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Accidents waiting to happen?
Political events and psychological climate for the UK Government, 1998-2000
Dai Williams, 6 March 2000
The current crisis in the UK Government may be a natural consequence of events and changes in the last year.
- How long will it last?
- How can senior ministers manage this period of change?
- What is the outlook for the next 6 months?
- Does organisational psychology apply to politics as it does to business?
Combined effects of six policy areas on the psychological climate in the UK Government from April 1998 to January 2000, and projected to September 2000 (see Table 7).
NOTE: The text on charts on these pages may be hard to read on your computer screen but should print clearly on medium or high quality printers.
- Transitions - the psychology of change
- Psychological climate in politics
- Recent and current political transitions in the UK
- Tracking psychological climate in Government (refer tables 1-6)
- Combined effects of trauma and change in the Cabinet (table 7)
- The current crisis in Government
- Transition management options for current issues
- Psychological climate forecasts to September 2000
- The Millennium transition
- Psychohistory in political analysis
In recent weeks the UK Government has faced a succession of crises. The collapse of the Northern Ireland peace process is one of several serious concerns at this time (6 March 2000). The underlying issues may be as much psychological as political. If so they include the risk of serious errors of judgement but also offer good prospects for recovery if they are recognised and managed.
Several events over the past 6 weeks suggest dysfunctional stress levels in the Government. Peter Kilfoyle resigned from the Cabinet. There was a new scapegoating campaign against Mo Mowlam, confusion over provision of emergency aid to Mozambique and today Ken Livingstone's decision to leave the party to stand for London Mayor. Quitting on a point of principle is a classic symptom of organisational crisis. Scapegoating, poor co-operation and internal conflicts are typical features of highly stressed groups. These symptoms were evident during previous crisis periods in this Parliament eg December 97 - January 98, and in December 98. Politicians and political analysts may find a more encouraging perspective on crisis and change by considering psychological as well as political processes in government.
Stress from day to day events is a fact of life in politics - politicians thrive on it. But the stress involved in coming to terms with trauma or radical changes in our work or personal life is very different. It is due to deep inner contradictions between past beliefs or expectations and a new reality eg following the birth of child or bereavement, a new job or redundancy or the shift from civil war to peace.
Humans have a remarkable ability to respond and adapt to trauma or change through the psychological process of transition. Few people are even aware of the process though traditional cultures support it through rites of passage. Very few people realise that transitions usually involve a period of crisis several months after a major event. This crisis continues until the individual lets go of the past to come to terms with the change. This applies equally to a politician abandoning some cherished but obsolete dogma, or a paramilitary giving up his gun.
Transitions are a form of human metamorphosis that takes 9-12 months to work through usually with very positive outcomes. Transitions offer exciting opportunities for personal and career development if understood and supported. In political situations these opportunities appear as policy breakthroughs and 'come-backs' for individual politicians. If not understood individuals and organisations can become trapped in an extended transition crisis for months or years.
Figure 1: The transition cycle - a template for human responses to change.
The transition process give reasons for hope in the deepest crisis eg the resilience of the Omagh community last year in response to the devastating bomb in August 1998. But to find these positive outcomes transition psychology indicates that periods of crisis and change must be seen in a wider context and analysed over a longer time-scale than usual political debate - at least a year.
Psychological climate is a wider concept than stress because it includes positive as well as negative states of mind for individuals, organisations and communities. At an individual level this can be described as well being or morale. But from tracking the peace process in Northern Ireland last year the concept of psychological climate implies a collective condition that represents individual feelings and affects others over a period of time.
Morale in political organisations fluctuates day to day in response to short-term events, like weather. In most cases the causes are obvious from daily media reports. But tracking political events and behaviour over longer periods shows distinct cycles, like climate. You can try this for your own experiences with the Lifeline exercise enclosed (in original report or contact Eos). Observers and analysts can do this for high profile groups like politicians by looking for behavioural indicators eg errors of judgement, scapegoating, quitting, personal life crises, new initiatives and achievements.
Some of these psychological climate cycles may be associated with the transition process. Transitions have been recognised as key issues for managing change in commercial organisations for nearly a decade. But until recently they have not been applied to Government and other political organisations. So in January 1999 we ran a symposium "Waves of Change" about transition psychology at the Occupational Psychology Conference in Blackpool. This was reported in Human responses to change in the journal Futures (31, 6) in August 1999.
