On the psychology of political incompetence


As Boris Johnson blustered his way into his latest hole, I suddenly remembered the psychologist Norman Dixon, author of the revelatory 1976 tome On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.

I have written before about the parallels with Dixon’s thesis about great British defeats – the Somme, Singapore and so on – and the whole Brexit process. I had not realised before that there were parallels also with the British way of doing politics.

His thesis was that the old idea that military incompetence was something to do with stupidity had to be set aside. Not only were the features of incompetence extraordinarily similar from military disaster to military disaster, but the military itself tended to choose people with the same psychological flaws. It led soldiers over the top to disaster, or to a frozen death, as in the Crimea.

These characteristics included arrogant underestimation of the enemy, the inability to learn from experience, resistance to new technologies or new tactics, and an aversion to reconnaissance and intelligence (in both senses of the word).

Other common themes are great physical bravery but little moral courage, an imperviousness to human suffering, passivity and indecision, and a tendency to lay the blame on others. They tend to have a love of the frontal assault – nothing too clever – and of smartness, precision and the military pecking order.

Dixon also described a tendency to eschew moderate risks for tasks so difficult that failure might seem excusable.

Therein lies the great paradox. To be a successful military commander, you need more flexibility of thought and hierarchy than is encouraged by the traditional military – or the traditional Conservative party, as the xenophobes take their place in the driving seat.

Political incompetence isn’t quite the same as military incompetence. The preference appears to be taught on the playing fields of Eton for blustering authoritarianism, the clever untruth rather than a genuine facing of facts – all the very opposite of Churchill’s devastating truth-telling in 1940.

Here is one reason why we don’t get the government we deserve – our ruling classes think somehow that truth-telling, consensus and intelligence is beneath them. It is why they seem unable to manage negotiation.

There is what is perhaps the most important lesson here about management, political or otherwise. It is that political incompetence tends to go along with ultra narrow understanding about human motivation – little more than stick and carrot, or bash and cash, both of which seem to be the mainspring of the Johnson approach.

These are people that really believe they “only understand one thing”. They cannot therefore lead.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Vern Hughes says

    Gosh David, Brexit is driving hard divisions amongst Radical Centrists. The British ruling class is ardently anti-Brexit – eccentric Tories stopped being the British ruling class about 150 years ago. It’s hip business types and the managerial class who’ve displaced them.

    I suspect when you use the phrase ‘managing negotiation’ you actually mean ‘refusing to implement the public mandate to Leave’. When a referendum delivers a public mandate, there isn’t a lot of scope for managing a negotiation over it. You either do it or you prevent it from being done.

    In this context, it becomes more difficult by the day to argue that Radical Centrism might mean preventing a public mandate from being implemented.

  2. Cusanus says

    “ultra narrow understanding about human motivation” Would that have been the mainspring of the recent personal attack on Boris Johnson by Radix headman Ben Rich?
    “as the xenophobes take their place in the driving seat” Despite assiduous daily reading of the UK press, I have no idea who these people might be. Evidence please, and names? Also distinguish between rational fears, dislke or discrimination (as in differentiation) on one hand and irrational fear on the other. The expression “phobia” refers to the latter only.
    “As Boris Johnson blustered his way into his latest hole” There are other ways of narrating recent events, such as the “arrogance” of parliamentarians opposed to Johnson to keep to their remit.

  3. David Boyle says

    Let me try and answer both those points together. You are correct, Vern, that the radical centrists are more divided than they seem – between the ideals of democracy and technocracy. This is partly because the two extremes have virtually abolished any middle ground in the debate. But it is also because of the failures of either of the last two governments to negotiate or lead – neither of them had a majority, but the UK system encourages the establishment either to do nothing for decades or to ride roguhshod over everyone.

    You are only half right on the establishment. This is a battle between two alternative establishments – one very old fashioned indeed and the other one the disempowered nomenklatura of the 1990s. Both seem to me to share elements of the psychology of political incompetence. Neither side appears to have the foggiest idea how to get what they want.

    I was not writing here about the rights and wrongs of Brexit. I appear to be in a shrinking minority here: a non-technocratic remainer turned democrat… But that is irrelevant.

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