Brexit, Boris, and Betrayal: How Boarding School Syndrome continues to shape Political Debate, by Nick Duffell

Divided by education, by design, by normalised duplicity, should the UK be surprised to find itself in deep trouble?


The shocking events, misinformation, betrayals, and back-stabbings of the last month suggest what a thoroughly divided nation we are. We are split along class and education lines in a way Continental Europeans can’t really appreciate. Those I have spoken to recently about Brexit – Dutch, Danish, French and Germans – are both shocked that we sacrificed our position in Europe and outraged by the resignations of the three main players and the ‘business-as-normal’ attitude in our public life.


“a system that privately over-educates the elite while under-prioritising state schools”

The thing is they just don’t get our class divide because they aren’t seamlessly educating for it, like we are. They don’t have a system that privately over-educates the elite while under-prioritising state schools. Raised in social democracies, Europeans are surprised when you point out that the top-down nature of British society means that all strata are unwittingly obliged to imitate the behaviour from the top, which is why Michael Gove presents himself as if he went to Uppingham, although he did not.

They cannot conceive how left out our traditional work-force have felt for decades – even before losing the right to strike, even before austerity. Europeans do know we are different  – special as the French say, in their version of irony – but they cannot conceive of the British Attitude to Children and how we produce what I call Wounded Leaders through the privileged abandonment of the elite’s children and how this trickles down and affects us all.

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“the privileged abandonment of the elite’s children”: a hierarchy of misery

For nearly 30 years I have been describing how children of the elite are betrayed into a deal in which a normal family-based childhood is traded for the hothousing of institutionalised life. Rather than loving parenting, bullying and fear becomes the norm. Not one theory of child development supports educating young children in residential institutions – the founder of attachment theory, John Bowlby, remarked that he “wouldn’t send a dog away to boarding school at age seven” – but so hidden by habit and privilege is this problem that its obvious defects are overlooked.

Elite boarding is the first choice of both established and aspirant classes – if they can afford £34,000 per year. It’s a structural problem in Britain affecting our national life more than any other single factor, far more than the platitude of being an island nation. We were full Europeans in every way until we thought ourselves above it all during Victoria’s reign, when we invented the schools  to make possible the standardised production of rational gentlemen (necessary for the Empire and running the colonies as part of the post-Enlightenment ‘Rational Man Project’, as I discuss in my book Wounded Leaders).


Born to Run

2016_25_divided_britain_medHere’s how they work. Separated from parental love, touch and everyday affection, and with empathy and emotional intelligence not on the curriculum, survival, self-invention, duplicity and betrayal become second nature for the boarders who go on to lead our public life.  The key to understanding ex-boarders is to understand the institutional conditions in which they grew up and the fear that is engendered there.

In my research, I came to realize that boarding produces a specific personality type, or style of False Self  (in the terminology of the famous British expert on childhood D.W. Winnicott), which I named the Strategic Survival Personality. Living in rule-bound institutions where they are unable to show their feelings, constantly surrounded by their peers who are scared and on the lookout to scapegoat any signs of vulnerability in others, boarders, needing to survive, quickly develop a strategic way of life. This means becoming Machiavellian, trying to stay one step ahead, staying out of trouble, anticipating danger, promoting the false selves they are selling – sometimes self-effacing, sometimes bullying. They develop a personality that is born to rule but also “Born to Run.”

Raised in the overcharged atmosphere of multiple rules and the consequent hunting down of transgressors means that boarders strategically develop one of two obsessions, depending on their individual proclivity: either keeping their heads down, or breaking the rules without getting caught. How might this affect them psychologically? It is clearly a dangerous cocktail. Adding the rule issue to the double bind about being wrong (‘If they love me, why do they send me away? And if it is so important to them and I don’t like it, there must be something wrong with me’), plus the need to maintain a brave face without any emotion, plus the inner shame of privilege, it is not difficult to see how evasive secrecy becomes a way of life at school and extremely hard to shed in later life, because the ex-boarder is unaware of doing it.


Furthermore, the strategic habit has a very dark side because in the strategic way of life, anything – or more pertinently anyone – may get sacrificed through a variety of face-saving behaviours, including betrayal, bullying or simply being dropped. The latter is very prevalent in intimate relationship situations and causes enormous hurt, even if unintentionally done. It is extremely difficult both for the victim to name it and for the ex-boarder to recognise it, let alone lose the habit, precisely because the self he formed is not used to being in situations of loving mutuality. He has had to look after Number One for as long as he can remember.