Co-presenters at the Symposium were Professor Peter Herriot a leading expert in organisational change, Dr Ashley Weinberg from Manchester University (now at Salford) who researches politicians' stress, and Dr Richard Plenty, Organisation Development Adviser at Shell International. Their observations and experiences are included in the symposium report.
If transitions occur in political institutions like the UK Government and new Assemblies as they do in other major organisations like Shell International, then better explanations and forecasting of psychological climate in politics are possible. Transition management strategies can then be used to minimise risks during crisis periods and to maximise subsequent opportunities in periods of political change.
Transitions occur within the minds of individuals; but groups or organisations sharing the same event or change are likely to go through similar phases of transition at approximately the same time, resulting in collective crisis and recovery periods.
I first applied the transition model to political events in September 1997 suspecting that there could be a post-election transition cycle, dubbed "landslide syndrome" by the Telegraph. This was proposed in a booklet After the Honeymoon (Oct 97) and its second edition Parliament in Transition (Dec 97, see references) offered as survival guides for MPs and ex-MPs of all parties.
I reviewed this proposition against actual events in Parliament from May 97 - April 98 in a paper for the Blackpool symposium, since included as a Supplement to Parliament in Transition (copy attached to original report). Figure 2 tracks key events and well-being (or climate) for the Government and Opposition up to April 98. The Opposition crisis started in Oct 1997. The Government's crisis ran from the Formula 1 affair in November, through the Lone parent rebellion to the Iraq War vote in Feb 1998. The subsequent recovery phase for Government featured the March budget and Irish peace talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.
Since 1998 I have continued to track political issues or events that were likely to cause severe stress or major transition periods for Government ministers. Some of these have been described in previous briefing papers. They include:
1. The Northern Ireland peace process since the Good Friday Agreement
2. US-UK-Islam relations and conflicts with Saddam Hussein and Bin Lardin
3. The Devolution transition for the new Assemblies
4. The Balkans war and its psychological aftermath in Europe and Russia
5. The Millennium Bug (Y2K) threat and contingency planning
The Government have had to cope with several of these issues concurrently. But each has separate time-scales so I considered them separately before looking at their combined effects. These are shown in Tables 1 - 6 enclosed (in original report). I have rated the likely pressures on ministers on each issue month by month on a scale from -5 (severe trauma) to +5 (elation) based on media reports of events. They cover the period from April 1998 to date and projected to September 2000. Some issues like the Balkans war carry extreme highs and lows. Some others like Lords reform have had a shallower range of effects so far.
I have also projected the outlook for the next 8 months based on the potential timing of transition crises and recoveries for people involved in each issue. This includes the potential transitions for people outside the Cabinet e.g. in Northern Ireland, the new Assemblies and past and present members of the House of Lords.
Other analysts can add more factors and chart them on a similar basis. Ideally ministers and advisers can chart them for themselves on the Lifeline exercise. This paper aims to draw attention to the combined effects of major events on the psychological climate and stress levels in the Cabinet, their consequences for the clarity of Government decisions and the pattern of transition cycles after major events.
Over the past 2 years I have also monitored the crises and comebacks of 17 individual politicians. Some of these included very obvious defining moments when an individuals breaks out of a short or extended transition crisis by taking a radical stance on a matter of principle. Some of these triggered a recovery period on a particular policy issue (see Figure 2 of the Review supplement).
Three examples of defining moments in the Northern Ireland arena were Mo Mowlam's visit to the Maze in January 1998, Gerry Adams meeting with David Trimble in September 1998 and David Trimble's new initiative in November 1999. In each case they put their careers on the line to move the peace process forward. Ken Livingstone's decision to stand for London Mayor will be a defining moment in his career and adds another factor to the current crisis.
Table 7 combines the issues covered in Tables 1 - 6. The red line is the sum of scores on all issues each month, divided by 2 to keep it on a similar scale. This is my best estimate of the overall psychological climate in the Cabinet since April 1998 and projected ahead to September 2000.
