Ethics, Gender, Identity Politics

Gender: Cass, GIDS and BPS Guidelines

Is the BPS able to tolerate controversy and step up to the current debates?

Pat Harvey posts…

Background

In 2020, I became aware of some of the extensive issues involved in this case:

“The tangled case of the brothers who became girls, aged seven and three. A couple’s own son transitioned – and within months they were given a baby to foster, who became a girl too.” (https://archive.ph/3rEQw)

The details of the discussion of psychological considerations presented in this court case are very disquieting. Accordingly, I went to the current 2019 British Psychological Society Guidelines (currently downloadable at https://www.bps.org.uk/guideline/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity ). I was naively hoping that my professional body could offer a position statement which would fairly represent  a weighing of the dilemmas that would help a court case such as this one.

The document resembled no professional guidelines or policy guidance that I had ever seen during a long NHS clinical, service manager and trainer career, or as a member of the Mental Health Act Commission (precursor to the CQC) or as a panel member of an independent inquiry.

The content of the guidelines was very brief, sketchy yet dogmatic. There was no proper respectful recognition of current controversial clinical issues or social and political context. One approach only appeared to be acceptable, that of non-questioning “affirmation”. Consent issues were not considered. Sexuality and lifestyle issues such as kink and BDSM were lumped together with gender. There were hugely important omissions, such as the dilemmas of working with people who have a sexual interest in children. The limits of the research base were ignored.

I made a very detailed formal complaint about the form, the content and what I had discovered about the process of generating these guidelines. This served to illustrate and to confirm the experience of others – that the BPS complaints procedure was neither adequate, nor was it even followed. The complaint dragged on for months, deadlines were missed, I had to deal with different individuals at different times and important points in my complaint were missed.  Unacceptable assertions about the status of evidence were dismissed with “we are a broad church”. The irony of this in the context of an “affirmation only” approach in the guidelines was lost. Only my persistence in the face of these failures got the complaint to Stage 2.

The complaint was closed with little by way of any positive outcomes. There were formal apologies for procedural failing. There was an evasive reply to the assertion I made that the members of the group which generated the guidelines had not all signed off on them. The crucial matter of their woeful inadequacy in the matter of providing responsible guidance for distressed gender questioning children was evaded by a retrospective formal addition, stating “For adults and young people (aged 18 and over)”. This was unaccompanied by any formal public announcement to members, many of who might still be working from the original, unamended version. The contents however, remained ambiguous with respect to age as with the implications that the following paragraph was applicable to minors: 

“Assistive reproductive options may be needed and should be discussed openly and frankly, perhaps especially in the case of trans youth who are seeking treatments which will remove reproductive options at an age below that which people commonly consider becoming a parent”.

Hence, since 2020 until the present time, the professional guidance for psychology practitioners and non- psychologists, provided by the British Psychological Society are still held out on their website as follows:

‘These guidelines are aimed at applied psychologists working with mental distress, but may also be applied in associated psychological fields.

The principles they are based upon are derived from both the literature and best practice agreement of experts in the field and may also be applied to other disciplines, such as counselling, psychotherapy, psychiatry, medicine, nursing and social work.”

In my view this is nothing short of a scandal, a failed responsibility to the public. The national Gender Identity Disorder Service was, after all, psychologist led.

Events since 2022, further actions

In August 2022, after the Cass interim report and the subsequent announced closure of the GIDS, I wrote to the Practice Board of the BPS. 

I am reproducing the letter in its entirety, followed by the response I finally received in November 2022, after a number of email prompts from myself.  I make no further comment beyond my letter and the response in order that the reader might make their own judgement.

********************

Letter to British Psychological Society Practice Board

From Pat Harvey AFBPsS., C Psychol.

16 August 2022

Re BPS 2019 GSRD Guidelines

I am writing to you as a BPS member and an interested party in the process and development of BPS policy statements and the publication of guidelines for psychologists and other professionals working with clients who access services for problems relating to questioning their gender identity. 

My interest has developed sequentially from

  • Experience during 30 years of clinical practice in adult mental health services with Male-to-Female clients, then termed Transsexuals and Transvestites.
  • Experience directly related to certain high profile and media reported cases of individual families in court.
  • Engagement with the BPS complaints procedure (August 2020 – April 2021) in respect of the 2019 GSRD Guidelines and the public statements of the Chair of the Task and Finish group responsible for producing those guidelines. There are detailed responses from Karen Beamish which should be available on file. 
  • Responsibility for public content of the critical Twitter account @psychsocwatchuk
  • Articles published under my authorship on BPSWatch.com.
  • A chapter authored by me on the 2019 GSRD Guidelines in the forthcoming book British Psychology In Crisis: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction edited by David Pilgrim. Phoenix publishers (2022 in press).

I believe that the British Psychological Society has a duty to develop policy and best practice relating to matters central to psychology in the interests of the public and to assist its practitioner members. It also has a duty to keep its members properly informed, but the BPS has a recent history of lack of openness and transparency which operates to the detriment of that those duties.  Accordingly, I am writing to you with a series of questions which I believe members have the right to have answered and to be updated on as soon as possible, even if merely to be told that a process of consideration is ongoing.

Are the GSRD Guidelines being reviewed?

I understand that the 2019 GSRD Guidelines may be in the process of revision. I make this assumption on the basis of the twitter exchange below and because the 2019 Guidelines themselves have disappeared from the webpage https://www.bps.org.uk/guideline/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity  without explanation. 

Why is there no explanation or clarification? 

There have been several ambiguous undertakings made to myself, to others and on the webpage to review the 2019 Guidelines over a two year period:

  • “in the light of the outcome of the Bell vs Tavistock Judicial Review”, November 2020.
  • “These guidelines will be reviewed following the outcome of the Bell v Tavistock appeal process” https://www.bps.org.uk/guideline/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity  
  •  “In the meantime the Chair of the Practice Board has already put in place plans to commence a review of the gender guidelines upon the conclusion of the appeal.” (Karen Beamish to me 9 April 2021)  
  • On Twitter to an individual (see above) “following the Cass review” 1 August 2022.

This is a completely unacceptable way to keep members updated. It is also extremely confusing since the 2019 GSRD Guidelines had a retrospective caveat added as a direct result of my complaint (“we have offered to put a statement on the front of our guidelines, on our website and all points/places where the guidelines are referenced to confirm that the BPS guidelines for psychologists working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity are for adults. We will implement this urgently”) in April 2021. However, the Tavistock cases related to issues of consent of minors under 18. The remit of the Cass review is that it is the Independent Review by a paediatrician of “gender identity services for children and young people”. So, rhetorically – to emphasis the confusion of the BPS – how are those external drivers central to the decision to review guidelines explicitly stated since 2021 as applying only to adults?

Will the supposed review result in guidelines for children and young people?

It is clear that there has been a “moving picture” with regard to external events, first legal, then with the Cass Review and now the planned closure (in the wake of criticism about service accessibility failures, failures of service integration, ideology, data collection and research evidence base) of Tavistock GIDS. That moving picture, which will undoubtedly develop, cannot preclude the provision of guidelines for practising psychologists in the meantime. The BPS has provided nothing useable for its members to date: there is not any set of psychological principles that support ethical and reflective psychological practice, principles that would weather a changing legal social and political milieu. 

The BPS should seek confidently to espouse key psychological principles in this contested area and take a lead. These principles include

  • Psychological understandings of the formation of identity within a developmental context.
  • Psychological understandings of the issues of informed and valid consent, especially in minors.
  • Heterogeneity of factors bearing down upon gender questioning in individuals, complexities and persistence or otherwise of their clinical presentations.
  • Importance of family dynamics, peer pressure, social contagion and the problem of psychological reductionism within a wider social context.
  • The pitfalls of biological and medical reductionism, e.g. “transgenderism is innate”.

None of this was addressed in the 2019 “affirmation only” Guidelines.

In recent service delivery for gender questioning and distressed children and young people, the foremost service, GIDS, has been psychologist-led. It is therefore astonishing that there have been no effective guidelines for psychology practitioners forthcoming from the BPS as our professional body. The BPS must grasp this situation and take a lead.

Should revised Guidelines separate Gender from Sexuality and Relationship Diversity?

I raised this in my complaint. The independent investigator brought in at stage 2  did not supply a definite answer;  nevertheless he agreed this was an important question for any future revision to consider. He stated the following, reported to me in the letter concluding the complaint investigation from Karen Beamish dated 9 April 2021:

“In a future review, there should be further consideration of the issues to validate their inclusion or alternatively to provide any clarification needed…… it should be something for the Practice Board to consider under its remit to lead on the development of the guidelines.”

