Saturday 19 October 2019


I published a blog called 'JAGO STONE, PRISON REFORM - AND THE MADNESS OF BORIS JOHNSON' a couple of months ago (17.08.19) - press here for the link; it's an interesting read. In this post, I quote a line from The Secret Barrister who writes an occasional column in the i newspaper:

'While the Prime Minister is lying to you, the rest of the criminal justice system rots.'

Boris Johnson, the PM of the UK for the time being, is deceiving himself as well as us if he believes that locking up more criminals for longer is a good thing. Longer prison sentences by themselves do not make us - the law-abiding public - safer.

What interests me is why this man - in ascending the greasy pole of ambition to become the Prime Minister - should have acquired this reputation as a liar. Let me dispose of the clich├ęs that all politicians lie and you can't trust any of them. Those claims are generalisations that break down when the evidence is examined - but they do have a basis in the real world of politics. Some politicians do lie. Some do it knowingly; some because they are trained to follow a party-line. What can explain this leaning to falsehood?

Which mask shall I wear for this occasion?

As a socialist who believes in the right of all in a society to share fairly in the fruits of what is produced, I will make the case that deception and self-deception are often rooted in greed: a selfish desire to hang on to the slice of the wealth that circumstances have gifted you, albeit at the expense of others. Recently, though, I read an article in the Morning Star - 'Why Public School f***s you up - and how the nation pays' (25.09.19) about the psycho-historian and psychologist, Nick Duffell, that

opened up a deeper dimension in my search for explanations. There are other roots to deception and self-deception - and they are to be found in childhood; they are grounded in the separation from parents that provides the basis for boarding school education.

George Orwell - education: Eton (1917-21)

Nick Duffell makes a compelling case that there is a distinct kind of damage inflicted on boys by the boarding school system in Britain that shapes their adult life too. His breakthrough in understanding came in 1987 when he was assisting on a group therapy project for men. He realised that there were some men in the group who recognised each other in terms of a strange kind of wounding - and needed a different approach.

Running late for chapel at Eton College - a boarding school

What all these men had in common was that they had been boarders. By 1990, Nick Duffell had set up a workshop programme called 'Boarding School Survivors' which is still going strong today, run by staff that he has trained. What are the symptoms displayed by these boarding school survivors who, remember, are in therapy because they have suffered a degree of breakdown in their adult life - and what are the main causes?

  • There are a variety of symptoms - from the banal to the more serious - from workaholism - after living through school years on a timetable designed to eliminate free time, otherwise known as 'idleness' - to the more serious symptoms such as an inability to feel any emotions at all.   
  •  Most common is the inability to handle intimate relationships or operate as part of a family - an issue masked by an ability to function - often very well - in the world of work and social relations, precisely what public schools train their pupils for.
  •  There is often an underlying sense of anxiety which can be completely normalised as in holding the view that "the world is a hostile place". This produces the classic diffident public school man - the sort of 'nice guy' English ideal, portrayed by actors such as Hugh Grant or Ian Carmichael, as well as the more aggressive types we see dominating our national politics such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, to cite three amongst many, all of whom seem to me to have plenty of unresolved issues behind their masks - as well as a hostility towards too close a connection with Europe. 
A specially commissioned painting of a photograph of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford which includes two British prime-ministers, Boris Johnson and David Cameron, in its ranks. These Bullingdon boys - with their boarding school histories - had a notorious reputation for vandalism and arrogance and absolutely no empathy outside their chosen ranks. Cameron made sure the original photograph disappeared from public viewing.  

All children who board have to survive forced separation very young. A common coping mechanism is to disown their sadness and softer side; a 'strategic survival personality' is erected - a mask behind which their anxiety is hidden. Boarding school children equip themselves with a smile that says 'I am happy'. 
  • Psychologists talk of 'false-selves'. Few boarding school children are going to risk upsetting parents by telling them about their unhappiness. From all this, the skill in duplicity is nurtured - and honed in many adult working environments, not least in politics.   
  •  Nick Duffell has identified three personality types: 'compliers', 'rebels, and 'crushed'. 
  • When neglect is normalised, as in a sense it is within the boarding school system, abuse can readily occur. The 'crushed' can include the victimised and bullied who have been unable to erect a believable survival personality. When Nick Duffell was a child attending his boarding public school, another boy killed himself because he got so much unwanted attention because he was beautiful. 
  • The 'rebels' are the most difficult to treat. They distrust all authority figures which leaves them floundering without any internal authority within their own world. 
  • The 'compliers' are the largest group. Their mantra is 'It never did me any harm' and they defend their strategic survival personality forcefully by ridiculing anybody who suggests they may be wounded by their early experiences. This type often has a breakdown at some point. 

  • The effect of such difficult experiences in childhood on those who become politicians in adult life can be to blunt an understanding and empathy with the vulnerable in society. If you have been forced to disassociate from your own natural vulnerability, your capacity to empathise with the vulnerable is diminished. Hence, around a fifth of the population of the UK are disregarded in Tory neoliberalism. 
  • Neuroscience has established a link between emotional intelligence and making good choices. Will Hutton, the economist, argues that the Tory Party has consistently made bad decisions over decades. Nick Duffell's thesis is that those bad decisions are linked to diminished empathy which can be traced back to the trauma of being boarded and separated from hands-on parenting. 
  • The duplicity habit, learnt as a survival strategy, means the boarding school-boy who grows up to be a politician can have confused boundaries about what is true and what is a lie - Tony Blair, for instance, cannot admit he lied and was wrong over Iraq. Boris Johnson has a track-record of lying.  
  • Boarding school survivors may find it difficult to join groups and become team-players. One reason why the UK has never really joined fully with the European community project is because too many of our politicians are fearful of joining a new team project. 

Nick Duffell (2000), The Making of Them, Lone Arrow Press

Food for thought. 

Here, by way of conclusion, is George Monbiot making a very similar case to the one presented by Nick Duffell:

I hope this has helped in the unpicking of the masks of Boris Johnson.


  1. A thought provoking account of the reasons why... empathy is such an important part of the human being - the ability to put oneself in another's shoes and walk their path in life.. the young boy sent away from home to boarding school will have to find ways to cope - and a false persona ... these young men are likely have hidden from their full emotional range with a stiff upper lip .. I feel for the hurt child who has been buried deep ...leaving them unable to empathise with others as any in pain or need will reflected their own pain and need.
    And their understanding of the experience of those in need, hungry, homeless,scared, struggling to survive .. empathy will not be part of their emotional life ..

  2. Yes - we need compassion for these false selves, even as we struggle to overcome the damage they do as adults.

  3. Yes - and be ready to have that compassion rejected! It is too threatening.