It shows how at some times success in one policy area compensates for pressures in others, taking the heat off other ministers eg in May 1998 the success of the Irish peace referendum offset earlier intentions to attack Iraq. At other times combined successes exceeded problems with collective confidence and celebration eg July 1999. But sometimes several issues or changes reached a crisis phase together eg in January 1998, from December 1998 to May 99. The current crisis was developing from November 1999, mitigated briefly by the breakthrough in the peace process and the non-appearance of the Millennium Bug.
When these events are reviewed together over the past 2-3 years they highlight the immense pressures on the Prime Minister, Cabinet and other political leaders. They must be remarkably robust and committed individuals. But they are still human and are subject to fluctuations in their states of mind and competence like everyone else in periods of transition.
Throughout the lifetime of this Parliament ministers have been coping with the combined pressures of current events and the delayed psychological effects of transitions following earlier traumas and changes in their work or private lives.
Transition crises become a problem in two ways:
a) Individuals under severe stress are likely to make serious errors of judgement in decisions or behaviour, or to accept bad advice. "Moments of madness" may cost them their job or a personal relationship. But when strategic errors include military action they cost innocent lives and jeopardise international relations as in the Sudan retaliation. If they concern economic errors as in the ERM crisis in 1992 they cost the country millions.
b) If individuals are not able to come to terms with the change they can become trapped in an extended crisis or partial recovery with a risk of making more mistakes. This may explain the inability to date of paramilitaries and some politicians in Northern Ireland to come to terms with the peace process by letting go of prejudices or weapons (refer Many Paths to Peace), and actual or intended military actions by the US in 1998 due to the Lewinsky affair.
A disturbing aspect of these tables is the timing of actual or intended military actions by the UK, US and Russian governments. Each occurred during periods of high stress or transition crisis for leaders or governments, in some cases exploited by terrorist attacks. These observations add recent examples to a leading Psychiatrist's warning about the state of mind of earlier 20th century world leaders before starting wars - Professor Hugh Freeman's paper The Human Brain and Political Behaviour 1991 (refer Supplement page 26, paragraph 2).
Some transition crisis periods appear to be predictable consequences of successes or changes that Government itself initiated e.g. winning the 1997 Election, the peace vote in Northern Ireland, the Balkans War and the Devolution transition. Similar transition periods occur in companies after redundancies, mergers and take-overs. The crisis stage is a normal phase of transition needed to enable individuals to let go of old ideas before they can to come to terms with the full impact of the change - managers as well as staff.
Politicians initiate major changes for the nation. But like other managers they need to understand the psychology of change management and adapt to the new realities they create.
The combined effects of recent events and changes on Government in Table 7 suggest that Ministers are now in a multiple crisis period likely to continue for the next 2-3 months (i.e. through March until April or May).
In December this was due to the combined transition crisis periods for the Balkans War aftermath including the Chechen war, the Devolution transition and the global security alert for risks of Millennium bug (Y2K) disruption. These stresses were briefly offset by the break-through in Northern Ireland in December, Millennium celebrations and the absence of Y2K problems in the New Year. But these mitigating events have now passed.
The tables also show how the Northern Ireland Assembly and Lords reform transitions are likely to enter their crisis phases soon (March - April) to add to Devolution transition issues. Direct rule was re-imposed in Northern Ireland two weeks after these tables were charted.
Not shown on these tables are growing public unrest over NHS resources during the flu epidemic, growing economic inequality and economic crises in agriculture and the regions. These are policy problems, not transition effects.
Does transition psychology offer any practical insights or encouragement to Government in this situation? I believe it does both. In Parliament in transition (97) and its review supplement (99) I suggested that policies and manifesto commitments need to be updated during periods of change, especially during transition crisis and recovery periods. No plan can fully anticipate new realities - including the effects of wars, peace processes or constitutional reform. Old dogmas must be open to regular review and leadership styles may need to change.
a) The Devolution transition: Legally the UK Government has devolved power to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies and in due course to the new London administration. In practice they have tried to retain control over key political appointments and budget issues. They do not appear to have come to terms with full power sharing yet. A key test of this will be the Government's approach to regional budgets. Will it provide the match funding needed for European regional grants? The Chancellor has been postponed this to the next Spending Review ie for another year. Why was this overlooked in 1999 - perhaps another error from the Balkans war crisis?
b) The Northern Ireland peace process: Transitions involve letting go of deeply held beliefs, some so taken for granted that they are not even recognised or questioned. After a flying start Peter Mandelson was likely to be entering the crisis phase of his new-job transition including confidence testing by Northern Ireland politicians. It appears that the Government was manoeuvred into restoring direct rule and blaming the IRA for the failure of the peace process because decommissioning did not start in January. This has led to a serious breakdown of trust with the risk of renewed paramilitary action and has aborted the new Assembly.