There are good reasons for separating the topics. Some are as follows:

  • Gender guidelines should firmly be covering the whole life span.  Sexuality and relationship diversity is largely applicable to adults with some references to adolescent development.
  • It is strongly argued by many that gender questioning should be conceptually separated from sexuality in order to allow for more complex understandings.  These understandings would allow for the very different principles of consent to be satisfactorily unpicked. Legal issues are also very different: for example, in the case of minor attracted persons (MAPS) who present commonly with very difficult challenges for practitioners where borderline illegal behaviour is involved.
  • The respective research and evidence bases are addressing different issues.
  • For political and social context reasons, gender has overshadowed sexuality in the 2019 Guidelines despite the demographics of numbers presenting in a clinical and counselling context and the differing expertise required of practitioners
  • BDSM and Kink should not receive consideration when other more prevalent clinical problems of sexuality and lifestyle such as MAPS require attention. This should not have been inserted via an inane caveat “these Guidelines do not, however, relate to anything non-consensual”.  As indicated above, consent in sexual relationships is a complex matter, not a binary “consents vs does not consent”. When clients present in a clinical setting it is highly likely that consent will be one concern in the distress or in the perpetration of abusive behaviour. A quick inspection of “Consent” on forums for BDSM/Kink indicates a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding than the throwaway approach of the 2019 Guidelines.

Has the BPS reflected upon better process and outcome for reviewing the guidelines?

My forthcoming critical review of the 2019 GSRD Guidelines leads me to suggest

  • Appointment of a Chair who is not an activist or campaigner, who can allow debate about conflicting views, and where consensus cannot be achieved can allow the conflict and current uncertainty to be ethically and helpfully represented in the text to help others navigate the difficult cultural climate. The need for a less aligned chair than the chair of the 2019 Guidelines can be seen from problematic statements made in a public academic forum on outcomes of body altering surgery: “sometimes people think there is a debate about that and hopefully I have included enough references for you to think that debate is shut. There is not a debate about this anymore” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usyYi3Cevdo (@40mins 27 secs in). In an interview about a specialist post, she stated : ”The details of Gender Diversity can be learned, but an open and inquiring mind cannot. Bigots and exploitative theoreticians need not apply! Clever, open people who are interested in clinical practice, research, truly multidisciplinary working, and developing this emerging field are most welcome.”
  • Appointment of members with differing views including from amongst those psychologists with experience and expertise who felt they had to leave their work in services committed to “affirmation only approach” (See Cass Interim report 4.17, 4.20).
  • A more lengthy, detailed and critically reflective tone and content, akin to that of the BPS Autism Guidelines (https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/working-autism ). In the less than 11 full pages that comprise the body of text of the 2019 GSRD Guidelines, the phrase “Psychologists should” appears 15 times in the 27 headings and an additional 42 times beneath the headings! This is self-evidently not advisory.
  • Full discussion and critique of the current evidence and research base and inclusion of methodological problems and criticisms which can allow for readers’ insight into the current situation. This cannot wait for the longer-term findings that may come from the Cass research programme. It is needed now by those tasked to provide services.
  • Balanced consultation with users and user groups representing differing perspectives, not, as previously, just Stonewall and LGBT Foundation. Consultation should also be made with “de-transitioners”.
  • Sufficient time allowed for well-publicised member consultation, engagement and subsequent amendments.
  • All task force members should be expected to either sign off the final revision or be recorded as dissenters with “minority report”. This would indicate a move away from what is perceived as an intimidatory climate where differing views are not permitted (see Cass).

I hope you will be able to answer my questions, inform members of the current situation and produce a very much more helpful set of guidelines for the psychological work within the field of gender questioning.

To quote Cass directly:

“4.19 Speaking to professionals outside GIDS, we have heard widespread concern about the lack of guidance and evidence on how to manage this group of young people. 

4.20. Some secondary care providers told us that their training and professional standards dictate that when working with a child or young person they should be taking a mental health approach to formulating a differential diagnosis of the child or young person’s problems. However, they are afraid of the consequences of doing so in relation to gender distress because of the pressure to take a purely affirmative approach. Some clinicians feel that they are not supported by their professional body on this matter.”

This is most definitely applies to members of the British Psychological Society. It will, if not addressed, continue to deplete the pool of psychologists prepared to use their expertise to work with and help gender questioning children and adults.

Reply from BPS

Regarding: BPS 2019 GSRD Letter (August 16th 2022) 

3rd November 2022 

Dear Pat 

Thank you for your letter, we welcome the views of our members. The guidelines are designed to support and enable psychologists to work with people of diverse genders, sexualities and relationships (e.g. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) in a way that is respectful, inclusive and upholds psychologists’ duties under the Equality Act (2010). 

Below is a response to your questions regarding the Guidelines for Psychologists working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity. 

Are the GSRD Guidelines being reviewed? 

Yes, the 2019 GSRD Guidelines are being reviewed. All guidance documents are routinely subject to a review at regular intervals to ensure they remain appropriate given the possibility of changing contexts, legislation and evolving evidence. They may also be reviewed at any point in the case of a major change in legislation, evidence or context. As this is a scheduled interim review of the document, the original authors are leading the review process. The Practice Board will ensure the document is externally peer reviewed before publication. 

Will the supposed review result in guidelines for children and young people? 

This will be considered by the review group and peer reviewers as part of the review process. The review group will take into account the recent NHS review of The Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust in London and the public consultation on a new service delivery model. 

The Practice Board will consider any recommendations from the review regarding additional evidence-based guidance for children and young people. 

Should revised Guidelines separate Gender from Sexuality and Relationship Diversity? 

This will be considered by the review group and peer reviewers as part of the review. 

Has the BPS reflected upon better process and outcome for reviewing the guidelines? 

We continually reflect on our guidance writing and consultation processes and welcome feedback from members and the public. We conduct all of our work in a context of continuous improvement and in that spirit we are grateful for your comments. 

Yours sincerely, 

Diversity and Inclusion Team 

British Psychological Society 

e: inclusion@bps.org.uk w: http://www.bps.org.uk

Board of Trustees, Charity Commission, Gender, Governance

What is the point of the Charity Commission?

David Pilgrim posts….

A couple of years ago, we sent a dossier of case studies to the Charity Commission, enumerating our concerns about governance failures in the BPS. At that time they noted that they were ‘engaged’ with the Society, which was clearly not compliant with charity law. It did not have, and still does not have, a truly independent Board of Trustees and it repeatedly denies relevant information to its members. Our list of postings on this blog has made these points over and over again, with evidence.

Little or nothing has happened since then. We now have one bureaucracy (the BPS) ostensibly under the legal jurisdiction of another one (the Charity Commission) showing the same problem: neither can be trusted to assure the public about probity. As far as governance and accountability are concerned they are both about as much use as a chocolate frying pan. This is not to say that individuals in both organisations, who deal with concerns put to them are not pleasant and well meaning, but the upshot for anyone trying to complain about problems is that inaction is the name of the game. 

The norms and culture of both organisations are at odds with reasonable expectations of democratic accountability. It might be better if the Commission did not exist at all – at least then complainants would seek other forms of redress. But it does exist and so we are left with a double problem: the BPS is still poorly governed and the body responsible for rectifying that state of affairs has been ineffectual. I am making strong claims here which might be thought of as nihilistic. However, below I lay out why that is not the case.

This empirical summary of the fix we are all in about reforming the dysfunction in the BPS, with its toothless regulator becoming a ‘passive bystander’ in the face of wrongdoing (Cohen, 2001), is fair comment. We have tried and failed to go through the proper channels. The use of the broken complaints procedure in the BPS failed because it persistently fails all of its members and the general public.

Our campaign for visible and credible reform has run into the sands as well because of the gap between the rhetoric of the Charity Commission and its lack of regulatory potency in practice. My understanding is that it is not even going through the motions any longer of ‘being engaged’ with governance failures in the BPS. It could be that the tinkering on the margins by the BPS (i.e. the laughable sop of a couple of independent Trustees now to be appointed) was enough for the Commission to declare ‘mission accomplished’. Who knows in this mysterious world of public bodies claiming to value transparency but actually offering us bullshit in practice (Spicer, 2020)?

Accordingly, both BPS members and the general public expecting a regulator of charities to, well, regulate charities, are now betrayed twice over. Moreover the relationship between the BPS and the Charity Commission bears scrutiny for two particular reasons, beyond the general failures of each one. I now explain those two points.

‘Engaging’ with Mermaids

The reader may have seen some important recent news, in the wake of the interim Cass Report and the closure of the Tavistock GIDS clinic. That closure remains important because of its ambiguity. Gender critics have invested it with the hope that the castration of children, in the name of medicine, will now come to a halt and exploratory psychological therapy will not be criminalised. However, those promoting the ‘affirmative model’, despite its lack of empirical evidence (Biggs, 2022), look to diverse service providers carrying on with the aspirations of transgender activist organisations. One of these is Mermaids. 

News broke recently that the Charity Commission is to investigate its role in providing girls with breast binders. The timing is important. The fact of the supplying of the paraphernalia for young people to deny their immutable natal biological state is not new. Mermaids have not suddenly leapt into action, but have encouraged this and other related practices for years. Thus, the Commission may be blowing with the political wind, for now, post-Cass. 

My point here is that this ‘engagement’ initiative raises the prospects for those welcoming the news that this will lead to a dramatic regulatory intervention. Given the track record of the Charity Commission to prefer ‘engagement’ and to rarely close a charity, or take it over as its new statutory managers, the gender critics would be wise not to hold their breath. This intervention from the Charity Commission may work in disrupting the breast binding supply chain, but it may not. 

Mermaids may well defend what they consider to be good practice – what will the Charity Commission do then? Analogously, the BPS ignored the advice and directives of the Commission for years with no detrimental consequences for the cabal running the Society. If a regulator is toothless or is perceived to be (which is as important in this case) then the public purse paying for it is being depleted for no plausible reason. 

