After a year of pandemic, have voters fallen in love with their captors?
The Conservatives’ stunning success in local elections across England is widely, and no doubt correctly, being put down to the generational class rotation that Brexit made possible — voting Tory is no longer considered a betrayal in working class areas. Labour is increasingly the party of graduates, the young and diverse metropolitan centres.
But what then should we make of the results in Wales? Labour First Minister Mark Drakeford has been returned with an extraordinary increase in his majority — polling nearly 50% of the total vote in Cardiff West — and Labour took back Rhondda from former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. In Scotland, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon has been returned with a stunning 60% of the vote in her Glasgow Southside seat.
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One factor that hasn’t been much discussed is that these three characters — Sturgeon, Drakeford and Johnson — have for the past year of pandemic been on the television screens almost every evening precisely calibrating the level of freedom people should expect to enjoy. Sometimes our leaders have been generous, allowing us to have a coffee on a park bench with a friend; at other times, they have been pointlessly capricious, such as when Mark Drakeford insisted that non essential items like birthday cards and books were cordoned off in Welsh supermarkets so that people did not shop unnecessarily.
To a degree never before seen in British history, these leaders have had power to control every aspect of our lives — should it surprise us if psychologically they have assumed something of the space of our benevolent captors?
Stockholm syndrome is the phenomenon in which hostages fall in love with their captors. First named after hostages taken in a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm defended their captors after release and refused to testify against them. The following year American heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by a guerrilla group and subsequently denounced her family and joined them with a new name, Tania.
In general psychology, Stockholm syndrome is understood as “trauma bonding” or “an unconscious emotional response to the terror of being captive when protection is entirely in the hands of the captor or abuser.” Sounds a little bit relevant to the past year.
A less provocative way to point at the same effect would be to talk about the tendency in politics for voters to rally around the government during a time of crisis. With elections taking place at the moment of maximum generosity — the slow and controlled restoration of certain freedoms — and success of the vaccine rollout, voters look additionally kindly on their rulers.
But perhaps there’s a bit of the longstanding hostage in all of us — accustomed to the outsized power of our masters and grown fond of the face of the man or woman who at 5pm each day tells us whether we will be safe and whether we can once again start holding hands.