Each group in Northern Ireland is at different stages of the peace transition (refer Many Paths to Peace ). This is a psychological process for the whole population as well as a political process. Reconciliation and decommissioning cannot be imposed. Both involve fundamental personal transitions by thousands of people, winning hearts and minds. This can be helped by valuing what has already been achieved and the best traditions of all communities, and quietly but firmly refusing to be drawn back into old alignments.
Despite the high priority given by English media to the decommissioning debate it is only one element of the peace process. In its current crisis the Government risks losing sight of the wider process and gains so far. In addition to the long term peace transition Northern Ireland was beginning to go through the same new Assembly transition as Wales and Scotland, but starting 6 months later. Confusion and crisis were to be expected in its second 3 months but should have been be resolved by early summer if had not been suspended. Unless the new Assembly is reconvened within a few weeks it will have to go through its new organisation transition all over again.
Decommissioning involves a fundamental loss-of-power transition for paramilitaries. This has to be managed by leaders in each community, preferably without interference from others. Valuing the past to retain dignity, each in their own way is crucial - literally burying their dead as Gerry Adams did recently. It is equally important for other institutions like the RUC - the award of the George Cross was a sincere gesture of respect for the price paid by many officers and their families. Will Unionists be able to find ways to acknowledge the role of paramilitaries to win their confidence for decommissioning?
It is important that the Government manages psychological aspects of the peace process (hearts and minds) as well as political negotiations in Northern Ireland. Many groups are at risk of being left behind while Government focuses on political negotiations. A stable and supportive process is essential to the mental health and well being of thousands of victims and their families. For psychological reasons prisoner releases had greater potential to stabilise paramilitary groups than acknowledged by most political parties or the media. There may need to be some form of restorative justice process to acknowledge atrocities suffered on all sides without vengeance.
Like Devolution the peace process is about building trust and truth in a period of transition. To develop this the Government also needs to question what must be "let go" in their own thinking and the British establishment - civil and security services and media.
Britain carries an awesome responsibility for the Troubles in Northern Ireland over at least two centuries that is rarely acknowledged. The peace process linked with the wider shift to devolution are major steps to remedy this. But both involve transitions in London too.
The prevailing attitude in the UK establishment to Northern Ireland seems to contain vestiges of colonial traditions that supported loyal groups against dissident minorities - resulting in 30 years of civil war. If questioning this sounds unpatriotic it illustrates the problem. The Government needs to question and confront divisive English attitudes to Northern Ireland, as well those within the Province. Otherwise the UK establishment and media will continue to undermine the peace process by tacitly supporting Protestants against Catholics. Devolution requires a new respect for cultural identities in UK regions.
Acknowledging the Troubles as another British civil war puts a different perspective on the status of prisoners and paramilitaries from all sides. It does not condone atrocities and terrorism. But it acknowledges the convictions of those who took up arms as they saw it in defence of their own communities. Valuing the past, each side in its own way, is a psychological pre-condition to letting go of it in times of transition and change. This acknowledgement is already a key part of local reconciliation programmes. It may be a crucial factor in developing a climate where anti-Agreement politicians and paramilitaries begin to de-commission hostile attitudes, weapons and ultimately their organisations.
All sides in the peace process must accept responsibility for the past. In doing so there is the best prospect for enabling individuals to let go of hatred and violence. The proof of this shift will be voluntary decommissioning. The transition forecasts in Table 1, made in late January, indicated this was possible before mid-summer. The recovery phase in the peace transition would enable the parades season to celebrate peace and the Millennium, sharing the best of old traditions across traditional community divisions. Many individuals and communities have already reached this stage within Northern Ireland. Many inter-faith, cross-community events have been happening in recent months, though these are rarely if ever reported in the UK media .
c) Foreign affairs: At least four major issues remain unresolved, some resulting from Government actions in the past two years: 1) the ongoing conflict with Iraq; 2) the unresolved issue of Milosevic's regime in Serbia and economic devastation caused by last year's war; 3) the risk of Putin and the Russian Government entering a deeper crisis in the aftermath of the Chechen war and 4) dilemmas over ethical foreign policies concerning arms exports and world trade.
