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Fit for office - the dark triad and selection of MPs

Updated Friday, 23 November 2018
Dr Volker Patent looks at what we can learn from Brexit and how this reflects on those who represent us in Parliament and the processes by which they get there.

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Westminster freezing over Brexit so far casts doubt on the functioning of the democratic parliamentary process and its ability to provide fair representation and protection of the interests of the British public. A central part in addressing this is the question whether the choice of parliamentary candidates and MPs is fit for purpose. Considering a trust perspective we can distinguish between competence based and goodwill trust, the latter being a function of integrity and benevolence. In this article, and what this tells us about the system of recruitment and selection of MPs and their management when elected.

The basis for competence-based trust

Brexit and its painful unfolding over the last two years have many examples of politicians’ displays of an astounding lack of competence amongst top politicians. Since Tory party politicians lead the Brexit negotiations, the examples here sway towards conservative politicians: From David Davis not turning up much at negotiations and being perceived as a weak negotiator by his counterparts in Brussel’s to Dominic Raab admitting ignorance on aspects of Britain’s trade relationship with Europe. Failure to implement civil service adaptions in a timely fashion also suggest managerial failure at the highest levels of government.

The most recent at the time of writing was Brexit- supporting Tory Nadine Dorries criticising Theresa May’s Brexit deal because it does not give Britain a voice within the European Parliament. While at the surface this appears to be a sensible and reasonable comment, it also betrays a complete ignorance of what any form of Brexit would entail, namely that Britain surrenders its role in the legislature and governance of the EU.

There is no deal possible with what Nadine Dorries suggests except to remain. With all the evidence mounting of the dire consequences of Brexit, there is a sense where such examples of incompetence suggest that Brexiteer politicians fail to have intellectually grasped fundamentals of economics, and Britain's relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. In the process, they seem to have been competent in highlighting how incompetent they are.

The basis for goodwill trust

The recent political climate in the UK highlights a trend of ever-increasing and shameless lack of integrity and benevolence. The ‘callous’ implementation of austerity which was slammed by the UN inquiry into the effects of Austerity and ministers’ dishonesty regarding the impacts of austerity clearly illustrates a breach in goodwill trust that raises questions about the morality of government politicians in general.

The crop of Brexiteer politicians currently dominating British politics as well as seeming surprisingly incompetent also appear to be low in integrity.

There are many examples of a lack of integrity throughout the journey into Brexit: Boris Johnson’s deliberate misuse of statistics swinging the vote towards leave and the undermining of his prime minister on Brexit when he was the foreign secretary is the most well-publicised example. Having almost led the UK out of the EU, Brexiteers demonstrate little sympathy for the public regarding the impacts on the public. Politicians such as arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg seem likely to benefit financially from Brexit, while the rest of the population becomes poorer.

The crop of Brexiteer politicians currently dominating British politics as well as seeming surprisingly incompetent also appear to be low in integrity. Their actions across the Brexit landscape violate standards of democratic accountability,  trust and fairness in the pursuit of the ideological goals of eurosceptics and UKIP. Their mission also seems to be part of concerted and murky social media campaigns by right-wing interests and the agendas of wealthy corporate individual and foreign politicians that are only now becoming clear as campaign funding issues are becoming exposed

Selection of politicians and the ‘Dark Triad’ in politics

Part of the problem is that the assessment processes for ensuring that MPs are fit to practice as trustworthy representatives of the British public are failing to select individuals with greater competence and integrity. Good practice in recruitment is to identify the critical skills needed to perform the job. Assessment processes within political parties are arduous but based on the displays of shamelessness and incompetence may have been recruiting untrustworthy people who lack, competence, integrity or both. The primary concerns of assessment seem to be whether the candidate upholds the value of their party, with the final decision for parliamentary candidates left to a vote by the party membership.

Brexit and GB flags

The Institute for government provided a discussion paper for what works in the selection of parliamentary candidates. While it recommends the use of more checks and balances, a more transparent selection process, the widening of diversity within the aspirant applicant pool and participation by the public, there is nothing in the paper to address the need to screen for integrity and trustworthiness. Looking at the actual assessment exercises, in this case from the liberal party, also suggests that integrity and moral reasoning are not routinely assessed to any depth, thus allowing candidates to pass with no checks into their integrity and moral capacity.

