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The SAGE Stalinist

Why is a member of the Communist Party shaping Britain’s lockdown policy?

Last week the Daily Mail published two articles noting that Dr. Susan Michie, a member of the British government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and a frequent presence on the BBC speaking in defense of lockdowns, is a member of the Communist party. The daughter of two Marxist scientists, Michie has been a party member for 40 years.

The BBC has not covered the story. Perhaps they think it’s old news or not relevant. It’s true that Michie’s affiliation has long been known. She was married for almost 20 years to Andrew Murray, another longtime member of the Communist Party of Britain and defender of Stalin and North Korea, who served as an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn.

But it is relevant. Dr. Michie is not an epidemiologist or virologist whose politics have no connection to her work. Her expertise is behavioral science. She specializes in getting people to make different choices. How far it is appropriate for authorities to go in manipulating the behavior of free people is very much a matter relevant to politics.

Michie’s day job, when not advising Boris Johnson’s government, is at University College London’s Centre for Behaviour Change, a delightfully Orwellian name for an organization. She is the originator of the “Behaviour Change Wheel,” a “systematic way of identifying relevant intervention functions and policy categories based on what is understood about the target behaviour.” These and other innovations are promoted through UCL’s equally delightfully named Human Behaviour Change Project.

Typical examples of “behavior change” in this context are getting people to quit smoking or getting hospital workers to wash their hands, but obviously these methods have infinite applications. The only real limit to them is the self-restraint of policymakers. Once the “behavior change” toolkit is adopted, politicians and bureaucrats are constrained only by their own sense of which behaviors are fair game for manipulation by the state.

Underneath the euphemisms like “behavior change technique” (BCT), the discipline in which Michie is an expert is fundamentally a license for technocrats to be paternalistic. “DON’T rely on individual choice and decision-making,” a bullet point in one of her PowerPoint presentations says. “DO rely on the environment and making behavior automatic.”

One can see how a Communist might be attracted to a field that has such little regard for individual freedom. That is one reason to be alarmed that someone with Michie’s beliefs is setting policy for the British government.

There is another reason. During the Cold War, there were two basic rationales for firing Communists from positions of responsibility even when they were kind-hearted idealists: It reflected badly on their judgment, and it indicated their allegiance to a foreign power. Where lockdowns are concerned, we can add another reason: Lockdowns offer a perfect opportunity to achieve a close approximation of the Communists’ desired revolution by backdoor means.

During the lockdowns, the state has become more involved in the economy than ever before (wartime excepted), from dividing businesses into “essential” and “non-essential” to micromanaging safety measures in shops and workplaces. Contact tracing keeps a record of citizens’ movements, where they went and who they saw. Governments can now decide, with no democratic consultation, which activities to allow and which to forbid. Churches can be shuttered indefinitely.

In other words, lockdowns have given the far left many of the things they have always wanted.

It is sometimes said that the political valence of lockdowns was a historical accident. “It’s funny how easily either being pro- or anti-lockdown could have fit with left- and right-wing sentiments,” tweeted one representative British commentator. “There’s a parallel universe where the Telegraph was raging for brutal lockdown for complete elimination of the virus while the Guardian was still worrying about stigma.”

That’s not quite right. Some COVID measures may have gotten their political connotations from happenstance—if Trump were still president, the party polarization on vaccines would be reversed—but lockdowns are inherently attractive to the far left. It reverses the fundamental presumption of a free people, that everything not expressly forbidden is permitted. It subjects everything to official scrutiny and gives bureaucrats an unlimited mandate to second-guess everyone’s choices. Michie’s politics and her pro-lockdownism are in perfect harmony. 

Ironically, the advice of behavioral scientists has undermined public trust in experts during this pandemic, possibly doing more harm than good. Leaders trying to hack human psychology have fudged facts in order to project confidence to the public and promoted unscientific mandates (like the “6 feet” rule) for the sake of giving people something to do so they could feel empowered. In fact, it just made them feel manipulated. Our leaders would have been better off sticking to straight facts and not listening to behavioral scientists at all. Especially Communist ones.

about the author

Helen Andrews is a senior editor at The American Conservative, and the author of BOOMERS: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster (Sentinel, January 2021). She has worked at the Washington Examiner and National Review, and as a think tank researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Yale University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, First Things, The Claremont Review of Books, Hedgehog Review, and many others. You can follow her on Twitter at @herandrews.

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