The ubiquity of conflicts of interest

One of the complaints we have made to, and about, the BPS is that it is riven with conflicts of interest at the top. Charity law, amongst other things, intends to minimise or eliminate such a tendency. As I noted, the Commission has failed to put the BPS house in order in this regard and now seems to have given up the effort completely. However, there is a particular twist in the tail of this failure, which neither the BPS membership, nor the general public, are likely to be aware of; being kept in the dark is par for the course in BPS-land. 

When the fraud in the BPS came to the attention of its ‘leaders’, the Board of Trustees, there was probably wailing and gnashing of teeth, as threats to personal interests were dawning and scary legal liability might auger a grim future. Some probably favoured keeping the scandal under wraps, whereas others knew the cat would soon be out of the bag and maybe amongst the pigeons. 

The fraudster, now in prison, was the PA to the CEO. Multiple sign offs of fraudulent claims (coming from the coffers supplied by members’ fees) were made by her managers. The CEO and the Finance Director were duly suspended, pending the internal and police inquiries. The former is for now ‘back in his office’ but the latter disappeared within a month of his suspension. He found immediate employment elsewhere in the National Lottery Community Fund (NLCF). Yes this is absolutely true folks. 

That story deserves more scrutiny elsewhere by critical historians of the Society. However, my concern here is more about a different point about a particular conflict of interest, which demonstrates that the BPS is not the only public body that resists public accountability. As a member of the public and a critical observer of the machinations in the BPS in recent years, I tried to make some inquiries about how this rapid and effortless ‘moonlight flit’, implicating a very senior financial operative occurred. Did the BPS provide him with a reference and, if so, did it mention the investigation and his suspension? Was there due process of checks by the NLCF?

These are pertinent questions in their own right but another aspect of the story emerged while pursuing them. I attempted to contact Helen Stephenson, who has been the CEO of the Charity Commission since 2017. In 2022 she was also appointed as a Trustee of the NLCF, raising an immediate question about a potential conflict of interest. I wrote to her pointing out that prima facie conflict of interest.  Her office refused to engage with me about the inquiry (Stephenson was on holiday they said). They also said this was a matter for the NLCF and not the Charity Commission. The buck was being passed. 

Accordingly, I sent an email to the Customer Services of the NLCF (the only contact point available), who refused point blank to pass on the concern to the CEO or Chair, as I had requested. Nor would they deal with the concern directly. Basically, I was told to go away in a firm British manner, in which those in power are used to dealing with the public when under threat.  I have now written to my MP telling the sorry tale, but am still travelling more in hope than expectation.

So there we have it. Not one, not two but three public bodies are indifferent to the rights of the general public and are happy to swat away or ignore public interest inquiries. Those at the top of all three organisations should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, though this is not a likely scenario. In the meantime, the mystery of the ex-Finance Director of the BPS and his equivalent role in the NLCF may encourage journalistic interest, as might the clear conflict of interest implicating Helen Stephenson. Please write to your MP about this. Any update from mine will be posted on this blog. 

References

Biggs, M. (2022) The Dutch Protocol for juvenile transsexuals: Origins and Evidence. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy (online 19th September).

Cohen, S. (2001) States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. Cambridge: Polity. 

Spicer, A. (2020) Playing the bullshit game: how empty and misleading communication takes over organizations. Organization Theory 1, 1-26.

"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Governance

Getting away with it…

Peter Harvey posts…..

Viola Sander, languishes at Her Majesty’s pleasure. The BPS Board of Trustees (BoT) languishes in a complacent and denialist miasma of self-indulgence whilst the organisation for which it is accountable slips further and further into an abyss. As yet another crisis hits an already tottering and failing society (see here) the membership – to which the BoT is accountable – is left bewildered and confused at yet another resignation from the Presidential team. As David Murphy (ex-President who resigned as Vice-President) notes, only one of the past six Presidents had completed their full 3-year term. As Oscar Wilde didn’t say “To lose one President, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness, but to lose any more is sheer incompetence…”. And now another one has gone – in record time.

But to return to the fate of the ex-Executive Assistant to the CEO whose fraudulent use of a BPS credit card landed her a custodial sentence (full details here). Clearly she had broken the law (again) but are there others who should shoulder some of the responsibility if not the blame? The Charity Commission states

As a trustee you must take steps to make sure that your charity’s money is safe, properly used and accounted for. Every trustee has to do this. Even if your charity has an expert to manage its finances, you are still responsible for overseeing your charity’s money.

Further

Make sure that money is only spent on what is allowed by the charity’s governing document and policies. If it is not, you and the other trustees need to put it right.

It could not be clearer – trustees have a responsibility and they are accountable. So how has the BPS BoT taken these edicts? They have not. No Trustee has resigned about this critical failure (I do not include David Murphy of Hazel McCloughlin here as they had many other reasons) and, as far as we know (see later for a view on information blackouts) no member of the Senior Management Team has been disciplined. Whilst the CEO was suspended for a year whilst this was subject an investigation (again no details about how this was done), the then CFO was allowed to resign and immediately took up a post with the National Lottery Community Fund.

In an attempt to clarify matters, I wrote to the then President (Katherine Carpenter) prior to this year’s AGM as follows

Dear Dr Carpenter,

I was pleased to see your statement about the encouragement of debate, as I was to read of your commitment to openness and transparency when the CEO was re-instated. In the light of this I hope that you will take the opportunity at the AGM to give the membership a fuller account of the recent fraud than has been given up to this point – it is appalling that we have more information from the local media than we do from the Society or its own house journal. 

In particular, I hope that you will be able to clarify the following:

1.  Why has no-one from the Board of Trustees resigned? It is a clear (and statutory) responsibility for Trustees to be accountable for the financial health and probity of an organisation. Why has no-one taken their responsibility seriously?

2.   Why has no-one on the SMT been (as far as we know) disciplined or held accountable?

3.   How was the then CFO able to resign whilst still (as far as we know) suspended pending the outcome of the internal investigation and gain another senior post with another charity?

Members are entitled to answers to these questions – you and your colleagues are accountable to them. And we need more than bland clichés that “lessons have been learned” and that “systems are now in place”. Financial mismanagement is not new to the BPS and it is clearly a significant failure of systems and accountability that the fraud went undetected for so long.

I  look forward to your reply.

To this I got no reply, not even an acknowledgement.

And these are not the only outstanding questions surrounding this scandal. Viola Sander’s appointment was handled by an external agency. Why? Despite the fact that members pay a significant amount of money to service a bureaucracy which cost nearly £7 million in 2021 (which presumably includes HR), why wasn’t this done in-house? The BPS has a significant membership of occupational, business and other applied psychologists who are likely to have considerable expertise in selection procedures. Perhaps some of them actually run businesses which specialise in selection. Why not use this expertise? And what recompense has the BPS sought for this gross and crass incompetence on the  part of the “external agency”. I would have thought that the BPS has a prima facie case for not only asking for their (i.e.members’) money back but a considerable sum in reputational damages. 

I referred earlier to the information blackout. Whilst accepting that some material may be confidential, there is nothing to stop the BPS issuing a carefully worded statement to the membership – isn’t that what the Comms Team is there for? And perhaps a statement to be printed in The Psychologist – but that is an extremely unlikely event considering that such basic information about the Society doesn’t fit its virtue-signalling, identity-politics, activist-placating agenda.

So we are none the wiser, the same old faces sit on the BoT in their self-satisfied smugness whilst the Society for which they are responsible crumbles around them.


"The Psychologist", 'False Memory Syndrome', Academic freedom and censorship, Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Gender, Governance, Identity Politics, Memory and the Law Group, Prescribing Rights

Legal storm clouds over the BPS

David Pilgrim posts….

For those new to the chaos in the BPS, its organisational vulnerability today is multi-layered. The Charity Commission has, until very recently, been ‘engaged’ with the Society about lack of compliance concerning governance arrangements. Slowly, maybe resentfully, the leadership in Leicester has tinkered around the edges. 

The Society’s ‘Board of Trustees’ has been a phoney structure since the 1960s, but now a few public invites are to be issued, to appoint nominally independent members. All trustees in a charity should have no conflicts of interest, not just a couple of tokens. As with other matters, the BPS leadership seems to lack insight about even the most basic principles of organisational probity (see below).

But compliance with charity law is the least of the problems for the current BPS leadership or, note, past leaders with their ongoing legacy liability. We were told via YouTube, when Nigel MacLennan was expelled kangaroo-court-style, that this has been a ‘challenging year’. This of course was special pleading from those running the Society. The wider membership had been kept completely in the dark about the corruption and misgovernance, so they experienced the lock down, oblivious to any personal pain suffered by the leadership, with its ‘challenges’.  

This glib ‘challenging year’ trope in BPS propaganda has persisted, both vague in its detail and directed at sympathy from anyone taking it seriously. Covid-19 had been a safe cover story of collective bad luck and victimhood. Whichever way the challenges in Leicester are spun to the outside world, the reality is that the BPS is in serious legal trouble.