The Government's foreign policy appears to be in crisis its economic, military and ethical objectives represented by different ministers. According to recent reports one option being considered by Government is to abandon its commitment to ethical foreign policies. This flies in the face of rising public concern about global issues.
Transition management also applies to managing relations with other political leaders and governments who may be going through their own transition crises following wars, disasters or elections. The transition cycle indicates approximate timings for high risk periods and windows of opportunity for new relationships. Nato's humiliation of the Russian government and army at the start of the Balkans war may have been a significant factor in subsequent last August and September, 5-6 months after the war began. These included change of Prime Minister, a new anti-Nato alliance with China, the decision to increase nuclear readiness and the start of the Chechen War. Putin is now likely to be in double transition crisis - his new job transition and the Chechen war aftermath.
These events in Russia highlight strategic errors by Nato governments during the Balkans war. The Government may wish to question its basic assumptions about foreign policy e.g. whether to deal with all nations with integrity and impartiality or favour specific alliances. This includes matching ethical trade policy with ethical political relations. There are clearly divisions on these issues between different ministries and departments.
h) Leadership style and organisation culture: Transition psychology indicates the fundamental importance of allowing individuals to update their thinking during periods of transition crisis and recovery. In December 97 Part 2 of Parliament in Transition specifically addressed ways to move "from crisis to recovery". It suggested that both Government and Opposition needed to be ready to change their management style during the crisis and recovery periods of major transitions - relaxing central control to enable rapid recovery.
Senior ministers cannot know all the problems, or have all the answers and new ideas in time of radical change. In the recovery stage of transitions individuals can be highly motivated, co-operative and innovative in solving new problems - if they are allowed to be. Rebels often have a clearer vision of the new reality because they may have reached their defining moment ahead of party leaders. To liberate this talent - whether in the Commons, new Assemblies or the Lords - leaders have to be willing to share power, to listen to new ideas and to trust other people.
High control leadership is valid for short periods in election campaigns or national emergencies but is not appropriate in normal conditions or periods of transition. Leaders who over-control their organisation disempower managers and staff, or ministers and MPs. Most individuals submit and become passive, obedient and dependent. More innovative or independent ones will rebel and be vilified or scapegoated for doing so. This is why over-control inhibits new ideas, communication, co-operation and change.
The Prime Minister was highly effective in facilitating the Good Friday Agreement because he could not control key participants. Instead he used his talents to motivate and encourage instead. But in Westminster the hallmark of New Labour remains its control culture.
Effective leaders gain influence and facilitate change by building trust and respect. Success brings some respect for those in the winning team e.g. after the Election. But in normal or difficult times leaders increase motivation and influence by sharing power, not hoarding it. Empowered organisations are self-motivating, freeing leaders to focus on strategic direction, not operational issues. This is the message of Peter Herriot's book, Trust and Transition. The current crisis in Government is a new opportunity for the Prime Minister and other senior ministers to review their management style with this in mind.
In the next 2-3 months several of these issues are likely to get worse as they enter the 6 month transition crisis period for recent events (eg the new Northern Ireland Assembly, Lords reform, and Chechen war aftermath in Russia). These add to unresolved issues like the ongoing conflict with Iraq, wider consequences of the Balkans war and growing global unrest over world trade issues.
Fortunately the US political scene appears relatively stable, preoccupied by the Presidential election. Otherwise the tables indicate there could be a high risk of the UK Government embarking on another military adventure as it has done (or tried to do) during each of its previous high stress periods. Clinton and Putin have both done the same.
How and when the Government will break out of the current crisis period depends on several major policies and processes eg budgets for the new assemblies (match funding), restoring confidence in the Northern Ireland peace process and being a stabilising influence on events in Russia, the Balkans and Middle East.
