- Britain's Parliament provides a fascinating snapshot of free speech and democracy.
- Now former Prime Minister Liz Truss had the shortest reign in recent history because her colleagues took issue with her economic policies.
- Scuffles in Parliament the day before Truss resigned led many in her party to lose faith in her government.
- Ironically, the tax-cutting economic policies which might have pleased the many ended up pleasing very few.
I remember reading famous experiments about conformity when I was studying psychology. Many people studying psychology might find it incredible that participants were so easily influenced to do something which was counter-logical just because everyone else was doing it. Here in the United Kingdom, in recent months, we have seen national politics go through a tremendous series of dramatic twists which are probably worthy of another season of “This England” next time the writers have a chance to capture the fascinating stories in British politics. The most dramatic twist in the story happened recently when now-former Prime Minister Liz Truss was forced to resign after just 45 days in power.
How did it all unfold, and what can psychologists learn from the saga regarding conformity and social influence?
The amazing spectacle of Britain’s parliament
If you get a chance, take a look at “Prime Minister’s Questions” on YouTube, a freely available set of videos showing members of parliament asking the country’s leader questions, challenging them, jeering, laughing, booing, and making all sorts of noises in a mostly convivial, jolly, atmosphere. It is a great example of debate and democracy in action, where a country’s leader is held actively accountable. Typically, the meetings start with the head of the opposition party robustly questioning the Prime Minister (PM), followed by other questions which force the PM to respond to issues that concern members’ regions and their constituents. There is often much jollity, vigour, sarcasm, and humour in Parliament, mutual respect, and a sense of democratic debate.
British politics embody free speech and accountability to a great extent. This was the free, democratic atmosphere in which recent changes in the office of the Prime Minister happened. From a psychological point of view, it is a great environment for observing free speech and different types of social influence.
Trussonomics as an attempt at social influence
Trussonomics can be defined as an attempt by the former Prime Minister to appeal to most people by reducing their taxes and giving them an economic message intended at making their lives better. One important example was that Truss froze average energy bills at a time when the nation faced astronomic gas prices due to global events. Trussonomics can thus be said to have been an example of a politician conforming to the public’s expectations of lower taxes and an energy price cap.
On the other hand, Truss made the unpopular move of cutting a higher rate of tax for people with a high income—a move which became unpopular because it was seen to appeal to a minority of high earners.
But the majority sometimes has the least power
What Truss appeared not to have anticipated is the impact of her economic policies on financial markets, which, in turn, ended up having a negative impact on the very majority of people and members of parliament that she hoped to please. In this sense, financial markets had greater power than the majority, and the consequences of Truss’s policies included a drop in the sterling pound’s value relative to the American dollar and steep rises in the costs of mortgages for many. This led to Truss’s attempts to please the majority drastically backfiring. Many commentators began to criticise her policies. Her popularity fell drastically.
When scapegoating backfired
Truss’s initially blamed her Chancellor, someone who was said to have been her friend for many years, the person who implemented the economic policies Truss came up with in her campaign for the post of Prime Minister earlier in the summer of 2022. It could be said such a move made Truss look dishonourable, in the sense that many people would have preferred if she owned up to her own mistakes and admitted that she had been wrong about her own economic policies. Perhaps the Chancellor should have refused to implement those policies, but the primary blame lay with Truss. It can be said that Truss’s scapegoating of her Chancellor was the beginning of the end for her because people in her party looked unkindly on acts that are dishonourable, remembering that British parliamentarians refer to each other as the “Right Honourable.”
The tussles in Parliament
The day before Truss was forced to resign, there were some extraordinary and shocking scenes in Parliament that can be said to be the beginning of the end for Truss. Members of parliament from each party were asked to vote about an issue, but members of Truss’s party were given confusing information about the vote, which made some fear they were being forced to vote in line with Truss’s proposal or risk facing negative consequences. More than that, some members of Truss’s party reported being pushed, shoved, and in some cases actually lifted up and carried towards the voting room, which many found appalling. The next day, many members of parliament from Truss’s party sent letters to a senior party official expressing their unhappiness with her leadership. By lunchtime, Truss announced her resignation.
Pleasing the majority can backfire
The lesson is that, rather than trying to please the majority, try and think about what is actually the right thing to do in a situation, based on what is morally, logically, or factually right. Remember that conformity can backfire terribly, as it did with Trussonomics, where the majority is not so forgiving, even if someone intended to please them in the first place.