Three imminent legal threats to the reputation of the BPS

Here are three points to consider seriously:

Nigel MacLennan’s Employment Tribunal will require that the BPS must now take the dirty washing it has stuffed in a bin bag and put in a cupboard somewhere, and empty it out on to the floor of the courtroom for all the world to see. The evasions and snail-pace adjustments, which might have worked in response to the Charity Commission, will not be tolerated in a court (which is the formal status of an Employment Tribunal). Much more could be said on this, but a sub judice caution comes into play here, so I am just reporting the material fact of what is about to happen in 2023.

Post-Cass Review and Post-GIDS closure, the BPS guidance on gender has now been withdrawn. The leadership are not responding, in a timely manner, to a dilemma shockingly new to them. In the autumn of 2019 criticisms I made of Tavistock Clinic GIDS were censored by the BPS. In the summer of 2020, representations from many BPS members about the serious inadequacies of the 2019 guidelines on gender were simply ignored. In the autumn of 2020, a detailed formal complaint concerning the form, content and context of 2019 revision of the gender guidelines was made but not upheld. Also in autumn 2020, further representations about the risks of extending prescribing rights to psychologists (which would have included hormones) were ignored by BPS leaders. In the spring of 2022, yet another multi-signed letter to BPS leaders about the risks posed to the public by the gender guidelines was simply ignored. This did not even receive an acknowledgment, let alone a considered response.

Only when the world outside was telling Leicester in stereo, and at full volume, that the game was up on the ‘affirmative model’, was action triggered. Over the recent years, its own members had been treated with total contempt, when lobbying for the withdrawal of the trans-captured gender document. The wise have kept a copy of the policy document now removed. It cannot be deleted from history, no matter how convenient that would be for all of those, from the Board of Trustees and the Practice Board to the ‘Comms Team’ and The Psychologist, who were complicit actors in a flawed policy.  

The credibility of their group-think will now fracture in the full public glare of legal scrutiny. Recently The Times reported an incipient class action, involving up to a thousand ex-patients of the Tavistock Clinic (in truth that figure may be larger or smaller). Whatever their number, the legal bill will be picked up by the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA). Its work is supported by top-sliced money from constituent local Trusts, so it is supplied ultimately by the tax payer. 

The Tavistock Clinic will survive, albeit embarrassed. It will be rid of a capricious historical deviation, which held the proven tradition of cautious exploratory psychological therapy in complete contempt, confusing a passing and modish social trend with a genuine ‘social revolution’. The medical sterilisation of healthy children is shaping up to be yet another ‘great and desperate cure’ in the murky biomedical history of psychiatry (and now, more importantly, psychology) (Valenstein, 1986). These children, who cannot vote, give consent to sex, buy alcohol or even have a piercing or tattoo at their own request, has been put forward by adult identity politics activists as a harbinger of social progress. 

In the censored exchange in 2019 and noted above, between me and Dr Bernadette Wren, that assumption of political and ethical worthiness was debated. As a champion of the now discredited GIDS, Wren actually described the explosion in referrals as reflecting a ‘social revolution’ (sic). I am sure she believed that, but history will surely not vindicate her position, given that her claim is already unravelling and there is a service policy push back, here and in other countries, about the ‘affirmative model’. Social contagion, yes. Social revolution, very doubtful. A passing postmodern phase of anti-realist madness, most probable.

Many liberal and left leaning people (this is not just a Daily Mail editorial frothing at the mouth) simply never bought the GIDS progressive claims. Nor did they fail to spot the trans-capture in the BPS and elsewhere, including in the Royal medical colleges, which should have known better. For example, a group have just written to The Observernoting how the leadership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists had fended off representations, similar to our own in the BPS (see under heading Trans Concerns) https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/commentisfree/2022/aug/14/why-surprise-when-wealthy-capitalist-makes-large-donation-to-oxford-college

This span of dissenting voices has now been vindicated.  Complex existential challenges, each with their unique biographical context, cannot be cured by crass interference with the body, but it seems that mental health professionals are still slow learners. Their organisational leaders, fawning for popular support in an age of identity politics, have for now often lost their rational capacity to assess evidence or accept material realities that are immutable (Pilgrim, 2022). 

Faced with this historical moment of reckoning, the BPS does not have the luxury of a legal fund, like the NHSLA, to fall back on. The grateful medical negligence lawyers, who are now welcoming ‘regretters and detransitioners’ through their shiny doors, will inevitably take an interest in the professional advice that supported the ‘affirmative model’, now defunct at the Tavistock. The cabal in Leicester would be wise to take their own legal advice about what is in the pipeline.  It will of course be paid for by members’ fees. It may well entail very large amounts of money.

3 And then there is the contentious memory and law group, which has been the other main arena of policy capture, afforded by weak governance. The enmeshment of the BPS and the British False Memory Society is now clear (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022). However, in 2014, the editor of The Psychologist made this definitive and untenable statement: “Neither The Psychologist nor The British Psychological Society has links with the British False Memory Society.” 

This denial was at odds with the fact that the Chair (now deceased) of the BPS Memory and the Law Group was on the Advisory Board of the British False Memory Society, during the time that Elizabeth Loftus was on the International Panel of Associate Editors of The Psychologist.  She was also an advisor to the US and British False Memory Societies (The first was closed down after the Jeffrey Epstein case.) Loftus testified in defence of both Ghislaine Maxwell in 2021 and Harvey Weinstein in 2020. In the first case she asserted, with no evidence, that the prospect of financial gain could distort the memories of complainants. This line of speculation in legal settings is not peculiar to Loftus. It has been used by convicted individual abusers, as well as those claiming that child sexual abuse is a moral panic.

In this context of the serious legal considerations of sexual abuse, the biases in the BPS policy to date are very important, as is the supportive role of The Psychologist.  In May 2014, its editor provided a short hagiographic account of his interview with Loftus (he met at a conference dinner), who had ‘been voted the most influential female psychologist of all time’. It goes on, ‘Her wit and creativity shone through as she rattled through real-life stories, wrongful convictions and ingenious research that all illuminate the faulty nature of memory…. One thing seems undeniable: whatever the future brings for memory research and practice, Professor Loftus will be at the forefront of it for many years to come.’  

Because the BPS is an organisation without a memory, others have to recall the origins of its partisan policy focus. The BPS line, from their highly biased report, considering only the matter of false positive decision making, has fed defence teams hired by those accused of sexual abuse. It has offered absolutely no balancing advice about false negatives, in order to support prosecution teams. Those in the BPS, who have been concerned to expand the policy on memory, to include evidence of the social epidemiology of child sexual abuse and its proven mental health impacts (e.g. Cutajar et al. 2010) have been systematically excluded from a new working group looking at the topic. 

This scandal of biased policy formation then is ongoing. It is not just a part of BPS history, now regretted. The group recently appointed to update the document remains shadowy and has only included (unnamed) so called ‘memory experts’, from the closed system world of experimental psychology. All attempts by those BPS members interested in the clinical and epidemiological evidence (an open system feature of the world outside of the laboratory) to join the group have been blocked repeatedly. Moreover, all attempts to ascertain who exactly is on this group have been met with refusals on grounds of data privacy. It seems that the older biases to consider false positive decision making may well remain. The implausible claim that the BPS is guided by the organisational principle of transparency is also obvious here. 

Meanwhile, the BPS, as with now withdrawn gender document, seems to have no capacity to reflect on the child protection implications entailed in a lop-sided and partisan, form of policy formation.  The only sop that excluded critics have been offered is to submit papers to a minor journal, which is under the editorial control of FMS supporters. As with the case of the gender document, the temporary capture of a weakly governed Society, by a particular interest group, has to await external scrutiny to expose its bias and the dangers this poses to the public. Once again, internal dissent has been quashed at the expense of both membership democracy and academic integrity.

As the evidence now accumulates from historical inquiries into child sexual abuse, both in the UK and Australia, the BPS policy is a new potential target for angry survivors, seeking personal justice. Their lawyers will have spotted that line of attack. The current BPS position, to date, has colluded with the idea that child sexual abuse has been a trivial moral panic. The truth of the matter is that its scale has been strongly under-estimated, as is now becoming clear, in both the statutory inquiries and clinical research (Pilgrim, 2018; Children’s Commissioner’s Report, 2016).

Conclusion

The BPS leaders are in for another ‘challenging year’. Hiding in the dark, under the security blanket of group-think, will not make the lawyers disappear by magic. They will still be there, rubbing their hands, when the blanket it whisked away. Critics of all the three forms of BPS failing, noted above, may have been easy to ignore by the cabal. The rule of law is a different matter. If those in Leicester are not worried by now about imminent legal threats to the reputation of the Society, then they clearly do not understand what is going on.

References 

Children’s Commissioner’s Report (2016) Barnahus: Improving The Response to Child Sex Abuse in EnglandLondon: UK Children’s Commissioner’s Office 

Conway, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2022) The policy alignment of the British False Memory Society and the British Psychological Society Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 23:2, 165-176, 

Cutajar, M. C., Mullen, P. E., Ogloff, J. R. P., Thomas, S. D., Wells, D. L., and Spataro, J. (2010). Psychopathology in a large cohort of sexually abused children followed up to 43 years. Child Abuse and Neglect 34(11), 813–22.

Pilgrim, D. (2022) Identity Politics: Where Did It All Go Wrong? Bicester: Phoenix Books.

Pilgrim, D. (2018) Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial? London: Routledge.