Ministers working through their individual transition crises could be role models for colleagues and others. If they value the remarkable progress the Government has made in the last 3 years they may feel more confident to review and revise their current policies and practices. Some may find their own defining moments as Mo Mowlam and others did in January 98, as Peter Mandelson did in his come-back when appointed to succeed Mo in Northern Ireland, and as Peter Kilfoyle did recently. Hopefully most will do this by working for change within the Cabinet or party, not quitting it. But whatever defining action they take they are likely to find fresh insights into the new realities that they have helped to create.
Apart from policy decisions the single change most likely to alleviate the current transition crisis in Government would be to review and let go of its control culture. Peter Kilfoyle's resignation from the Cabinet challenges senior ministers to listen instead of preaching to people outside their immediate circle of friends and spindoctors - from their own MPs, Peers and Assembly members to many disaffected groups in the UK.
Over control is usually a sign of insecurity. The Government has many achievements to its credit so senior ministers should be ready to make the shift from politicians to statesmen/women. Some already have. If this has not happened by May it may be triggered by a happy defining moment when the Prime Minister's family welcomes the new "Blair babe"!
By the early summer the psychological outlook for Government improves dramatically. Several current transition issues are due to reach their potential recovery phase eg in the new assemblies, Lords reform and Irish peace process. These transitions involve many politicians and groups outside the Cabinet who may create new initiatives that reduce pressure on Government.
But this recovery phase may depend on several senior ministers making calm, clear-sighted and possibly courageous decisions with absolute personal integrity on each policy area. The immediate risk is that short-sighted, reactive decisions made under stress will extend the current crisis, jeopardising recovery and possibly even splitting the party. In December 97 this developed over Lone Parent Benefits resulting in rebellion. The London Mayor election presents similar dilemmas now between central control and core principles of democracy.
Had there been a real Y2K crisis in January there would have been the prospect of a global Millennium transition, with its crisis phase in mid-year and recovery in the autumn.
It is still possible that there may be some form of global reaction to the new Millennium if a new century has some deeper psychological significance. According to a recent article by Dr Susan Blackmore (ref 4) it has already become a powerful cultural meme (or concept) sufficient to justify vast expenditure on projects like the Dome. She points out that many people expected life to be different in the new Millennium - the expectations of a "new age" liberated from the worst features of the 20th Century - violence, poverty, prejudice and exploitation.
It is too soon to tell whether such a transition effect is working through. If it is then people affected (from the general public to world leaders) will be in a minimising phase for the first 2-3 months. Potential signs of this kind of change would be growing political dissent over peace and ethical trade issues in the second quarter, with serious public unrest in the summer but leading to recovery and new enlightenment in the late summer and autumn. This would be an additional change cycle, not included in tables 1-7.
If there is a global Millennium shift in the summer and autumn the kind of changes we might look for could include initiatives for radical reform in the United Nations. We might also see growing consensus for a global peaceforce - proposed after the Hague Peace Conference in May 1999. This would be based on the new peace technologies (mediation, reconciliation, economic development etc) to pre-empt conflicts and replace the huge military arsenals of the 20th Century. It could also incorporate the resources needed for rapid reaction to humanitarian disasters eg earthquakes, floods and epidemics. Similar strategic policy shifts may include a replacement for the WTO with effective powers to control multinationals and speculation on the international money markets.
In the UK the attached tables suggest a multiple recovery phase from mid-summer onwards, with or without a Millennium transition effect, provided the Government makes no strategic errors during the next 2-3 months. This 3rd quarter recovery phase is likely to include redefining its own values, priorities and style e.g. perhaps re-affirming or strengthening its original ethical foreign policy. If so it would be well placed to contribute to the potential new wave of humanitarian global initiatives.
Historians and political analysts can apply transition theory and the notion of tracking psychological climate to many political events in the UK and other countries, past and present. It may add a fresh perspective to political biographies e.g. was Churchill's 'black dog' of depression really a series of transition crises? It could be important to political parties to review the longer history of post-election transition crises in UK and other countries.
Other examples of political transition crises include the timing and handling of the ERM crisis in 92, the crisis and recovery for the Norwegian Prime Minister and government in 98 and Lafontaine's quitting the German Cabinet in spring 99. Each of these crises developed 5-6 months after major elections. Some became extended crises with delayed recoveries for the individuals or parliament concerned. Transitions may also give clues to the timing and nature of political problems in Indonesia and Malaysia following economic collapse and environmental problems in 1998, and again 6 months after the East Timor crisis.
