Gavin Williamson has been accused of telling a senior civil servant to ‘cut his throat’ in new accusations of Conservative Party bullying.
A Defense Ministry official alleged that the Minister carried out a sustained campaign of intimidation while serving as Defense Secretary between 2017 and 2019, culminating in shocking and explosive remarks. Williamson is also accused of telling the same senior official to “jump out the window”.
The Guardian reports that the unnamed aide had worked closely with Williamson (until he was fired following a National Security Council leak) and regularly felt “deliberately belittled and intimidated”. Williamson also reportedly “screamed and raged”, but denied being bullied; claiming he had a “good working relationship” with his officials.
What’s going on in the Conservative Party? This isn’t the first time we’ve heard bullying allegations – just look at Priti Patel. In March last year, the former home secretary settled a claim (rumored to be in the six-figure realm) after he was accused of mounting a ‘vicious and orchestrated’ campaign against the former Permanent Secretary to the Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam.
Rutnam, who resigned in February 2020, said Patel was told a month after joining in 2019 that she should not yell and swear at officials, and was also told several times over the next six months that she should treat them with respect and “make changes to protect health, safety and well-being”. She was accused of creating an “atmosphere of fear” at the Home Office; including belittling officials, adopting an angry and aggressive tone in meetings, and making unreasonable demands of officials.
After an investigation revealed she had indeed bullied staff members, Patel said she was ‘sorry that my behavior in the past upset people’ but insisted it was not not his intention to do so. Sound familiar?
Just last week I wrote about the dangerous rhetoric used by new Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who described desperate migrants making the perilous journey across the English Channel as an ‘invasion’ on our coast south. Words matter. If our top government ministers regularly use violent language, it would not be a stretch to assume that there is something very, very rotten at the heart of the Conservative Party.
With allegations of bullying involving senior government officials, it’s worth examining now the psychology of a bully – and what it might mean to have such people in charge; make important decisions that have a huge impact on people’s lives.
According to academic research, bullies have a distinct psychological makeup that includes lack pro social behaviours. These behaviors are those by which people benefit others (Eisenberg, 1982). What does that mean? Well, to help, to comfort, to share, to cooperate – even to donate; all the traits, in other words, you really hope our politicians have them in abundance when they are, say, faced with the climate crisis at COP27; the cost of living crisis; or figure out how to support our beleaguered NHS or our school or social care systems.
This is not the case, according to the data: because these types of people generally lack anxiety and (essentially) empathy. Simply put: they don’t understand other people’s feelings. And it can be even worse – sometimes they just don’t care.
That’s because bullies see the world differently than the rest of us: they have a kind of negative cognitive bias, which causes them to misinterpret other people’s motivations and intentions. If you yourself feel hostile, chances are you see the world as hostile.
Yet what particularly fascinates me is that bullies tend to view themselves positively. They have probably always experienced conflict and had longstanding “difficult” relationships with family members, authority figures and friends; but in their own mind they are gold – even special. This could therefore explain why they might have the determination, cruelty and self-glorification to rise to positions of power.
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Plus, studies of adult bully syndrome also tell us that the unpleasant, mean person in your life is likely to be that way for a long time. That’s because, scientists say, bullying tendencies generally act on a continuum; meaning that antisocial behaviors that begin in childhood typically continue into adolescence — and beyond. But recent research has also focused on the particular psychological characteristics of adult bullies. And this is where it gets interesting.
“There is strong empirical evidence to suggest that an adult bully may have psychopathological tendencies such as narcissism and Machiavellianism (which is the view that any tactics, even unscrupulous ones, can rightly be used to achieve political power)” reports an article, “with a propensity to display abusive, controlling, insensitive, manipulative, dominating, ruthless and self-centered behaviors”.
When you have a party that doesn’t seem to care about those who suffer under the weight of intransigent immigration policies; about asylum seekers, or about those who will suffer the most in the coming months as the cost of living crisis sets in, it doesn’t sound so shocking when you hear claims about how those who are at the top treat each other. Is that the case ? Suddenly, it all makes so much sense.