A Tale of Two Lockdowns: Illiberal Democracy in Poland, Psycho-technocracy in the UK

In our ongoing series exploring the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the CSEE region, Garry Robson and Maciej Smółka examine a pattern of declining transparency by the governments of Britain and Poland.

One pandemic, two very different sets of governmental responses expressive of widely divergent political cultures. In Poland, the now well-established (Eastern European) regional political culture of illiberal democracy produced a lockdown based on firm and unambiguous decision-making and a rhetoric of exclusive national togetherness that exploited the high degree of ethno-cultural homogeneity in the country, and proudly claimed a full governmental mastery in the handling of the crisis – all backed up with the threat of very serious fines for non-compliance with the new measures (of which there appears to have been relatively little). In the UK, by contrast, we have seen a much more technocratic approach taken, in which compliance with government rulings has been sought through behavioural ‘nudging’ and media messaging. This was aimed at creating and maintaining fear in potentially non-compliant individuals and groups (of whom there appear to have been more than in Poland) and an attempt to create, largely through the encouragement of social shaming, a sense of togetherness and common purpose in a much more pluralistic and less cohesive society.

We argue here that both policies reflect contrasting variations on the theme of a shift towards post-democracy, and that despite appearances the increasingly non-transparent and unaccountable British approach to the management of the electorate may in the long run prove to be as deleterious to the proper functioning of participatory democracy as the current Polish/Eastern European model. In this context, the tale can be told not only through the activities of two very different governments, but also the political machinations of, and media storms around, the two key string-pulling political figures of Jarosław Kaczyński, the autocratic head of Poland’s Law and Justice Party and government policy, and Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s controversial senior aide and strategist.

The Polish government’s full response to the pandemic was rolled out between March 8th and 15th, from the cancellation of events with over 1000 participants, to suspension of schools and universities, to the closure of the border and, a little later, strict social distancing rules and the mandatory wearing of face coverings in public. This response was decisive, and unambiguously required compliance under threat of law, unlike in the early phases of the British case, and the whole country went into so-called ‘national quarantine’ until the end of May, when the Polish government decided to ease many limitations.

The Polish public’s initial response to the lockdown might be characterised as twofold. Panic-buying was common enough initially, though not on the British scale, while the rumours of a coming state of emergency spread across the internet and social media, reviving older Poles’ personal memories of the early 1980s and then-martial law. Despite this, a close observance of the letter and spirit of the lockdown has been the norm, partly perhaps as it provided a polarised society a way of stepping back to some extent from its political divisions in favour of an atmosphere of solidarity and necessary national self-defence.

The British government’s response in March was quite different, shifting as it did from an initial strategy of laissez faire and building ‘herd immunity’ to one of attempting to develop what might be called a ‘herd mentality’ – through nudge-based persuasion based on input from SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and the government’s Behavioural Insights Team. The decision to move from Boris Johnson’s bluster about taking COVID ‘on the chin’ to a much tighter lockdown was made, as is now sufficiently well-known to require no further elaboration here, in response the (in)famous, drastically inaccurate infection and mortality rate projections from Neil Ferguson of Imperial College.

This shift in policy occurred, in fact, on the same day (March 23rd) as a crucial meeting of SAGE’s Behavioural Science Sub-Group, the report of which reveals a focus, among other things, on persuasion’, noting that ‘a substantial number of people do not feel sufficiently threatened’, and that ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are not compliant, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.’ Tactics for securing voluntary compliance, the group decided, should include ‘use media to increase sense of personal threat’ and ‘use and promote social approval for desired behaviour.’ Among the attendees at this meeting, according to inside sources cited by The Guardian, was Dominic Cummings, who seems to have overseen the rolling out of the government’s new strategy and was later to become embroiled in considerable controversy via trial-by-media when he was widely deemed to have broken the very lockdown restrictions he himself is widely believed – rightly or wrongly – to have put in place.

Looking comparably at Poland, it is well-known that Jarosław Kaczyński is the political figure who sets policy and direction from his position as the leader of ruling party and would therefore have been instrumental is framing the lockdown arrangements. Yet during the Easter period he was found to have visited an officially closed cemetery in Warsaw, most importantly one containing the grave of his mother, surrounded according to photographic evidence by a phalanx of security personnel and other officials at close and decidedly non-socially distanced quarters. The national outcry this caused – at least among the non-Law and Justice supporting sections of the population – became an another stage of a heated discussion of Kaczyński’s political transgressions: his track record of playing fast and loose with the constitution in furtherance of his party’s own political ends.

Moreover, the Law and Justice party was also charged with using the upcoming election (originally set for 10th May and now reset for 28th June, after much wrangling) in similar fashion, this time to increase the chances of President Andrzej Duda’s re-election, who’s overwhelming pre-pandemic support slowly started to cool down, and try to push through a legally problematic and disastrously planned postal ballot while the population was locked down. This was unquestionably the biggest national debate during the quarantine, arguably polarising Polish society to an even greater extent than was the case before the pandemic hit. The outcry around this was covered by large sections of the media, including the state-controlled public channel TVP, created a narrative was clearly defensive of the government.

