A document inadvertently published by the British government before being hastily deleted reveals some lessons officials learnt from the coronavirus pandemic, including “deep set reverence” for government authority, apparently regardless of political affiliation.
A report prepared for the government exploring how to ‘nudge’ the public into accepting the Build Back Greener narrative and the considerable lifestyle changes it entails — even if they don’t realise they are being so nudged — has cited the government’s success in control of the public during coronavirus to illustrate what is possible, and how.
The paper, seen by Breitbart London and which, as The Guardian notes, was briefly published on the British government’s website before being hastily deleted and then played down, found that despite the public criticising the government or holding opposing political views to leading politicians, the public generally still did as they were told by “legitimate government authority”.
The Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives research paper stated:
Government statements, actions and laws powerfully shape perceptions of normative and acceptable behaviour. For instance, even with public criticism being high, many still perceived government approval as the yardstick for safe behaviour during COVID-19 ‘we’re allowed to do this now [so must be safe]…’. This reveals, for many, a deep set reverence for legitimate government authority, regardless of one’s personal political views.
The paper stated that the government leading by example, in the case of coronavirus by having leading politicians vaccinated live on television and in green policy by the government replacing its conventional vehicle fleet with all-electric alternatives, had an impact on public compliance. Elite hypocrisy, on the other hand, had a major opposite effect.
Making an oblique reference to repeated occasions of authority figures cheating the rules during lockdowns, the paper said:
Perceived hypocrisy can do a lot to undermine efforts to build public engagement and support. This was observed during the COVID-19 pandemic when prominent authority figures broke guidelines, leading to measurable reductions in public compliance as well as shifting attitudes.
Such instances include ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson transforming into ‘Professor Pantsdown‘ after his repeated visits to his married and quarantined lover were exposed, and the Health Secretary having an affair with a staffer while the ordinary public was effectively banned from having sex with people they didn’t already live with by government lockdown rules.
Green politics has similar deep-seated reputational issues with elite hypocrisy. A common feature of climate change summits has been high-profile attendees arriving by private or government jet, a disconnect between word and deed that seems unlikely to vanish in the near term.
In all, the report found the British public — and people in general — did what they were told by the government, “have a powerful tendency to conform”, can be “nudged” into making government-approved decisions, and, where all else fails, tend to accept the new status quo when changes are forced, even if they were unwanted by the public in the first place.
The review of the effectiveness of government moving to control and change public behaviour during the coronavirus pandemic came in a report produced for the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). Best known as the ‘nudge’ unit, the BIT was established in the Cabinet Office during the David Cameron era and was tasked with fine-tuning government policy to make public acceptance and uptake of initiatives as high as possible.
The BIT emphasises behavioural economics and moving away from old-school government lecturing of the public on what decisions to make, towards fundamentally changing the options available to the public to choose from in the first place. This, it claims, is much more effective, contrasting a failed 30 years of the government telling people to exercise more and eat less with the recent sugar tax — highly approved of by BIT — which saw the consumption of sugary drinks plummet in months.
After the document was deleted from the British government website, a state spokesman played down the importance of the paper, emphasising that it was “an academic research paper, not government policy”. While BIT was founded as a government body, it was partially privatised in 2014 and now presents itself as an ordinary company, although it is in fact part-owned by the British state and still does the majority of its work for the British government.
Aside from the subtle work of BIT, a more heavy-handed impact of government decision-directing has been felt over the course of the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic research found that most Britons were not worried about coronavirus, something which troubled the government’s advisors. This was reflected in a report by the government’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours team, which found in its research on how to increase adherence to instructions that:
[A] substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened [by Covid-19]… The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging. To be effective this must also empower people by making clear the actions they can take to reduce the threat.
Some of these efforts were less subtle than others. One pro-lockdown campaign was even attacked as “emotionally manipulative propaganda” over its guilt-inducing and emotional messaging.
The efforts appear to have paid off, though, if months of recent polling showing the British public’s reported levels of fear are anything to go by. In contrast to feelings last year, Britons are now afraid to be inside with people not wearing masks, afraid of touching handrails on public transport — leading to a rise in injurious falls on escalators and staircases — and afraid of lockdown ending.