Sutton, J. (2014). BPS – obsessed with the false memory syndrome? Editor’s reply. The Psychologist 27, 5, 303.

Valenstein, E. (1986) Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness New York: Basic Books.

Administrator’s note

All of these topics have been subject to comments on the blog. By clicking on the category immediately above the title you will find the relevant posts.

"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Identity Politics

Class as a “Protected Characteristic”?

The current issue (a ‘…bumper edition…’ according to the managing editor) of The Psychologist[1] is promoting the idea of making social class a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act.  This campaign (surely running close to the wind as regards charity law?) is being promoted on the BPS Twitter account as well. Whether you think that this is a good idea or not, it looks to our eyes that it is feeding directly into the hotbed that is identity politics. As a consequence, the slant and positioning of the BPS cannot be said to reflect any sort of balance scientifically (or politically, for that matter). It also ignores or is ignorant about the considerable social scientific literature, which has informed debate on this contested and contentious issue over many years (I had the good fortune to have a two-year sociology subsidiary as part of my first degree).

Our own experience, as well as that of others, is that the BPS chooses to avoid debating different positions to its own ‘party line’ and either ignores or censors[2] contributions that challenge and offer reasoned critiques. For that reason we feel that the following piece from David Pilgrim deserves to see the light of day. We welcome your comments, especially from those within the BPS who are promulgating this campaign.

Peter Harvey,

Blog Administrator. 


[1]  https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/people-us

[2]  https://bpswatch.com/2021/02/07/david-pilgrims-disappearing-article/

Open commentary on the special issue on ‘Tackling Class-Based Inequalities’ (The PsychologistJuly/August 2022)

David Pilgrim

Introduction

The discipline of psychology is in trouble and so is the British Psychological Society (BPS). Ignoring that current reality in the face of the policy initiative being promoted in the special issue, would be an act of complicity. My response is offered as an invitation to debate the dire state we are in as a discipline, within a neoliberal context in which the authoritarian norms of identity politics are now suffocating freedom of expression.

The topic of inequality has been of professional interest to me for over forty years, during which time I have also been an ambivalent member of the BPS. I have a Masters in sociology, as well as a PhD in social psychology and have many years of experience researching and publishing from the interface between these disciplines. This is reflected in my split career (half the time as a clinical psychologist in the NHS and the other working in health policy research as a jobbing social scientist). My academic focus has largely been in relation to mental health and inequality (e.g. Rogers and Pilgrim, 2020; Rogers and Pilgrim, 2003).

With my interests and mandate duly declared, below I address three main matters: the legitimation crisis of British psychology; the risk of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work; and the particular risk of psychological reductionism, given the capture of organisations by versions of identity politics. All of these form the embedding context of the campaign to add social class to the list of protected characteristics.  

I finish with some ideas about the modest contribution that psychology might make to our understanding of social class, within the recent constraining norms of identity politics. I also caution against psychologists indulging in identity politics campaigns. In my view, they jeopardise both our individual intellectual curiosity and our collective disciplinary credibility. They close down curiosity and merely demand that we adhere to new moral strictures in an unquestioning manner.

1 The legitimation crisis of British psychology

A view from British psychologists about anything of public policy relevance is being expressed from a position of weak legitimacy for two additive reasons. First, the body claiming to uphold academic values (the BPS) has proved itself to be neither a learned nor a learning organisation. That legitimation crisis has been evidenced by the following:

1 In recent times the BPS has lost one after another elected President and some have tried and failed to correct the evident dysfunction they encountered after their election. In 2020 no less than three departed over a two month period, with two resigning and one being expelled before their period of office was up. The last of these is now taking his case to an Employment Tribunal, which will lead to the inner workings of the BPS being exposed to forensic public scrutiny for the first time. In advance of this case being heard, those of us who have been campaigning to open up the BPS to public scrutiny, will outline their conclusions presently (Pilgrim, 2022a). We have recorded the process of the campaign on a blog and on Twitter, and these can be accessed immediately (BPSWatch.com; FakeBPSCommentary @psychsocwatchuk).

2 In 2020 a major fraud came to light, implicating a former employee. In January 2022 she was sentenced to 28 months in prison for defrauding the Society of over £70,000. She had been imprisoned in the past for a similar offence in two other organization (a total of 17 offences). The BPS appointed her despite this past record noted very publicly in the press. Since the turn of this century, other ‘financial irregularities’ in the Society have been dealt with by internal investigations and staff departures. The BPS membership has been kept in the dark about these events, with no account being offered in The Psychologist of the unfolding drama of the past two years.

3 The Charity Commission has been ‘engaged’ with the Society about its broken complaints process and its lack of adequate governance. However, to date this engagement has not ensured any observable organizational reform of substance. The Commission has received many expressions of concern from BPS members, and this pattern continues as the crisis fails to resolve. A particular challenge we face at present is that the Charity Commission itself has been ineffectual.

4 Whilst fair charges of misgovernance and corruption can be made about the BPS, these accusations have not been addressed publicly, or fairly and squarely, by the leadership of the Society. Instead, legitimate criticisms and queries have been ignored and denied.

5 For a year (between November 2020 and November 2021) the Chief Executive Officer of the Society was suspended in the wake of the fraud investigation noted in 2 above. His Finance Director was also suspended at the same time (November, 2020) but within a month he left to take up a new position at the National Lottery, while still under investigation.

6 Despite all of the above shenanigans, the leadership of the Society has failed to keep its members informed of the crisis. The BPS is allegedly a membership organization, and good practice, according to the Charity Commission, requires transparency and accountability from the Board of Trustees and the Senior Management Team. They have clearly failed in that regard.

7 This organizational turbulence reflects longstanding structural and cultural difficulties in the Society in recent decades.  At the heart of the problem is that the Board of Trustees is riven with conflicts of interest and it has no truly independent members (though some minor tinkering of about this basic fault has now emerged). Since the 1960s it has been a sham of a proper Board of Trustees, expected reasonably under charity law.

Not only but also…..

Even if the BPS were not a case study in organisational dysfunction (which currently it patently is) there is a second source of the legitimation crisis in British psychology, viz: the rise of methodologism in the midst of epistemological incoherence. For the first half of the 20th century, psychologists followed the tradition of British empiricism announced by Ward and Rivers (1904). For the second half it then struggled to adapt to the modish postmodern turn (Kvale, 1992). 

Squaring this circle has been a challenge for the discipline. During the twentieth century, it lurched between a positivist confidence in fact building (from a mixture of experimentalism and the actuarial approach) and a rejection of facts in preference for unending perspectives, narratives, discourses and discourses about discourses in the tradition of Nietzsche (Pilgrim, 2020). This left the discipline in a confused and confusing state, with the BPS tending to describe itself vaguely, but understandably, as a ‘broad church’. It is no longer clear what psychology as a science actually means (e.g. Smedslund, 2016; Snoeyenbos and Putney, 1980).

Today in the corridors of any psychology department that incoherence is apparent and the only remaining rhetoric of justification for a coherent disciplinary character is methodological rigour, with the compatibility of quantitative and qualitative methods being far from self-evident. Beyond ‘methodologism’ or the ‘methodological imperative’ (Gao, 2014) are a legion of psychological theories, some of which are aligned and some of which are totally incommensurable. 

Given this legitimation crisis, why should British psychologists at present have any policy plausibility or inspire public confidence? How can we appeal for the need for participatory democracy, when our own professional and disciplinary body is the very opposite of democratic? Given that those in the BPS, reporting in this special issue class discrimination, are themselves now part of middle class life, what point is exactly being made, beyond virtue signalling and special pleading?  

The meritocratic discourse of equal opportunity is unremarkable across our current political spectrum: who is formally against it in any major political party? Given that doxa in our political class, we tend to find a self-serving trope. We are offered stories of success or exclusion, which tend to centre on the moral virtue of being from a poorer background. However, it is a clouded window into understanding the complexity of social inequality. 

Like many others in my age cohort I came from a working class background and am now middle class. However, my personal experience (or anyone else’s in the same boat) really contributes very little to an understanding of social inequality. To mention it at all brings with it legitimate suspicions of hypocrisy and narcissism. It can have marketing value for multi-millionaire rock stars, who dress the part for their audiences (Womack et al, 2012). Politicians of left and right appeal to our sympathies and votes, when alluding to their humble origins. That same pattern is repeating in professional (note) organisations like the BPS. 

Asking individuals to illuminate societal functioning from their experience generates highly partial, and possibly misleading, forms of sociological understanding (Archer, 2000). Moreover, a transition from working class to middle class life entails accruing cultural power in a new position of influence, even if the cultural field is less powerful than that of the economic sphere (Bourdieu, 1984). To allude to one’s past working class credentials for current ‘street credibility’, as an oppressed person, is a form of having one’s cake and eating it. 

2 The problem of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work

Even if British psychology were not characterised by the above legitimation crisis, it would still have a remaining challenge. Psychology, like other disciplines, will be prone to oversell its relevance and encourage psychological reductionism in its own ranks, as well as for the publics it appeals to and relies upon for employment and status. The very fact that a ‘special issue’ of The Psychologist about social class was published, indicates the weak a priori authority psychologists have about it, or any other topic which is partially or wholly social, not individual, in character. 

