Tuesday 27 September 2016

Groupthink led us into economic disaster and it still rules debate here

Published 10/07/2015 | 02:30

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen

When former Conservative party leader and British Foreign Secretary William Hague addressed the European Business School in France in 1998 to warn against the euro, against Britain joining the euro and of the drastic consequences that would befall some of the countries that did join the euro, all of the great and the good in Europe were appalled.

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Hague was dismissed as an oddity, in his own words as "almost pitiable".

But he said something that night which applies word for word to Greece today. He warned that some countries in the euro would find themselves "trapped in a burning building with no exits".

No major Irish political figure opposed Irish entry into the euro. That is typical of how we do politics in Ireland. There is a debate today about 'austerity' because it is popular to oppose spending cuts but for the most part and on most major issues our leaders huddle around a very narrow consensus that allows for only small, technical disagreements.

This is why I don't especially blame Brian Cowen or Bertie Ahern for what has befallen this country. Watching Cowen march into Leinster House to face the Banking Inquiry last week and on Wednesday, Enda Kenny ought to have been thinking, 'There but for the grace of God go I'.

Had Enda Kenny been elected Taoiseach a decade or more ago, things would be little different today from what they are.

Even before the general election of 2007, Fine Gael's main criticisms of government policy were that the government wasn't spending enough. Look at Fine Gael's 2007 election manifesto. It promised another 2,300 acute beds and 1,500 convalescent beds. It wanted to issue another 100,000 medical cards and give free GP care to the under-fives. (It has bettered that now by giving free GP care to every child under six, a terrible policy).

It promised 2,000 more gardaí on our streets. It looked to increase the old-age pension to €300 per week and to cut the 20pc tax rate to 18pc. Fine Gael also wanted to cut stamp duty.

As Brian Cowen rightly told the Banking Inquiry last week, all of these spending promises and promised tax cuts were predicated on projected economic growth of 4.1pc per annum between 2007 and 2013.

In other words, Fine Gael hadn't the foggiest notion of what lay down the road only a short distance, economically speaking.

This is why Cowen must find it galling to find opposition politicians sitting in judgement on him, and not just Fine Gael politicians.

It is why it is nonsense to think Enda Kenny would have taken us down a saner, more prudent course had he been in power and not Cowen from the middle of the last decade.

Peter Nyberg, of the Nyberg report into our banking failure, famously put his finger on why no major politician in Ireland had a clue what was coming. He blamed 'groupthink'.

The report said: "Groupthink occurs when people adapt to the beliefs and views of others without real intellectual conviction. A consensus forms without serious consideration of consequences or alternatives, often under overt or imaginary social pressure."

Groupthink isn't a feature only of Irish politics or Irish society, of course. It seems to be exaggerated here, however, due to the fact that we are a small country in which dissenting intellectual sub-cultures rarely gain enough critical mass to challenge the prevailing groupthink.

'Groupthink' is simply a fancier term for the 'herd mentality'. Note carefully the definition of groupthink offered by the Nyberg report. Groupthink is actually unthinking, in the manner of a herd. We simply adopt the views of those around us "under overt or imaginary social pressure".

Exactly the same thing is at work regarding the big social issues. Last weekend, there was a big pro-life rally in Dublin organised by Youth Defence. Thousands took part. No major politicians were to be seen despite the fact that there is still a big pro-life vote in Ireland.

Contrast this with the number of leading politicians who took part in the recent 'Pride' parade. There was Leo Varadkar and James Reilly and Joan Burton among others.

To be pro-gay rights is currently the very definition of social respectability. To be pro-life is somewhat unsavoury at best. To have opposed same-sex marriage is the very worst even though as recently as 10 years ago only a small minority was in favour of it.

Then groupthink took over. Some who favoured same-sex marriage did so out of real intellectual conviction, but many more did so because it became so fashionable.

The same kind of thing was at work when Ireland was dominated by the Catholic Church. How many people were practising Catholics because they had really thought about it and how many were practicing because everyone else did so as well? Now we can see that the social pressure which drove Mass attendance in Ireland to 90pc plus works in reverse, especially among younger people. The antidote to groupthink is independent-mindedness. We had very little of that during the boom. We don't value it. Independent-minded people are condemned as heretics of either the religious or secular variety and then banished to the margins.

Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern did not lead us into economic disaster because they are unintelligent men. We were led into economic disaster because the leading figures in Irish society, including in our media, were unwilling to challenge the consensus. The consensus went unchallenged because it didn't suit us to challenge it.

There still is a lazy acceptance of whatever happens to be the prevailing consensus, whether on economic or social issues. Groupthink still rules and that is to the continued detriment of the country. In truth, we have learnt nothing from the economic crash.

Irish Independent

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