Isaac Asimov suggested a discipline of psychohistory - mapping the psychological aspects of social and political change to forecast and pre-empt future crises. Professor Freeman's paper analysed important aspects of the mental health of world leaders. But until recently the impacts of psychological transitions on leaders and governments have not been considered. This may add another perspective to political analysis and the art of government.
This paper breaks academic tradition in speculating on psychological processes in an organisation that has not been rigorously researched. But, like Parliament in Transition it is written to offer warnings, explanations and encouragement to senior politicians who are coping with a current organisational crisis. It is impossible to forecast all eventualities in politics. But the Review of Parliament in transition suggests it is possible to forecast broad trends and cycles in the psychological climate of government as it is for commercial organisations.
The main variation on previous transition forecasts is that transitions affecting large groups of people may take longer to reach the crisis and recovery stages than for individuals. But the same principles for managing transition crises and enabling recovery still apply. These include cause for hope that organisations can recover remarkably fast (within 1-2 months) once they start to resolve crisis issues. This could be seen in the UK Government's achievements in February-March 97, and in the setting-up of the new Northern Ireland Assembly in November-December 99. The challenge is how to manage transitions.
The Review supplement to Parliament in Transition (enclosed in original report) contains 11 practical implications of transitions for Government and other organisations. Events in the next 9 months will give more opportunities to monitor these issues in the UK Government. These and earlier recommendations in Parliament in transition provide starting points for including transition management in processes of political change in Government.
Though parts of this paper imply criticisms of Government processes and decisions during periods of crisis it is not intended as a personal criticism of individual ministers. Each one has wide responsibilities most of which function effectively even during crisis periods. This is a tribute to their resilience though probably at some cost to their health and personal lives.
But if transitions occur in political organisations as they are known to do in business then they have profound implications for stable and healthy government. Although they are based on psychological processes several professions and research disciplines should be able to recognise them in the UK and other countries. Ideally political organisations will develop their own understanding of these processes for the hazards and opportunities they present. They can find practical examples of transition management as a strategic management approach from organisations like Shell.
I would like to hear other perspectives on the current crisis from commentators, analysts, researchers or party managers. These are welcome on the Eos Life-Work Forum.
Dai Williams M.Sc C.Psychol
Chartered Occupational Psychologist
Footnotes (on 6 March 2000)
1. The tables were plotted in January and this report was first written on 3rd February. Since then the Northern Ireland situation has deteriorated with the return to direct rule from Westminster and the continuing dispute over selection of New Labour's candidate for Mayor of London. The scapegoating attack on Dr Mowlam appears to have receded. But otherwise the crisis in Government appears to be continuing as forecast last month. (This report was sent to senior Government ministers on 8 March and to the House of Commons Library).
2. This analysis is offered to encourage constructive debate about the current crisis in Government in the interests of effective political processes. No party political bias is intended. Views expressed on specific policy areas are based on separate studies over the past 2 years eg investigations into psychological aspects of the Balkans War, see Balkans Aftermath, August 1999, and into the wider peace process in Northern Ireland published in Many Paths to Peace, September 1999. Forecasts are based on extrapolating the transition process for each policy area.
3. This version has been prepared for Web publication on 4 July in view of public criticism of the Prime Minister for allowing the practice of scapegoating ministers through press briefings to continue. Sections 7 and 8 specifically warned about this issue, as did Career First Aid tip #8 in the report Parliament in Transition in December 1997.
Eos references included in the original report
Review supplement to Parliament in Transition (3rd edition, Sept 99)
Human responses to change, Futures, Elsevier, August 99
Balkans aftermath: The post-war transition, August 99
Lords in transition, November 99
1. Freeman H (1991) The human brain and political behaviour Brit. J. Psychiatry, 159
2. Williams D Many Paths to Peace (1999) Eos
3. Herriot P, Hirsch W and Reilly P (1997) Trust and Transition. Wiley
4. Blackmore S The Y2K meme The Psychologist Dec 99, vol. 12, no 12 page 599
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