Collective Blindness and the Failure of Elite Rule

Allan Whyte on why those disproportionately affected by Covid-19 need to be at the centre of the movement for change in the aftermath of the pandemic. Exploring how a lack of diversity in decision making leads to ‘collective blindness’.

The old oak tree of UK politics is going through one mighty storm, lurching from incompetence to scandal as Holyrood, Westminster, Stormont and the Senedd try to deal with Covid-19 and the economy, whilst society grows restless with lockdown and the way our countries are run.

It is tough to wade through the sludge of wrongdoings, from PPE to a lack of testing, locking down too late, the care home scandal and herd immunity, there have been a series of missteps leaving a void of confidence in the ability of leadership to lead.

However, that people from the most deprived areas, those whose lives are most burdened by the weight of inequalities in our society, are dying in disproportionate numbers is perhaps the biggest indictment of the failure of the constitutional, economic and societal makeup of the UK.

Poverty and inequality is increasing and it is costing people their lives. This is not news, we have known for decades that poorer people die younger, have worse health and a lower quality of life, but it has taken a global pandemic to magnify the situation and lay it bare for everyone to see.

At the heart of the issues that blight society – poverty, poor educational attainment, inadequate housing, a lack of support and opportunity – is a lack of diversity in decision making. It’s the same faces, the same suits, political parties and lobby groups, giving the same information about what needs to change.

Anyone who has met a politician or a bouncer at the door of a pub will know that even a small amount of power breeds a sense of authority. This, along with the gender, age, class and sexual orientation of those in power can go some way to explaining why certain areas remain deprived and what needs to change.

In his book ‘Rebel Ideas’, Matthew Syed discusses the socio-psychological concepts of collective blindness and the wedding list paradox. To briefly summarise the former; groups of people, let’s say career politicians for example, often tend to come from similar backgrounds. Whilst we are used to the homogeneity of parliamentary line-ups, we are too often led to believe that this homogeneity, however unjust, exists for an important reason: that they are there because they have received the best education.

However, whilst they are undoubtedly very well educated, problems frequently arise from the fact that they have all received the same education and share similar life experiences and perspectives. The problem with this overlapping of perspective is that there are gaps in their understanding of significant aspects of the lives of the electorate.

This lack of diversity of backgrounds and therefore approaches to problem solving can lead to a collective blindness and an inability to see the impacts policies have when put into practice.

Coupled with an ‘I know best’ mindset that arrives with the parliamentary security pass, it can see decision making based on a mistaken perception of what is the right thing to do, rather than doing the right thing. Syed refers to the wedding list paradox, where despite receiving a wedding gift list, guests are inclined to go off piste and give the couple something more thoughtful or personal. Spoiler alert – more often than not, the receivers of the gift, who have told you exactly what they want, are left disappointed.

Far too often, policies are made on this basis, for example on 14 March more than 200 scientists wrote an open letter to the UK government warning that a tougher measures were needed to stop the spread of deadly Covid-19. It wasn’t until 23 March that the Prime Minister announced the lockdown. The same too for the victims of Grenfell. The residents warned of the fire risk to the building 18 months before the tragedy struck, but no action was taken.

These atrocities are the product of political systems which often don’t work for the people most affected by change because those same people aren’t part of the process of change. A diversity of voices in decision making is essential to creating a more equal society.

There are well documented barriers to engagement for people from deprived areas, those from BAME backgrounds, the disabled and others who share the burdens marginalisation brings. If the vision of a fairer, more equal society is to be realised, it will begin by ripping up the rule book on how politics and people interact, making it relevant to those with the most to gain from a new future and the most to lose from the status quo.

The top-down, prescribing of policy can and should end with Coronavirus, with communities getting organised to make the changes that benefit all of society.

However, even the idea of a more equal society is to consider change from one perspective. Whilst endless news feeds spew out reports of tragedy and incompetence there is a simmering but potent desire for change. In democracy, the shape and direction of society should be directed by the public. Without a diversity of voices change cannot be representative.

This is a period of so many unknowns. A time when we can’t make plans, we can’t look forward with any certainty and a time of little hope. When the worst of the crisis is over change will come, but for that change to have any value it cannot be the sick medicine of the establishment, it must come from a network of communities unified in a recognition that the old normal is not good enough and the new normal is a society for everyone, created by everyone.

Comments (5)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. James Mills says:

    Do you want Tory policies delivered by Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party ?


    Do you want Tory policies delivered by Sir Keith Starmer and the Labour Party ?

    1. Blair says:

      The lack of real choice is the problem which prevents diversity & creates greater division between the haves & have-nots. I would like to see a more diverse system with choices. This will create greater division & will need to managed through the better use of technology. It should not matter who we elect to positions of power because everyone is free to determine their own path within the confines of a multiple rule based system. The system needs to give support to everyone but makes it progressively more difficult for any individual to excessively destabilize the working of society.
      Our chosen government will be there to help regulate things so that trading can take place and ensure a balance will be met with its main objective to protect society through eliminating corruption.
      Our current political system has been failing us for many decades, not helped by the politicians who promised change without the appropriate means for delivering.
      I don’t really care who is prime minister or which party is in charge because we need to change the establishment & its way of operating if we want a solution to our problems.
      Independence might be a good thing but it would be better if we could have all the powers we need & remain part of the United Kingdom. I believe that this is all possible, but like everyone finds it extremely difficult to get the ideas into discussion with our leaders who are only really concerned with wealth & the wealthy and retraining power.
      This has to change. We have to change how we utilise resources at our disposal because our current methods belongs to governing our society in the age of empire.

  2. John McLeod says:

    Collective blindness and the wedding list paradox are good ways to make sense of what is going wrong in society. One of the things that is becoming clear is that the current UK cabinet are not in fact well educated, despite possessing good degrees from Oxford or Cambridge. Among the many massive gaps in their education are (i) an understanding of difference and diversity, (ii) appreciation and knowledge of science and the scientific method, (iii) any kind of meaningful moral compass, and (iv) a capacity to critical, constructive self-reflection. The fact that their education is indeed widely perceived as having been excellent, is further evidence of how bad things are.

    Your conclusion is that what is necessary is “ripping up the rule book on how politics and people interact”. I agree that how politicians and people interact needs to change. But I also think that there are many examples, from Scotland and around the world, about how dialogue and shared decision-making can replace a top-down approach. So, from my perspective, its not a matter of ripping up the rule book, but rather building on what exists.

    1. Blair says:

      Everything should be built on what exists to allow for backward compatibility but at the same time recognising the rule book was written without the knowledge of how technology would change the world.
      Our United Kingdom & Scottish government must introduce shared decision making at cabinet/executive level. The House of Lords & the Treasury must be given greater responsibility for the National Interest. Our systems of government can be further improved through a systems approach.
      As a country we are at least 20 years behind where we should be in government & education systems. The economy stupid has adapted but it is not thriving but struggling in dept.
      Covid-19 virus gives us a chance to work better as a nation by utilizing the best possible technology available.

    2. Wul says:

      To the “massive gaps in their education…” I’d also add:

      v) An understanding that the people on the ground can often generate better solutions to their difficulties than those at the top/centre. ( This is community development 101)

      ( Of course this could be a deliberate or sub-conscious “blind spot”; Perhaps it is the very fear of the oiks coming up with a better strategy, and thus showing one up, that produces the desire to cling to control, even as one makes a complete mess of things; “Mistakes have been made. Others will be blamed”)

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.