Strategic ignorance: a privilege of power

Photo by Adriaan Greyling from Pexels
Share this article

Knowledge is power. But if you’re a politician or a CEO, ignorance may be more powerful – and more lucrative…

I’m afraid I don’t listen to BBC Radio Four as much as I used to. It was once a background to my daily life, but the far-right toxicity on the Today programme finished my love affair and now I only really hear anything from it when I’m in the car – and lockdown has meant that’s a rare event.

Of course, there are some brilliant programmes – More or Less has been an absolute beacon of truthfulness in a gloomy landscape of pro-establishment nonsense. Thinking Allowed, Professor Laurie Taylor’s reflective slot, is also a gem. I caught a fascinating episode on ignorance on 15 July.

That same day, I had interviewed former Totnes MP Dr Sarah Wollaston to find out what she was up to (article to follow!). As you might expect, we’d spent a fair bit of time articulating our horror and despair at the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. She repeatedly expressed disbelief at the government’s inability to learn from what was happening elsewhere, and to take advantage of the very many glimpses into the future that could have been gleaned from this to inform policy and action. Instead, the government’s response looked very much like incompetence and headless-chicken bewilderment.

But was it? Or was it wilful, blame-shifting, Cummings-agenda-advancing ‘strategic’ ignorance?

I began to make notes on the tactic of saying “I don’t know. We don’t know.” I thought about Trump’s trick of disseminating falsehoods and slanders by prefacing them with “I don’t know… but people say, people tell me…” before lying through his teeth about Biden or the dreadfulness of the Chinese or whatever thin-skinned vendetta he’s pursuing. He’ll wrap up his mini-rant with another “I don’t know” and a theatrical shrug.

It’s a tactic, right? He’s saying, ‘This may not be true and, look, I’m a good guy. I’m saying I don’t know. It’s not me saying this…’ Meanwhile, his nasty cluster-bomb of falsehood is raining its little bomblets down on his cult of followers, further disseminated by Fox News and other right-wing platforms.

And then I thought about Johnson and his catalogue of convenient avowals of ignorance. These aren’t funny. He may think he engenders some sort of blokey camaraderie with the ‘lower orders’ by feigning ignorance, but I reckon he knows exactly what he’s doing when he pretends or even chooses not to know.

Some ‘ignorance’ has allowed him to take control of a narrative before the inconvenient truth is pointed out. So, for example, he ‘didn’t know’ about No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), despite 97 MPs having written to him about the harm this was inflicting on non-EU immigrants, but his ‘ignorance’ allowed him to appear magnanimous by saying he’d look into it. He didn’t know that select committees appoint their own chairs, so his attempts to impose Grayling on the security and intelligence committee were just a mistake. Aww, bless! He didn’t know! Give the poor man a break!

But other incidents of wilful ignorance have had deadly consequences. Most serious has been Johnson’s strategy of avoiding engaging with the facts on Covid-19, skipping Cobra meetings, and subsisting on a diet of bite-sized info – short on detail and failing to take on board evidence (for example) from a comprehensive paper on Covid-19 from China as far back as 17 February.  Of course, we now know from his infamous ‘superman’ speech on 3 February in Greenwich that he had calculated there was serious commercial and political advantage to be gained from a strategy of nonchalant ignorance of the virus’s tragic potential.

Did he get himself infected through brash ignorance – shaking hands left, right and centre, and boasting that he had done so? He claims he didn’t know about the transmission of Covid-19 by asymptomatic sufferers. Did he know that Cummings had gone to Durham and would drive a Range Rover-sized hole through lockdown? Nah. Not me, guv! Had he read the report into the dangers of a second wave of the virus? He was “aware”, he told Keir Starmer. So that’s a ‘no’. The examples go on and on.

He has, in fact, employed exactly the same tactic as Trump. A ‘what you say you don’t know, can’t harm you’, plausible deniability strategy. Nobody knew how serious the virus was. (They did). No-one knew the country would need massive PPE stocks. (They did – Operation Cygnus had told them so.) No one knew there would be a need a pandemic team, so it was scrapped. And on and on and on.

These ‘unknowings’ put Raab’s abysmal geography and wilful misunderstanding of taking a knee into the shade, and even trump Grayling’s annals of ignorance (a weighty tome).

So why might we suspect that Johnson has chosen not to be informed?

All became clear when Professor Linsey McGoey started speaking on Thinking Allowed. A Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, she is the author of a 2019 book – The Unknowers. How strategic Ignorance rules the world.

She explained how deliberate ignorance, known as ‘the ostrich instruction’, has allowed companies, politicians and business executives to plead ignorance as a way of ducking culpability and escaping legal redress. The only important thing to know, to be safe from censure or prosecution, was what not to know.

Rupert Murdoch ‘didn’t know’ about the phone hackers. Barings ‘didn’t know’ about Nick Leeson’s trading positions. Big pharma ‘didn’t know’ about reports into side effects. Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers and all those rocket-science City whizz kids ‘didn’t know’ about the toxic, economy-wrecking derivative instruments being flogged by their sales teams. Most shockingly, despite multiple warnings from residents (which resulted in them being labelled as troublemakers) no one, apparently, knew about the fire risk at Grenfell Tower.

‘We didn’t know’ is bleated in defence of the indefensible. And, if you are senior enough, wealthy enough, well-connected enough, your ignorance will see you right, even in a court of law. For the little guys? Not so much.

In a way, peak strategic ignorance was displayed by Iain Duncan Smith when he pretty much boasted that he had not read the small print in the Withdrawal Agreement, despite voting against being given more time to do so. It would be funny if it weren’t so utterly sick. A whole country is about to go off a cliff, but the ERG mob chose not to be informed of the facts, so, hey. Why should they read anything when their lord and master doesn’t bother?

But it is this government’s strategic ignorance over Covid-19 which is far, far worse. The seeding of the disease into care homes, the delays in implementing lockdown, the refusal to look at evidence on masks, on children as ‘super-carriers’. Will the government pretend it didn’t know that all those companies run by its mates and donors couldn’t possibly deliver PPE? That Serco was spaffing money away on Test, Track and Trace to no good end whatsoever?

And, finally, what about the Trumpesque decisions to stop holding daily Covid-19 briefings, and stop declaring the numbers of people tested? Or the government’s refusal to publish the true excess mortality figures?

Trump appears to believe that if you don’t test, you don’t get cases. The government seems to think that if deaths go unreported, we’ll stop noticing them.

This government has worked to normalise so many things that should never, ever become normal – Russian influence, cronyism, institutional racism, and now avoidable death on an obscene scale. Some of this is being hidden by a cloud of unknowing and systematic avoidance of scrutiny.

We’d better hope this strategic ignorance is not rewarded with immunity from prosecution. Otherwise, we are well and truly done.