“This means becoming Machiavellian, trying to stay one step ahead, staying out of trouble, anticipating danger, promoting the false selves they are selling”: Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff (1997-2007)

Think stockbroker’s son Farage inventing himself as a man of the people, Boris telling Telegraph readers his five-point post-Brexit plan, number one saying immigration will continue and number five saying “The future is very bright indeed.” Entitlement becomes a compensation for loss, and a false veneer of confidence, the ‘Strategic Survival Personality’, enduring long after school, belies an anxious core. Formed in rule-bound institutions this personality has to operate strategically so it cannot be afford to be wrong – think Tony Blair and Iraq, David Cameron telling Angela Eagle to calm down.

Because it relies on dissociation from all vulnerable feelings, this personality needs others to carry the disowned vulnerability, which is why foreigners and migrants are so convenient and why our recent leaders seem to have no understanding of the socially vulnerable. All the research from neuroscience over the past two decades proves that we need access to our emotions in order to make good judgments.


“why foreigners and migrants are so convenient”: The Daily Racism

A recent analysis of data from psychometric tests used in head-hunting CEOs reveals ex-boarders to have much less resilience – one of the qualities that elite boarding is supposed to produce – than those who were not sent away from their homes. Corporate psychologist Olya Khaleelee wonders whether Cameron may have been too busy with the split in his party to recognise the splits in the country and evaluate the threat. No wonder no one had a plan for after Brexit, or the Iraq invasion. The hyper-rational education on offer, at the expense of emotional intelligence, at these expensive schools increasingly seems a recipe for disastrous leadership.

If Britons find the duplicity in our Wounded Leaders normal, many foreign observers do not and are curious. I was asked to explain it last week on Australian radio and in the US magazine Foreign Policy, which suggested it constituted a security threat. It underlies Chilcott, which, years later, comes up with what we already knew. Blair’s entitlement attitudes meant he could overlook every warning, doing what he “thought was right”, while thousands died and the Middle East descended into more chaos since the time of the Crusades. But it seems hardly to matter to those Wounded Leaders so used to acting in their own strategic interests that they don’t any more recognise that they are lying.


Tony Blair attended one of Scotland’s most prestigious private boarding schools, Fettes College. “Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth”, one teacher later recalled

Luckily, Britain is no longer just divided into two: we have a third group, of younger people, who don’t get their news from traditional print or big screen sources, who know the future lies in being interconnected, who feel this European withdrawal to be sheer lunacy and our conduct in Iraq beyond the pale. At present, the Internet generation have not fully emerged from their disgust about how they are being led and wielded their votes. Their apathy has to do with the barely distinguishable centrist business-friendly parities on offer, which ought to be a warning to Labour Blairites. However, the idea of getting free from the public-school politics of Westminster, as in the Scottish question, or of preventing extremists, as in post-Brexit, may turn out to be motivating.

2016-07-02T105646Z_1132154328_LR1EC720UE8I4_RTRMADP_3_BRITAIN-EU-PROTESTS-LONDONThey will need a new form of politics: more progressive, future-oriented and related to the global world they live in. They may demand a reform of our political space and want a nice new round parliament building like the Europeans and Scots have. But they are the future, and the traditional media won’t survive if they don’t listen up. If television news anchors don’t learn some psychological thinking, with which to denounce the politics of blame, they will eventually run out of viewers; if the red-top media continue to spread hate when they should know better, they will similarly run out of readers.

Schooled in the development of such a brittle mind-set, British elitism supports an out-dated leadership style that is unable to rise above its own interests, perceive the bigger picture and go beyond a familiar, entrenched and unhealthy system of adversarial politics. Such a leadership style is not to be recommended – it may well be dangerous. It is manifestly unfit for purpose, given the demands of the current world in which, increasingly, problems are communal – indeed global – and in which solutions urgently demand non-polarised cooperation and clear focus on the common good, in order to take effect on a worldwide scale.

Hopefully, when the Millenniums become parents they will also demand the reform of our education system because wanting their children to at home with them, the will insist we stop educating for division. We should all take heed of what the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget declared in 1934: “Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.”

Two activists with the EU flag and Union Jack painted on their faces kiss each other in front of Brandenburg Gate to protest against the British exit from the European Union, in Berlin, Germany, June 19, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke - RTX2H0CQ

Two activists with the EU flag and Union Jack painted on their faces kiss each other in front of Brandenburg Gate to protest against the British exit from the European Union, in Berlin

Nick Duffell is the pioneer theorist on the psychotherapeutic understanding of residential education. Two television documentaries have featured his work with ‘Boarding School Survivors,’ and his book The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System appeared in 2000 to wide acclaim. He is also the author of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion – A Psychohistory (2014)and co-author (with Thurstine Basset) of Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege: A Guide to Therapeutic Work with Boarding School Survivors (2016). To visit his website, Boarding School Survivors, please click here.

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