Recent psychological research on the personalities of political elites highlights a tendency for certain personality traits to be more common among politicians. Politicians are generally low in traits that imply trust and trustworthiness (such as agreeableness), and high in those that facilitate politicking, and operating clandestinely (Carparra et al., 2010; Silvester et al., 2013). Research shows that the most politically ambitious individuals are those that have the most extreme scores on measures of the ‘dark triad’ of personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy (Blaise & Pruysers, 2017). 

These traits are associated with individuals’ cheating and selfish behaviour (Deutschman & Sullivan, 2018) amid displays of superficial charm. These traits explain politicians’ ability to promote themselves and rise to powerful positions and political offices but also why some politicians act immorally and selfishly. From a selection point of view, the tendency of dark triad individuals to be more interested in political roles is likely to result in reduced diversity among elite politicians which ultimately leads to poor decision-making and problems with trust violations and moral conduct.

Little optimism for change

The above does of course not just apply to Brexit and Conservative party politicians but across all parties, and does by no means suggest that all politicians have high levels of Machiavellianism, narcissism or psychopathy or that they are unintelligent. There are clearly intelligent, principled and competent politicians in the houses of parliament and even intelligent people can act in incompetent ways. The issue with the dark triad is that individuals who possess a high level of these traits often are more likely to rise to the top under the current system, raising questions about how much influence it is desirable for them to have. 

While changing selection processes can potentially change the calibre of politicians that enter parliamentary service and increase intellectual diversity among our politicians, our current problems are largely due to the inability to remove top politicians who have repeatedly demonstrated a lack of competence and integrity.

Brexiteer politicians will not display sudden hubris and humility to acknowledge that their position was untenable form the start.

The reason for this is largely political because politicians and their parties are ultimately in control of the processes and the way standards operating in the parliamentary system are implemented. Individuals who are acting with subterfuge and pursuing policies that unfairly and recklessly favour their own and peer groups’ interests are unlikely to want to change the conditions that allow them to thrive. Removing an MP from office could trigger by-elections and with a weak government like the current one could result in losing its majority.

As we now watch the end-game of the Brexit negotiations, we can be confidently pessimistic that dark triad influence will be a significant driver for the pursuit of a hard Brexit. Even when all the evidence points in the opposite direction, Brexiteer politicians will not display sudden hubris and humility to acknowledge that their position was untenable form the start. Instead, they may seek to disrupt any attempts to create a more moderate exit, to default to a hard version of Brexit.

As is now becoming clear a hard Brexit and indeed a Brexit under Theresa May will be detrimental to the prosperity and functioning of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world for many years to come. As a result, this would not be a ‘people’s’ Brexit but increasingly looks like an ‘elite rich politicians’ Brexit driven by dark triad personalities and their ideologies. One should, therefore, question deeply to what extent the political leaders involved in this process have the moral capacity, goodwill and competence to act in the interest of the well-being of the nation. As participants in a democracy that allows free speech and demands transparency and accountability, we should challenge the processes in place for selecting and managing MPs and encourage those that reward competence and not self-centred political scheming.


Disclaimer: Please note the views expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of The Open University. 


Further reading and references

Caprara, G., Francescato, D., Mebane, M., Sorace, R., & Vecchione, M. (2010). Personality foundations of ideological divide: A comparison of women members of parliament and women voters in Italy. Political Psychology, 31(5), 739-762.

Silvester, J., Wyatt, M., & Randall, R. (2014). Politician personality, Machiavellianism, and political skill as predictors of performance ratings in political roles. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology, 87(2), 258-279.

Blais, J., & Pruysers, S. (2017). The power of the dark side: personality, the dark triad, and political ambition. Personality and Individual Differences, 113, 167-172.

Deutchman, P., & Sullivan, J. (2018). The Dark Triad and framing effects predict selfish behavior in a one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma. PloS one, 13(9), e0203891.


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