These social phenomena can then become a bolt on consideration, with psychologists looking hither and thither for their special contribution.  This is not to say that psychology has nothing to offer (below I indicate what that is) but the pastiche of knowledge in the discipline of old fashioned positivism (pace Ward and Rivers) and the postmodern preoccupation with perspectives and narratives has led to disciplinary incoherence. What exactly is, or would be, ‘the psychology’ of social class (or any other social topic)? To answer that question, the discipline must first start with a good dose of epistemic humility, about its inner philosophical turmoil, largely un-reflected upon, and its relative ignorance about contributions from other disciplines. 

Moreover, in the latter regard, the forms of psychological insight that have been offered, and importantly have giving due weight to social context, may be little known in the ranks of trained psychologists. After all, ipso facto they are not economists, political scientists or sociologists. Their awareness of the existing and considerable literature in these other disciplines is likely to be absent or incidental. Accordingly, when outside inspiration is conceded by psychologists, then even the basic facts may be sketchy. 

This problem of the sketchy knowledge of psychologists of social and political science, is amplified by the epistemic background of those outside who, have made major contributions already to our understanding of the psychosocial aspects of social class. This has put to shame what psychologists have developed in comparison to date (e.g.Sennett, 2003). 

Moreover, the post-positivist and post-Marxian work of the later Frankfurt School speaks directly to those writing in this special issue (Habermas 1973; Honneth, 2007), while being steeped in sociological sophistication. Broadly those psychosocial insights have been offered by the incorporation of ideas from Weber, Marx and Bourdieu; three key contributors to our understanding of social class, who are not on the undergraduate curriculum in British psychology departments (to my knowledge). Some psychologists may have been blessed already with a ‘sociological imagination’ (Mills, 1959) but if that is the case, their teachers will not typically recognise and encourage its development. 

This is the epistemological context of psychological reductionism and the risks of psychology overselling its relevance, about a topic which has been explored already and over many decades by non-psychologists (Atkinson, 2015). Psychologists are not only ‘late to the show’, there is a risk that the confidence of uni-disciplinary reasoning creates an inflated sense of their own relevance or importance. 

All disciplines are prone to some extent to this mixture of arrogance and ignorance; this is not an accusation about psychology alone. It reflects the self-reinforcing role of the sub-division of intellectual labour in the modern academy, which is now an abiding obstacle to the interdisciplinary cooperation, required pragmatically in order to solve humanity’s considerable current challenges.

3 Psychological reductionism and social phenomena

A focus on protected characteristics brings with it an inherent risk of psychological reductionism. The emphasis will on individual rights and prospective victimhood. That focus became evident in Western cultures after the postmodern turn and was influential beyond psychology as a discipline. For example, the concept of intersectionality developed in the USA, within its own very particular cultural context of individualism, national exceptionalism and the demands of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

Initially, intersectionality usefully illuminated complex social determinants of oppressions operating in synergy (Bell, 1973; Crenshaw, 1991). This was not reductionist about individuals but argued that overlapping social groupmembership placed some people at particular risk of oppression on average compared to those in other groups. Thus oppression was about supra-personal generative mechanisms in a shared social context and was thus a window into social determinants. 

However, individualism then crept in increasingly, with a shift away from intersecting socio-economic forces towards a kaleidoscope of subjectivities. Oppression then became more and more about individual victimhood and less and less about structural disparities of power and wealth. That alteration of focus, from objective complexity to subjective reporting, was encouraged by liberal third wave feminism and Queer Theory. These displaced the material focus of both old school social science and second wave feminism (Butler, 1990; Rubin, 1992).

From then on, social justice became defined by what individuals claimed about themselves. This culminated in our current context of identity politics (Pilgrim, 2022b). These have divided people against one another within an unending personalistic focus on epistemological privilege, self-righteous indignation, ‘calling out’, ‘cancel culture’, special pleading for particular groups and a morass of daily moralisations or ‘moral grandstanding’  (Tosi and Warmke, 2020).

Accordingly, our lives are increasingly governed now by what Loic Wacquant calls the ‘logic of the trial’, where we are all judge and jury but might find ourselves in the dock as well. With social media, this can lead to us being turned upon by the cyber-mob for saying the wrong thing, or even simply saying nothing (e.g. ‘white silence is violence’). Our careers can be ended and anonymous online death threats have become so prevalent that they are now unremarkable (e.g. ‘kill a TERF’).  

Equality and diversity training has become an industry on the back of this self-righteous civil chaos (Pluckrose and Lindsay, 2020; Williams, 2021) and people stopped talking calmly and analytically and began shouting at one another instead (Charles, 2020). Identity politics and their personalistic rationale have given comfort to the paedophile, the white supremacist and the feudal theocrat, not just those on the ‘woke’ left (François, and Godwin,2008; Belew, 2020; Hansen, 2021; O’Carroll, 1980; Sen 2006).

As Nancy Fraser noted in response to this unnerving scenario, there is little point in moralising angrily about what she called ‘parity of participation’ in relation to individuals, unless we also calmly consider and understand their conditions of possibility (i.e. their wider embedding social and economic divisions). This means shifting our focus from individuals to social, and even at times biological, material reality (Fraser, 1999; Flatschart, 2017; Benton, 1991). It also means returning to a supra-personal focus on capitalism, patriarchy and post-colonial legacies as social forces.  

With the emergence and new doxa of identity politics, the duality of social class as both an objective aspect of social ontology and a reported subjective experience explored by Marx, Weber and subsequently in deeper ways by Bourdieu was lost (Marx, 1859/1968; Weber, 1905/2001; Bourdieu, 1987). Suddenly the lop-sided priority was on personal experience and group membership. For identity politics this became the alpha and omega of understanding power. 

Psychological and cultural reductionism then awaits and this might cover up, not just expose, injustices, with policy makers exploiting the unending judgmental relativism of the postmodern era, with its appeal to linguistic variance.  Remember that under Thatcherism we had ‘health variations’ not ‘health inequalities’? Note how Rishi Sunak is being described as coming from a ‘humble background’ in his candidacy to replace Boris Johnson. Words alone are cheap and slippery, when we address social justice today and the postmodern turn is quite rightly also called the ‘linguistic turn’. Accordingly, here is the prescient insight of the humourist Jules Feiffer:

I used to think that I was poor. Then they told me that I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived. Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged. Then they told me under-privileged was over-used, I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a cent but I have a great vocabulary.  (Feiffer, cited in Pilger, 1989)

A narrow preoccupation with protected characteristics and the valorisation of subjective identities and discourse, have encouraged this problem of class being unanchored from its objective context. We can easily forget that although ideas might indeed be causally efficacious, power also resides in the non-discursive realm of material reality (Bhaskar, 1997). The latter refers to our relationship to both nature and social structures.

Policy capture, consumerism and neoliberalism

A loss, or lack, of sophistication about both biological and social ontology has at times left organisations captured by group special pleading. An example here is the controversial emergence of the gender document produced by the BPS, driven by transgender activism. This has fed into the febrile and contested field of policy development about transgender healthcare (Pilgrim, 2021). 

In a similar manner, those aligned with the False Memory Society took charge of the BPS working group on memory and the law (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022). This use of the BPS as a vehicle for policy lobbying is now obvious (including in this case, the use of a special edition of The Psychologist to promote a particular cause). This scenario reflects a combination of weak membership engagement and poor governance at the centre, covered in the first section above. 

Those able and willing to put the hours in to pursue a particular policy goal can readily exploit that unhealthy structure. I have been party to such a capture myself in relation to documents on psychosis and psychiatric diagnosis. So my point here is about process not content. We all may have various preferences and value-judgements in relation to the latter but it is the process of weak democracy and poor governance in the BPS, which is at issue here.

Poor governance has also allowed those leading the organisation to make ex cathedra decisions and statements with no consultation. For example, the President of the BPS announced on social media (Ukraine flag always for now dutifully provided) that ‘we’ had decided to vote to expel Russians from the EPA. Maybe some Russian psychologists were under threat at home and maybe a dialogue with them might have been illuminating. But why bother with that sensitive approach to international dialogue, cooperation and support, which might require the effort of considered negotiations, when virtue signalling online is prioritised? Rapid fire clictivism now dominates civil life replacing proper deliberation about a complex world. As Charles (ibid) says of clictivism, in the vernacular, “it wants to be activism, but it can’t be arsed”.

In our neoliberal context, organisations (such as the BPS) are concerned to appeal to their ‘customers’ in a way that does not damage their income generation but rather improves it. More widely in the market place, the ‘pink pound’, the ‘grey pound’ and the ‘black dollar’ are precious commodities (Goulding, 1999; Matthews and Besemer, 2015; Yewande et al, 2020).

Cable sports channels can safely endorse Black Lives Matter (BLM) and ‘taking the knee’ to ‘root out racism on or off the field’ is a safe piety, which requires no critical analysis of the global soccer industry. The latter has been a place for kleptocrats to launder their money. It is a vehicle for upward social mobility for poor Africans and working class European youngsters. It has been a commercial opportunity to expand the gambling industry, which ruins countless lives. 

None of that complexity, inviting socio-economic analysis, is touched by virtue signalling from the rich and powerful to keep their customers satisfied by the marketing endorsement of BLM. After all, who would be pro-racist or admit to it publicly? Neoliberalism and identity politics fit hand in glove. This context of neoliberalism is an important driver of personalistic reasoning, the displacement of participatory or deliberative democracy by identity politics and the shift to the protected characteristics approach to social justice (Arendt, 2005). 

