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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 August, 2003, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Psyche of the Right
MRI scan of the brain
Are you dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity with views rooted in fear and aggression - hardly a winning combination for a lonely hearts entry?

Well according to American researchers the chances are that if you have these dubious attributes then you are a Conservative.

The study has concluded that Conservatism can be reduced to a series of psychological neuroses. Fascinatingly this work was funded by the US government.

Jon Sopel was joined by Professor Arie Kruglanski, one of the authors of the report, and the shadow cabinet member David Willetts.

Professor, coming to you first, mental rigidity, close-mindedness, low self- esteem, fear, anger, aggression, loss prevention, fear of death - it hardly sounds enticing to be a Conservative.


Our analysis actually views these as universal psychological variables rather than neuroses. One of the major contributions of the study is that we get away from a medical model analysis whereby Conservative or liberal thought reveals a kind of sickness or a psychopathology. We view these variables as universal human dimension to which anybody can be prone, including people who are liberals in certain situations. So the study actually gets away from neurotisisation or pathologisation of Conservatism. It was misrepresented in the media. The terms that you mentioned for example, intolerance of ambiguity or close- mindedness or fear of uncertainty are not negative terms at all. They can be synonymous with decisiveness, with loyalty, with commitment, so it's a matter of the kind of twist or the kind of spin you put on them. And we, in our study, did not put any value ...

OK. David Willetts, did you recognise any of yourself in that description?

I hope not. But I must say I think this is a pretty odd study. It seems to me that the problem with it is it goes back sort of 50 years, as you said in your introduction, to studies of what they called the authoritarian personality, people who followed Hitler and Mussolini. That's why early in study, they list Ronald Reagan, Hitler and Mussolini as three classic Conservatives. It seems to me the old studies which tried to explain why people became fascists in Germany don't really help to explain why members of Havant Conservative Association come to help run the bring and buy stall at our Conservative summer fete. These are people who care about the future of their country, many believe in public service. Some of these caricatures are pretty absurd.

You're probably not familiar with the Conservative Association bring and buy sale, but what about the more general point David Willetts is making, that you simply cannot reduce political types to a series of psychological attributes?

That's precisely our point. I would like to make two points in response to him. First of all, we part ways completely with the adornal [sic] type of analyses that pathologise Conservative thought or authoritarianism. We explain it in terms of psychological variables that have trade of values. They have some advantages and some disadvantages. One could portray liberals as wishy-washy, indecisive, disloyal, uncommitted, if one wanted to. We don't. Second point we would like to make is we do not claim psychological variables can explain political ideology totally. This is the main contribution of the study that we delimit what psychology can and cannot do. There are psychological variables that are universal.

Let me just bring David in there. Do you not think that in this analysis there are bits of Margaret Thatcher that seem slightly recognisable? Dislike of nuance, wanting things to be clear in black and white, disliking sort of indecision, all those things that were common to Margaret Thatcher, common to Ronald Reagan, two heroes of the right of the past 30 years?

I think certainly one of the features of great leadership is to know paradoxically when to close your mind, when to say, right, that's enough analysis, that's enough argument, now we've got to get on with it. That is an important quality. There is sometimes in this paper a sort of caricature of what Conservatives believe. This aversion to change is Conservatives actually displaying a rather attractive human trait of not being confident that we're so arrogant that we know better than the people who have created the institutions around us, not believing that one minister in Government can know better than thousands of doctors or teachers how best to deliver health care, how to run schools. There's a degree of humility, a respect for the way things have been done by professionals over history and that suddenly becomes fear of change. It's not, it's respect for dispersed knowledge and respect for valued tradition.

Mr Willetts, I wonder how different the professor's analysis is to what Teresa May said to your party conference last year when she said "we're perceived as the nasty party"?

This gets to the heart of why this analysis is so pernicious, because what happens is that people dismiss points that you put forward because they assume about a motivation. They can assume ill will and say, we don't need to listen to that critique of - for example in my case, I have been talking a lot recently of tax credits - they don't need to listen to a Conservative critique of tax credits. The Conservatives are just saying it because they're not concerned about poor people. That's the way in which Labour dismisses Conservative critiques of what they're doing and it's often a way in which some commentators dismiss some creative imaginative ideas we put forward. We have to put all of that to one side. This assumption of ill will, this assumption people can tell us what our motives are and they don't need to comment on the substance of our arguments, that's a big problem of getting across the Conservative case and it's something we're fighting for at the moment.

Professor Kruglanski , very briefly because we're running very short of time, but isn't it fair to say that Conservatism isn't based on psychology, it's based on philosophy and liberty, the rights of the individual, social ersponsibility. You might not like the philosophy but that's what it's based on.

It's based on both. Any set of beliefs has motivation underpinnings whether it be liberal ideology or Conservative ideology. There is the philosophical part. There are the contents but there is also a psychological tendency to be sympathetic, a propensity to accept those contents, and again, we do not at all place value on the propensity to accept the Conservative or liberal ideology. We do not caricature it. It's a very nuanced article.

Thank you very much indeed, both of you, very much indeed.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Jon Sopel
discussed whether conservatism can be explained as a set of neuroses rooted in fear, aggression and the intolerance of ambiguity.


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