Allison Pearson reviews Groupthink: A Study in Self Delusion, by Christopher Booker
Christopher Booker, late-lamented sage of this parish, should go down in history as the grandfather of Brexit or, at the very least, its contrary old uncle.
One of the founding satirists of Private Eye and a much-loved columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, in the 1990s Booker took a promising young fellow by the name of Nigel under his wing. He suggested that his new friend should stand for the European Parliament, the better to destroy it from within.
When I spoke to Nigel Farage recently, he became quite emotional, telling me that he owed everything to “this literary giant” who, “when UKIP was nothing more than a tiddler attached himself to me and came and spoke at village halls across the country.” Booker’s influence on Farage, both personally and intellectually, was immense. Brexit couldn’t have happened without Nigel Farage and Farage would not have become that force which obliged David Cameron to hold a referendum on EU membership without Christopher Booker.
Alas, our veteran columnist died last July before he could savour the triumph of the UK finally departing the European Union, but he did leave behind one last gift for his readers. Groupthink: A Study in Self-Delusion is as much of a book as he could manage to write as his powers failed him. In a beautiful Afterword, his son, Nicholas Booker, paints a stirring picture of his father at the end of his life “still just able to see his screen and keyboard (many of the hammered letters had long since fled)”.
On the days when he thought he would be able to make it back up the stairs, he sat at his study desk - by now relying on laborious, one-fingered typing. It took tremendous determination.” The torches that Christopher used to find his way up the church path to lock its door each night “were now required to help him read, even in broad daylight”.
Booker fans may find themselves smiling fondly at the thought of their half-blind hero, still furiously communicating, still trying to help us see more clearly amidst the dying of the light.
The book begins in early 2019 with the author trying to account for a world “wracked by strains, stresses and divisions which even a decade ago would have been hard to imagine”. He singles out Islamist terrorism, the European Union, the secular religion of climate change (very much not a believer!), a rift between the ruled and their rulers and identity politics. Underlying all of them is “the peculiar social pressure to conform with a whole range of views deemed to be ‘politically correct’ marked out in those caught up in it by their aggressive intolerance of anything or anyone who differs from their own beliefs”.
For a scientific explanation of this growing zealotry, Booker turned to a thesis put forward more than 40 years ago by Irving Janis, a professor of psychology at Yale University. In “The Victims of Groupthink”, Janis observed how “a group of people come to be fixated on some belief or view of the world which is hugely important to them. They are convinced that their opinion is so self-evidently right that no sensible person could disagree with it. Most telling of all, this leads them to treat all who differ from their beliefs with a peculiar kind of contemptuous hostility”.
Janis used this theory to account for several notorious fiascos of US foreign policy – failure to heed intelligence about Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbour being one example – in which a group made decisions based on how they would ideally like the world to be, not according to the realities of the situation. What strikes the modern reader is Janis’s uncanny premonition of today’s “cancel culture” in which an individual expressing a point of view that challenges the liberal orthodoxy can be no-platformed.
Political correctness is the perfect example of how the fight for tolerance led to such savage intolerance. In an excellent chapter, Booker rounds up some of the barmier stories from Warwickshire Police holding tea and cupcake parties “to promote National Hate Crime Awareness Week” to Sarah Champion, Labour’s spokeswoman on Women and Equality issues, being sacked for writing that “Britain has a real problem with Pakistani men raping and exploiting young white girls”.
As Booker points out, it wasn’t the facts that people objected to. How could they, when they were true? It was that Champion had caused “offence” by mentioning the behaviour of certain members of an ethnic minority group even though “it had been precisely the collective desire of the authorities to pretend that this problem did not exist which had for so many years allowed these horrendous crimes to continue”.
It was his impatience with such patently pernicious nonsense that caused Booker to become known as the Sunday Telegraph’s Voice of Reason. No surprise to learn that he coined the now ubiquitous phrase “Westminster Bubble” to describe the inability of the ruling class to relate to what ordinary people were thinking.
Inevitably, as he grew older, the charge could be made that it was Booker himself who was out of touch. In 1969, he had published The Neophiliacs, a devastating critique of the permissive Swinging Sixties. In Groupthink, he returns to that theme, imagining what a group of time travellers would make of our society in which “much of that old framework of moral values and social conventions by which they had lived in the early Fifties had now disappeared”. It was a framework which “provided protection against individually selfish and socially disruptive behaviour”.
Although some of his analysis about the effects of divorce on children is spot-on, as a woman I’m afraid I cannot share Booker’s rose-tinted affection for a time in which my sex still enjoyed servant status and there was a great deal of prejudice towards groups which are much more kindly treated today. The good old days were sometimes plain nasty. It’s also unclear whether Booker, who had three wives, counts himself as playing any part in “the collapse of the institution of marriage”.
There is, however, a huge amount to relish in these pages. Chapters on climate-change scepticism and the EU’s dastardly plan to become the United States of Europe confirm why readers were so often grateful for their author’s ability to puncture complacent, conventional thinking. If the book sometimes tails off into lists, rather than analysis, that is because time was running out and the political analyst Richard North had to pull together material after Booker’s death. The section rubbishing Darwinism does seem a bit, well, nuts, but as Ian Hislop, the present editor of Private Eye, remarked fondly, “No one agreed with Christopher all the time, including Christopher himself.”
And that is why we will miss him, isn’t it? After the referendum result, the grandfather of Brexit made the case for what many saw as the wimpy Norway model, much to the fury of ardent Brexiteers. How typical of that brilliant, disputacious man to refuse, once again, to go along with the herd; the very herd he had started.
Christopher Booker’s last book begins with a quote from Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. “It is become more obvious that it is not starvation, it is not microbes, it is not cancer, but man himself who is his greatest danger; because he has no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating in their effect than the greatest natural catastrophes.”
In the midst of one such natural catastrophe, we mourn a columnist and author whose refusal to succumb to popular posturing and official make-believe offered us both protection and solace against psychic epidemics in an age of aggressive intolerance. The letters on Booker’s keyboard were hammered into invisibility. He cared about what became of us that much.
Buy Groupthink: A Study in Self Delusion for £16.99 from the Telegraph Bookshop