Apples and oranges

And if we do endorse such a protected characteristic listing of potential victimhood, then more analysis is required, if for no other reason, than it contains apples and oranges, when viewed ontologically not merely epistemologically. Under the current nine point listing two of them are fixed by biological ontology. Our sex is described (not ‘ascribed’) at birth or prenatally and is locked from cradle to grave by our chromosomes. The disadvantage then created by patriarchy, when brought up as a girl, becomes part of social ontology. 

Similarly, when we are born defines immutably the limits of our existence in time. Our life span is limited and so age is a non-discursive matter: we grow older and eventually we die.  That is a biological fact for all living organisms-we cannot talk our way out of this (Callinicos, 1993). On my deathbed, self-identifying as being alive with my last breath will not save me. As with our sex, we cannot defy the material constraints of the natural world by merely making subjective declarations, of the ‘I identify as X’ type. At this point social constructionism becomes a form of social psychosis (Craib, 1997). (The anti-realism of strong social constructionism in British psychology has been explored by Cromby and Nightingale (1999).)

However, elsewhere on the list, biology is still present but it is far less relevant. Other mammals may pair for sexual reproduction but they do not get married. They have no rich view of themselves as having a sexual orientation and your pet dog will have no religious identity or ever become a jihadist (Bentall, 2018). Our capacity for meta-cognitions and meta-statements bequeathed by evolution, given our enlarged cerebrum, affords our capacity to be both moral agents and rule following interdependent beings. Normativity is complex and shifts over time and place but it always exists as a driver of human societies. It is the source of political ideologies, which argue for the retention of current inequalities in a social order, or seek to transform them (Savage, 2000).

Thus, this nine point list contains items which are not ontologically equivalent. Social class if added, like race, is ambiguous because it is both a social ascription experienced personally as a matter of standing, status, honour or self-respect and it is derived from supra-personal socio-economic disparities (Wacquant, 2022 a&b). Psychology potentially has something to say about the former but it might be wise to leave expertise about the latter to social and political scientists and rapidly learn from them about what they already have had to say. 

Does psychology have anything meaningful to say about protected characteristics?

Given my criticisms above, this question remains pertinent. The contributors to the special issue on the one hand confess the ‘scant evidence’ in psychology and yet there is a massive failure (wilful or from ignorance) to concede that other disciplines have already addressed the topic at length. The ambivalence about positivism and perspectivism also is evident. There is angst about being able to measure social class as a fixed variable (the old positivist’s dilemma) but also a discursive focus on the stories that people tell about their lives and their possible identity confusion over time (the postmodern norm). 

These tensions are there too in social and political science more widely, but the difference is that they are directly acknowledged as both a theoretical question and one of methodological options. This has led then to a higher order discussion in sociology about reflexivity (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992; Donati and Archer, 2015). Such a higher order discussion is surely now required in psychology. At present that has started in a very personalistic place, tinged heavily with special pleading, i.e. psychologists reflecting on their own class position over time and talking about access to the discipline. However, this is a start of sorts.

For now, with their angst about measurement on the one hand and story-telling on the other, psychologists still have something to offer, as the contributors to the special issue make clear.  I would add some other opportunities from within. Social psychology has provided some useful material on new social movements, group dynamics and prejudice (e.g. Leyens et al 2000; van Zomeren, 2014).

Evolutionary and cognitive psychology inform us about slow and fast thinking. The latter is part of the current problem of binary reasoning in the dead end of identity politics, with its moral grandstanding (Dutton, 2020). The sub-text of special pleading by the various fractions of identity politics is one of ‘inside good, outside bad’ binary logic: ‘My group and I are virtuous and vulnerable but those outside are bad and guilty, until proven innocent, of victimising me’. 

Binary reasoning begets moral absolutism, which could be a topic of interest for psychologists, as moral philosophers have already noted (Neiman, 2011). The splintering divisions of identity politics ensure hostility not solidarity and these invite psychological description, interpretation and possible explanation, as social psychological phenomena. This might augment, empirically, the arguments made by those such as Neiman cited.

Psychologists might also put their own house in order (from the undergraduate curriculum upwards) about construct clarification and validity, especially in relation to biological and social attributions. For example, in relation to my point about apples and oranges on the nine point list, disability subsumes biological impairment (affecting the functional capability of all animals, not just humans) but also the normative evaluation of those impairments. The ‘social model’ of disability, with its emphasis on enablement and stigma, tends to focus on the social construction of disability but this is a matter of contention. 

Its application to mental health is even more problematic and note that the elephant in the room about the list is that psychiatric patients have their citizenship habitually constrained lawfully and without trial under ‘mental health law’, so called (Pilgrim and Tomasini, 2012). How is the Equality Act relevant to, or compatible with this, routine authoritarian override from agents of the state? Transgender politics are fraught and unresolved, with advocates of sex-based rights complaining about those politics reflecting a patriarchal “men’s movement” (Brunskill-Evans, 2020). Black feminists did not take kindly to the excesses of secessionist black power in the USA, dominated by a form of religious patriarchy (Allen, 1996; Collins, 2006). 

These are some examples, amongst many, of the divisiveness of identity politics and the zero-sum game of competing claims of personal oppression or victimhood. Psychologists may wish to research the character of those claims and the people who are making them. Despite the risk of psychological reductionism, my view is that complex research task warrants more, not less, psychological understanding. However, the latter requires the co-presence of a moderating and genuine sociological imagination. Without that, psychological reductionism will inevitably follow. 

The wide differences of point of view in the current chaos of identity politics and our ‘culture wars’ warrant considered personal exploration. Also surveys by political psychologists might offer information on fluxing views of the popularity of sub-group opinions today. If psychologists are genuinely interested in the topic of living with inequalities then campaigning for one sub-group will overly narrow their intellectual responsibility. 

Class more than the other nine pre-existing protected characteristics is tautologically about inequality (the clue is in the name), though some feminists make a similar argument and designate sex as a class. If the term inherently signals discrepancies of power, wealth, ownership and standing, then surely psychologists should also be interested in the rich and those in the middle, not just the poor and the powerless. For example, the very rich experience and express personal insecurity (Frank, 2008) and even our royals, with or without cynicism, episodically signal their psychological vulnerability. (In Britain in recent times we have witnessed one prince selling the Big Issue and another campaigning about mental health problems.) 

The search for connectivity with others and the wish to be seen as ‘ordinary’ is common in the super-rich, which is psychologically intriguing and warrants more research. A good role model about being open-minded in our research curiosity was the early work of Marie Jahoda, who included Nazis in her social psychological studies of prejudice. Studying all-comers about living with inequalities is surely our academic duty, which might be clouded and diverted by single issue public policy lobbying. 

Thus there is plenty for psychologists to work with, while retaining their tenuous disciplinary unity with its compromises about methodology. My view though is that before that exercise, psychologists should take a peek into what other disciplines have already achieved in relation to psycho-social insights, so that wheels are not re-invented. More importantly, in this case they may wish to reflect carefully on the risks of being swept along by the current norms of their own wider context, with its confusing wrong turn into the conservative cul-de-sac of identity politics. 

Studying identity politics (or the psychological character of ‘protected characteristics’) on the one hand, and embracing a campaigning loyalty to them as citizens on the other, are different matters. If they become conflated then surely the latter will undermine the former. Empirical detachment is particularly challenging in human science, because we are part of our own embedding context. The task is not impossible but it is difficult. This is the very reason why we need to reflect upon the best way to maximise its limits, when producing knowledge claims and defending respectful free expression about their merits. 

Today self-censorship in the academy has mirrored the wider acceptance of the suppression of freedom of expression, which might create a sense of temporary virtue but is not healthy for either knowledge production or democracy. Reflexivity includes humility, not certainty, and requires us to respect those we do not particularly like, as a focus of our academic curiosity. By contrast, identity politics demands that traditional cautions about ad hominem reasoning are dismissed and then actually inverted, with epistemological privilege, ‘perspectivism’ and the ‘logic of the trial’ now defining legitimacy. If we wish, as citizens, to indulge in identity politics campaigns that is a personal option. However, we do so at our peril, if we also want to retain credibility as human scientists.

References

Allen, E. (1996). Religious heterodoxy and nationalist tradition: the continuing evolution of the Nation of Islam. The Black Scholar. 26 (3–4): 2–34

Archer, M. (2000) Being Human: The Problem of Agency Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Arendt, H. (2005) The Promise of Politics New York: Schocken

Atkinson, W. (2015) Class Cambridge: Polity

Belew, S (2020) Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Bell, D. (1973) Race, Racism and American Law New York: Little Brown.

Bentall, R.P (2018) Delusions and other beliefs. In: Bortolotti, L. (eds) Delusions in Context. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Benton T. (1991) Biology and social science: why the return of the repressed should be given a (cautious) welcome. Sociology 25, 1, 1-29.

Bhaskar, R. (1997) On the ontological status of ideas.  Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 27, 2/3, 135-7.

Bourdieu, P. (1987) What makes a social class? Berkley Journal of Sociology 32, 1-17

Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction London: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology Chicago: Chicago University Press

Brunskill-Evans, H. (2020) Transgender Body Politics North Geelong: Spinifex

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble London: Routledge.