The Cummings saga in the UK was very different for a government which, unlike Kaczyński’s, could not rely on a major, controlled media platform to uncritically circulate its instructions, but had to work in a politically hostile environment as a largely anti-Conservative broadcast media sought wherever possible to heap criticism and blame on most of what Johnson and his ministers and officials said or did.

But things were also different in the UK in a more interesting sense; while the management of the locked-down Polish public was relatively straightforward, clear and, as we have seen, relatively transparent, UK strategy was largely shaped by shadowy and unelected technocrats impatient with, among other things, the parliamentary system and the civil service. The attitudes of these kinds of actors, who seem eager to circumvent these elements of the lumbering old legacy system and ‘re-purpose’ state institutions and practices for the 21st century, are – for all his sudden and unwelcome rise to public view during the Brexit process – exemplified Cummings himself.

Despite the sketchy evidence for the efficacy of ‘nudge’-based behavioural interventions in pandemic situations – an open letter signed by 600 behavioural economists to that effect was issued in March – a ‘behavioural insights’ approach was taken by the government. Emanating from the shadowy technocratic backstage (the membership of SAGE, for example, remains anonymous), key elements of the government’s revised strategy included rhetorically protecting and symbolically ‘wrapping’ itself in the NHS, arguably the last major British institution around which the emotional attachment of a critical mass of the population can be mobilised.

This NHS-centred strategy, based on an attempt to manipulate the emotions and responses of the public, was conveyed through the use of daily televised briefings and, importantly in the overall context of broadcast media hostility, the signing of a multi-million pound advertising deal with the UK newspaper industry at the national, regional and local levels, and placing of key persuasive messages, often accompanied by frightening clickbait-style headlines and images, on newspaper front pages and website home pages nationwide.

Most notable in all of this has been the continual reiteration of key messages drawing on the proven psychological impact of the ‘rule of three’: ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’, and ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives.’ This messaging was backed up with the creation of collective ritual behaviours designed to back up the government’s narrative and consolidate its internalisation by participants – most obviously the Thursday evening national applause sessions for frontline NHS workers, which struck some critics as rather more North Korean in tone than British.

The strategy, however successful it may have or may have not been overall, seems to have the hands, or at least the methodology, of Cummings (author of ‘Get Brexit Done’) all over it – and may well be an indication that Public Health is becoming an extended sphere for the shaping and control of the public mood in an ever-expanding and ambitious form of psycho-technocratic governance.

On the other hand, the illiberal democracy, or form of majoritarian authoritarianism/populism, that has held sway in Poland in recent years represents a clear and politically effective diversion from the more normatively classical idea of liberal democracy that many Poles longed for and began to work towards after 1989. In this sense, it signifies a subversion of the democratic ideal, in which the values and aspirations of millions of people are simply left out of the equation, while Law and Justice works – using the idea of the pandemic as a crisis fought and defeated – towards its goal of making Poland, effectively, a one-party state. As far as the UK is concerned, the question may be this: would an effectively nudged, cajoled, threatened and manipulated public, increasingly distanced from rational, active, effective participatory roles in an expanding and opaque system of psycho-technocracy, fare much better than their Polish counterparts in the long run?

Garry Robson is a sociologist who has taught in universities in the UK and Poland since 1995. He is now based at the Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora, Faculty of International and Political Relations, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. His initial interests and publications were related to social class, masculinity, culture and sport, (published as No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care: Myth and Reality in Millwall Fandom, 2000) and the sociology of London (the co-authored London Calling: The Middle Classes and the Future of London, 2003). Since then he has published and taught in a range of areas including gentrification and neighbourhood renewal, the British cultural revolution, qualitative research methodologies, the social consequences of ubiquitous computing, and surveillance capitalism. He is currently working on a book entitled Virtually Lost: The Ungrounding of Generation Z for Routledge. He also co-author of the London Large crime thriller novel series.

Maciej Smółka is a cultural studies scholar at the Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora, Faculty of International and Political Relations, Jagiellonian University Kraków, Poland. He specialises in popular music, popular culture, and American studies. He published papers on such topics as music localities and cultural identities, place-specific popular culture, the music industry, and relations between culture, music, and politics. He is an author of Say Yes! to Michigan (AT, 2017), a book about the process of image-building of a place through music. He was a visiting researcher at Dickinson College, PA (2015) and the University of Minnesota, MN (2018). Currently, he is working on his PhD dissertation in cultural studies entitled The Sound of a City: A Study of the Phenomenon Through the Example of the Minneapolis Sound and forthcoming edited collection New York City in Song (Intellect, 2022).

All views expressed in this article are the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the Ratiu Forum or LSE IDEAS.