openDemocracyUK: Opinion

From the Blitz to COVID-19, our rulers have got us wrong

They didn't want to let people shelter in the Underground, for fear they'd never return to work. They don't want to extend the lockdown because they think we want to work.

Peter McColl
9 May 2020
People sleeping in Aldwych underground station during the Blitz.

It’s the VE Day long weekend. There’s been lots of talk about ‘Blitz Spirit’ and the UK government is sending signals that the lockdown might be coming to an end. There’s an interesting lesson from this about the assumptions we make about human behaviour. 

During the London Blitz the Anderson Shelters provided by the government (a sheet of corrugated iron to be placed in a garden) and the brick street shelters proved inadequate. I have vivid memories from school of reading accounts of the York Street brick shelter in Belfast which was hit and many of those inside killed. 

There was an obvious solution to this in London: the Underground was deep enough to allow people to shelter in the stations. And that is eventually what happened. But only after a major campaign by working class communities to be allowed to use the Underground. The patrician government of the day feared that people, once underground, would never come back up. They would abandon their jobs and live subterranean lives, with Sir John Anderson, after whom the shelters were named, complaining that it would be impossible for people to “maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground”.

It turned out that the patricians were wrong. The working class wanted to stop fascism enough to keep working, and when the bombers passed, they returned to ground level.

Interestingly this assumption that normal people would prioritise safety over work and spending is exactly the opposite of the assumption about people’s behaviour ahead of the Covid-19 lockdown. 

There has been much discussion of the role of ‘behavioural economics’ and nudge theory in delaying the lockdown. I’m not as much a sceptic as many are of nudge theory. It is a tool that can be used for good or ill. But the perceived impact of decisions on behaviour is what interests me. 

Every day the Daily Telegraph makes ever more shrill demands that lockdown end and people’s lives be sacrificed. But it has emerged that the assumptions that delayed the lockdown were wrong: most people think their health is their wealth. Polling consistently shows that people want the lockdown to last longer. 

In the 1940s the population were thought to prefer safety. In the 2020s the population were thought to prefer work. The patricians of the 1940s were wrong. The behavioural economists of the 2020s are wrong. 

And that should make us all think very carefully before we base decisions on what we think people will do in any given circumstance. Right-wing newspapers project an unbreakable confidence that they know what people think. That confidence is often misplaced. 

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