There is only one answer to the three questions hanging over the Westminster scandal known as partygate. First: if dozens of illegal parties have been attended by hundreds of political staffers in a year and a half, how has the scandal been contained for so long? Two: Why didn’t Boris Johnson’s haters, who for months leaked stories to discredit him, leak this story sooner? Three: The party stories made it to the newspapers at the time, but they were presented casually, as “color,” not exclusives. Why was that?
We will come back to the answer later. But with the questions in mind, it’s worth considering what partygate has in common with other recent scandals. We often talk about Westminster events as if they were unique, but that may be missing something important.
Human beings – especially when they are members of an institution – are extremely vulnerable to mass blindness. There’s almost the same trajectory for every modern scandal: #MeToo, racism in Hollywood, police brutality against people of color; and in Westminster, the spending scandal and even the recent outcry over “bullying” by whips. Scandals break out not when people find out about the behavior, but when enough people decide it’s wrong. Later, we frame it differently because we like to imagine that we are still thinking rationally. If only we had known, we say, we would have been shocked. But we are mistaken.
Take #MeToo. In 2017, as the hashtag gained momentum and testimonials from women around the world poured in, the reaction (mostly from men) was shocking – or declared shocking. The backlash (especially from the women) has been dismissive. What some men “did not know” before was that sexism and harassment should be taken seriously. As comedian Aisling Bea said, “It has recently come to our attention that women are people too. This shocked and appalled a lot of people, understandably.
Sociologists and historians have long known that morality is socially produced: rather than making independent ethical decisions, we tend to imitate those around us. And moral fads change, which is why you get the strange sight of people reacting in horror to something they once seemed to find quite acceptable.
Where #MeToo touched institutions, the group blindness was even deeper: people had been accustomed not only to immoral but also criminal behavior. “I consider that many people in the Weinstein society suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome,” said Terry Press, president of CBS Films. When asked if they knew about Harvey Weinstein’s crimes, former colleagues gave unsatisfactory answers. They knew something was up, but not the details. They kind of knew, but not really. They didn’t know it was a story.
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We dislike such behavior in ourselves and refuse to acknowledge it. And we assume a second type of collective blindness after the outbreak of a scandal. “How the hell could this have happened?” we ask. We don’t want to know the answer – the question is meant to identify us as people who would have reported the behavior as soon as we saw it. Yet this underestimates the real whistleblowers, who are rare. Seeing our group’s behavior for what it really is, realizing that it should change, and acting on it requires a radical act of imagination. It’s harder than you think.
It’s even harder to do in a culture steeped in tradition, like that of Westminster. It’s the kind of environment where questioning the system – as you navigate ancient precedents and grandly-named rituals – is like showing yourself off as a ruby. “That’s how things are done,” you are told. But this sentence has the effect of stopping thought – about how things could be done better, or whether certain things should be done at all. As a beginner, you are not confident enough to challenge the culture. Later, once institutionalized, you forget to do it.
In this context, behavior that the public later disapproved of was allowed to take place. Journalist Holly Watt, who helped break the parliamentary spending scandal in 2009, once recalled that in her 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 ‘blackmailed’ MPs. “But that’s how things work,” some MPs responded indignantly.
And so to party, and the questions we started with. Why has the scandal only erupted now? One of Johnson’s most derided reactions to the story was that “nobody told him” that either side was against the rules. I make no excuses for him, but there is some truth in his ignorance.
It is echoed by officials who knew of or attended the parties, whose whispered refrain is that they didn’t realize it was wrong. This group, already accustomed to seeing themselves as exceptions in the pandemic (they continued to frequent the office while others simmered at home), suffered from collective blindness. Johnson and the other revelers — even his haters — genuinely didn’t believe they were hiding or sitting on an explosive story. The scandal went undisclosed at the time because people just didn’t think it was one.
What lessons can we draw from this? It is clear that if we do not want a repeat of partygate, it is not enough simply to impeach the Prime Minister; Westminster must change. Studies show that institutions that resist moral blindness tend to do two things: they punish bad behavior consistently and they operate fairly. It might be worth a try.
[See also: Is Rishi Sunak determined enough to end the farce of the Johnson premiership?]