Richard North, 02/11/2019  

One of the sadder tasks that has fallen to me on the death of my friend Christopher Booker is to finish his book on "groupthink". The task is now near completion (with the launch in February), giving me privileged insight into Booker's thinking on the subject.

His starting point was the 1972 book by academic Irving Janis, Victims of Groupthink, from which Booker developed a set of three "rules" which define the phenomenon (something that Janis never did).

Summed up briefly, rule one is that a group of people come to share a common view, opinion or belief that in some way is not based on objective reality; rule two is that, precisely because their shared view is essentially subjective, they need to go out of their way to insist that it is so self-evidently right that a "consensus" of all right-minded people must agree with it. Their belief has made them an "in-group", which accepts that any evidence which contradicts it, and the views of anyone who does not agree with it, can be disregarded.

Rule three is the most revealing consequence of this. To reinforce their "in-group" conviction that they are right, they need to treat the views of anyone who questions it as wholly unacceptable. They are incapable of engaging in any serious dialogue or debate with those who disagree with them.

What makes this particularly relevant just now is that yesterday we saw Nigel Farage launch his company's election campaign. And while Farage might have thought he was strutting his stuff as a famous politician, he was actually demonstrating that he was in the grip of groupthink, one of Janis's "victims".

Checking him against the three-point definition, we see that Farage has convinced himself, contrary to all evidence, that Johnson's withdrawal agreement is not a "real Brexit". So bad is it, he asserts, that it would lead to the UK deciding to rejoin the EU. In full flow, we thus get this nugget:
So I'm going to say this to Boris Johnson, drop the deal. Drop the deal, because it’s not Brexit, drop the deal, because as these weeks go by, and people discover what it is that you've signed up to, they will not like it.
If this was a solitary figure, ranting – say – from a podium in Speaker's Corner, then we could safety dismiss him as just another madman. But, having attracted many recruits to his cause, this view is shared by his acolytes who jointly believe that this view is "so self-evidently right that a 'consensus' of all right-minded people must agree with it".

As to the third rule, one only has to confront any one of Farage's disciples to experience their implacable convictions of rectitude, as they seek to install the One True Brexit, while disagreement with their nostrums will earn the label of "remainer", "traitor", "Quisling" and much else, the adherence to what they call a "soft" Brexit amounting to "betrayal".

It is invariably a characteristic of groupthink, though, that those in its grip are oblivious to its baleful influence. This is manifestly the case with Farage. Refusing compromise with his putative allies, the Conservatives, he nevertheless demands of them that they join him in a "leave alliance".

This is the one where they stand down their candidates in the northern heartlands in order to give his business enterprise (masquerading as a political party) a free run at gaining seats currently held by Labour.

Never mind actually that several analysts are arguing that, even in these Labour areas, Farage draws much of his support from the minority of Tory voters while Labour supporters, with traditional consistency, tend to vote, er… Labour. The view is, therefore, that if FaraCorp puts its people into Lab-Con marginals, it will tend to hurt the Cons more, and potentially give the game to Labour.

The Great Leader, of course, disagrees. The idea, he says, that his supporters are all Tories is "lazy thinking". He is adamant that Labour rather than the Tories would take a greater hit from his intervention.

Therein lies the great tragedy of groupthink. You cannot reason a man out of a view that he has acquired without the application of reason, as the aphorism goes (attributed to Jonathan Swift). Because Farage's views are not based on objective reality, no amount of objective argument will change them. Rather than an "unstoppable force" we are having to deal with the impenetrable lock-mind of a groupthink victim.

Predictably, Johnson is rejecting Trump's call for him to work together with Farage, and is deaf to Farage's entreaties. He tells the BBC that he was "always grateful for advice" but he would not enter into election pacts. There are no circumstances, Downing Street adds, in which the Tories would work with him.

The confidence displayed by Johnson in rejecting Farage may reflect a sense that the much-derided polls are going his way. One such gives him 40 percent against Labour's 29 percent. But, possibly significantly, FaraCorp stands at a mere nine percent, having dropped two points since mid-October. Additionally, a Mail front page story today previews a poll indicating that Northern swing voters will shun Farage's creation (somewhat contradicted by the text). It is early days but there is more than a hint that it is past its prime, and is nothing like the threat it was at the Euro-elections, when it took 30 percent of the vote.

Furthermore, although Farage has ambitions of taking on Labour, his stance is closer to Corbyn's than it is Johnson's. Like the Labour leader, Farage wants to junk Johnson's deal. Both then want to re-enter negotiations, Corbyn looking to opening up the withdrawal agreement once more.

Farage, on the other hand, wants to move straight to free trade talks with the EU, aiming for a Canada-style deal, by 1 July, skipping the withdrawal agreement entirely. If the EU fail to agree to this "sensible offer", says Farage, or to mutually agree with the UK to apply article 24 of the GATT treaty, we should leave the EU on July 1st 2020 on WTO terms.

If Johnson adopts this policy within the next few weeks, in all his magnanimity, Farage would be "willing to compromise" and wait a little longer for a clean break Brexit. Yes, he is that deluded.

Once again, though, we see groupthink rear its ugly head. This "article 24" canard has been debunked that many times that you would think that Farage would cringe with embarrassment at just the idea of raising it. But groupthink is the repository of zombie arguments. Once they acquire the status, they never die.

But if Farage has his delusions, so does Johnson. Despite him having accepted a three-month extension package from the EU, which gives him termination options at the end of each month, he is claiming that he would push for a mid-January Brexit if he wins the election.

This simply cannot be the case, and if the extension decision didn't rule it out, Johnson would in any event have trouble getting consent from the European Parliament in the time. There is a plenary from 13-16 January, but that would be extremely tight.

Fortunately, there is no replication of the October situation, with the last week of the month free of parliamentary business. There is a mini-plenary in Brussels on 29-30 January, which would allow consent almost to run to the wire. One or other of those days is more realistic, giving Johnson the maximum of flexibility – if he's managed to win the election.

Necessarily, that is for the future. In the meantime there is an election to win and if Farage delivers on his threat of fielding candidates in every seat in England, Wales and Scotland, the fear is that he could hand Corbyn the election. By my calculation, in the 2010 election, the so-called "Ukip effect" cost the Tories 42 seats under the combined assault of Ukip and the BNP.

This was where the Ukip/BNP vote combined exceeded the majority of the Labour or Lib-Dem winner over the Conservatives, the overall figure resting on the assumption that without the minority parties, the votes would have gone to the Tories.

That may not stand up, but the exercise did illustrate how easily the balance of power can be tilted. In 2010, the Tories won 306 seats – twenty short of an absolute majority, ending up with a Lib-Dem coalition. Arguably, the "Ukip effect" robbed the Tories of victory.

History never repeats itself in exactly the same way, but to fear a rogue Farage is not unreasonable.

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