as exclusives. Why was that? 

We will return to the answer later. But with the questions in mind, it is worth examining what partygate has in common with other recent scandals. We often talk about Westminster goings-on as if they are unique, but that can miss something important. 

Human beings – particularly when they are members of an institution – are extremely vulnerable to collective blindness. There is almost the same trajectory to every modern scandal: #MeToo, racism in Hollywood, police brutality towards people of colour; and in Westminster the expenses scandal and even the recent furore over “bullying” by the whips. Scandals erupt not at the point people discover the behaviour, but at the point that enough people decide it is wrong. We later frame it differently because we like to imagine that we always think rationally. If we had only known, we say, we would have been shocked. But we misunderstand ourselves.

Take #MeToo. In 2017, as the hashtag gained momentum and testimonies from women around the world poured in, the reaction (mostly from men) was one of shock – or professed shock. The counter-reaction (mostly from women) was scornful. What some men had previously “not known” was that sexism and harassment should be taken this seriously. As the comedian Aisling Bea said: “It has recently come to our attention that women are people too. This has shocked and appalled many people, understandably.”

Sociologists and historians have long known that morals are socially produced: rather than make ethical decisions entirely independently, we tend to mimic those around us. And moral fashions change, which is why you get the strange spectacle of people reacting with horror to something they had once seemed to think was absolutely fine. 

Where #MeToo touched institutions, group blindness was even more profound: people had been inured not just to immoral but to criminal behaviour. “I consider many people at the Weinstein Company to have suffered some sort of Stockholm syndrome,” Terry Press, the president of CBS Films, has said. When asked if they had known about Harvey Weinstein’s crimes, former colleagues gave unsatisfying answers. They had known something was going on, but not the details. They had sort of known, but not really. They hadn’t known it was a story.

We don’t like such behaviour in ourselves and refuse to acknowledge it. And we take on a second kind of collective blindness after a scandal breaks. “How on earth could this have happened?” we ask. We do not want to know the answer – the question is intended to mark us out as people who would have called out the behaviour as soon as we saw it. Yet this underrates true whistle-blowers, who are rare. Seeing the behaviour of our group as it really is, realising it should change and acting on that realisation requires a radical act of imagination. It is more difficult than we think.

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It’s even harder to do within a culture steeped in tradition, such as that at Westminster. It is the sort of environment where to question the system – as you navigate ancient precedents and grandly named rituals – is to show yourself up as a rube. “That’s just how things are done,” you are told. But this phrase operates to stop thought – about how things could be done better, or whether some things should be done at all. As a newbie, you are not confident enough to challenge the culture. Later, when institutionalised, you forget to.

Against this backdrop, behaviour the public later frowned upon was allowed to take place. The journalist Holly Watt, who helped break the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, once recalled that in its wake angry MPs phoned her to say: “This is outrageous, you just don’t understand the system.”

There was an echo of this in the way Westminster types reacted to a recent complaint that whips had been “blackmailing” MPs. “But this is just how things work,” some MPs responded indignantly.

And so to partygate, and the questions we started with. Why did the scandal break only now? One of Johnson’s most ridiculed reactions to the story was that “no one told him” one of the parties was against the rules. I do not make excuses for him, but there’s a ring of truth to his cluelessness.

It is echoed by civil servants who knew about or attended the parties, among whom the whispered refrain is that they did not realise it was wrong. This group, already used to thinking of themselves as exceptions in the pandemic (they continued to attend the office as others stewed at home), was suffering from collective blindness. Johnson and other partygoers – even his enemies – truly did not believe they were hiding or sitting on an explosive story. The scandal wasn’t leaked at the time because people simply did not think it was one.

What lessons can be drawn from this? It is clear that if we do not want a repeat of partygate, it isn’t enough simply to remove the Prime Minister; Westminster must change. Studies show institutions that resist moral blindness tend to do two things: they punish bad behaviour in a consistent way, and they operate fairly. That might be worth trying.

[See also: Is Rishi Sunak determined enough to end the farce of the Johnson premiership?]

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game