Callinicos, A. (1991)   Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique Bristol: Polity.

Conway, A. and Pilgrim, D.  (2022) The policy alignment of the British False Memory Society and the British Psychological Society, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 23, 165-176.

Charles A.D. (2020) Outraged: Why Everyone is Shouting and No One Is Talking London: Bloomsbury.  

Collins, P.H. (2006) From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Craib, I (1997) Social constructionism as social psychosis Sociology 31, 1, 1-15

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color”. Stanford Law Review. 43, 6, 1241–1299.

Cromby, J., and Nightingale, D. J. (1999). What’s wrong with social constructionism? In D. J. Nightingale and J. Cromby (eds.), Social Constructionist Psychology: A Critical Analysis of Theory and Practice Buckingham: Open University Press.

Donati, P. and Archer, M. (2015). The Relational Subject. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Dutton, K. (2020) Black and White Thinking: The Burden of a Binary Brain in a Complex World London: Bantam Books

Flatschart, E. (2017) Feminist standpoints and critical realism: the contested materiality of difference in intersectionality and the new materialism Journal of Critical Realism 16, 3, 284-302.

François, S., and Godwin, A. (2008). The Euro-Pagan scene: Between paganism and radical right. Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 1(2), 35–54.

Frank, R. L. (2007). Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich. New York: Crown Publishing Group

Fraser, N. (1999) Social justice in an age of identity politics: redistribution, recognition and participation. In Ray, L. and Sayer, A. (eds) Culture and Economy after the Cultural Turn (pp25-52) London: Sage.

Gao Z. (2014) Methodologism/Methodological Imperative. In T. Teo T. (ed) Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology. New York: Springe

Goulding, C. (1999). Heritage, nostalgia, and the “grey” consumer. Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, 5(6), 177– 199

Habermas,J. (1973) Knowledge and Human Interests London: Polity Press

Hansen, T.B. (2021) The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics New Delhi: Aleph Books.

Honneth, A. (2007) Disrespect Cambridge: Polity

Kvale, S. (ed) (1992) Psychology and Postmodernism London: Sage

Leyens, J. Ph., Paladin.o, M. P., Rodriguez, R. T., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez, A. P., & Gaunt, R. (2000) The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 4, 2, 186–97.

Marx, K. (1859/1968) Selected Works London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Matthews, P. and Besemer, K. (2015) The “Pink Pound” in the “Gaybourhood”? Neighbourhood Deprivation and Sexual Orientation in Scotland. Housing, Theory and Society, 32 (1), pp. 94-111.

Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Neiman, S. (2011) Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists London: Vintage

O’Carroll, T. (1980) Paedophilia: The Radical Cause London: Owen.

Pilger, J. (1989) A Secret Country London: Vintage

Pilgrim, D. (2022a) (ed) British Psychology in Crisis: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction Bicester: Phoenix Books.

Pilgrim, D. (2022b) Identity Politics: Where Did It All Go Wrong? Bicester: Phoenix Books.

Pilgrim D. (2021) Transgender debates and healthcare: A critical realist account. Health. October 

Pilgrim, D. (2020) Critical Realism for Psychologists London: Routledge.

Pilgrim, D. and Tomasini, F. (2012) On being unreasonable in modern society: are mental health problems special? Disability & Society 27, 5, 631-46. 

Pluckrose, H. and Lindsay, J. (2020) Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody. London: Swift Press.

Rogers, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2021) A Sociology of Mental Health and Illness (6th Edition) London: Open University Press.

Rogers, A. and Pilgrim, (2003) Mental Health and Inequality Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rubin, G. (1992) Thinking sex: notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C.S. Vance (ed) Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London: Pandora. 

Savage, M. (2000) Class Analysis and Social Transformation London: Open University.

Sen, A. (2006) Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny New York: Norton.

Sennett, R. (2003) Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality London: Penguin.

Smedslund, J. (2016). Why psychology cannot be an empirical science. Integrative Psychological Behavioural Science. 50, 2,185-95.

Snoeyenbos, M.H. and Putney, R.T. (1980) Psychology and science. American Journal of Psychology 93, 579-92.

Tosi, J. and Warmke, B. (2020) Grandstanding: The Use of Moral Talk Oxford: Oxford University Press Online

van Zomeren, M. (2014) Synthesizing individualistic and collectivistic perspectives on environmental and collective action through a relational perspective Theory & Psychology 24, 6, 775–94

Wacquant, L. (2022a) The Invention of the ‘Underclass’ Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wacquant, L. (2022b) Resolving the trouble with ‘race’. New Left Review 133/4: 

Ward, J. and Rivers, W. (1904) Editorial British Journal of Psychology 1,1,1. 

Weber, M. (1905/2001) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism London: Routledge.

Williams, J. (2021)   Rethinking Race: A Critique of Contemporary Anti-Racism Programmes London: Civitas

Womack, K., Zolten, J. and Bernhard, M. (eds) (2012) Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies and the Runaway American Dream Farnham: Ashgate

Yewande O. A., Ball, B. and Adams, K-A. (2020) For us, by them?: a study on black consumer identity congruence & brand preference, Howard Journal of Communications, 31:4, 351-371

"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Governance

In the name of God, go!

David Pilgrim posts….

The BPS surely has reached a point where Cromwell’s advice applies. The leadership needs to go and a new regime installed. Many people in recent times have been perplexed and angry, in equal measure, when trying to hold power to account in the BPS.  Harry Truman may have had a notice on his desk saying ‘The buck stops here’, but that stricture went long ago in modern leadership. We are now in neoliberal narcissistic times. What does ‘taking full responsibility’ actually mean any more in public life? Boris Johnson and Sarb Bajwa seem to me to be peas from the same pod.

Many in Bajwa’s position might have been sacked on the very day that the large fraud under their watch was first exposed, but he was not. The Board of ‘Trustees’ suspended him (along with the Finance Director who smartly jumped ship in a month to be the Finance Director of the National Lottery Community Fund).  But those ‘Trustees’ were culpable in the mismanagement of the fraud and so the survival of Bajwa is only one matter to reflect upon. In the future they may well be subject to legacy liability.

The Board knew of the fraud in January 2020 but the two at the top were not suspended until November. What were the Board doing in all those months? What were the toing and froing Presidents (Murphy and McLaughlin) doing in relation to the material fact of the fraud in that interim period? Whatever it was, the membership was certainly not kept informed. The ever biddable Psychologist retained its complicit silence. A few close onlookers, realising what was happening, were torn between George Orwell and Lewis Carroll for apposite literary allusions.  

Bajwa, with the full confidence of the Board, returned after paid leave for a year.  He defaulted to his old confident ways, aided and abetted now by the ‘election’ of an illegitimate President, who replaced the stitched up and spat out Nigel MacLennan.  The latter being of personal integrity, and seeking proper transparency for members, would not be tolerated for too long, which proved to be the case. The cabal conspired successfully to expel him and this was not the suspended CEO’s responsibility, even if much else was and still is.

More bullshit from the top in 2022

Bajwa’s joint statement with Katherine Carpenter looked to a shiny future, turning their faces in personal convenience away from a dismal past. Truth and reconciliation were clearly not going to be on the cards for them, as that would require a thorough and open historical appraisal of organisational failure.  At this point, once more take your pick between the sense making of Orwell or Carroll. 

The bullshit of their joint piece in (you guessed it) The Psychologist (January 2022: 4-5) is extraordinary even by recent standards in the BPS. They remind us of ‘the importance of placing listening and sharing at the heart of everything we do.’ Really? Keywords recur in management rhetoric today including: ‘challenges’; ‘beating heart’; ‘rainbow spectrum’; ‘broad church’; ‘united mission’; ‘culture of togetherness’ (the clichés just keep on coming and they are all there in this piece ). Somebody actually sits down and writes this drivel – is there a handbook for managers they crib from? But the best is kept till last, given recent events. This appears in print and for the historical record on page 5:

We can commit from the outset, however, always to do our best to communicate openly and transparently, and to be the sharer of good news and bad. This will take courage, but we both believe that by pledging our full accountability to our members, we can only strengthen the trust between us. This is our commitment-please join us!

During the past two years, the public and BPS members have been kept well and truly in the dark or offered YouTube propaganda about the outcome of a show trial. Are we really supposed to believe a single word of that paragraph? Having said this, the word ‘outset’ might signal that this is a new commitment (like a New Year’s resolution). But, if so, are they implying that they have indeed been doing the very opposite until January 1st 2022?

Carpenter is a senior manager in the NHS. If a scandal, of the scale we are facing surrounding the fraud, were to have occurred in her NHS Trust, there would have been a critical incident report made and a look back exercise announced. The BPS though plays by its own rules and these are made up as it goes along by the cabal. They act, not in the interests of members with the long term reputation of the Society in mind, but in their own. This will become clear with a proper historical reckoning, but until then we are all lumbered with self-interested short-termism.

Never mind that a woman with 17 offences and two prison terms behind her was appointed or that her bosses signed off one after another fraudulent claims. The cabal will just carry on and pretend that nothing of importance has happened. No heads need to roll and no statement required. The vague cliché of ‘lessons learned’ will suffice along with a ‘poor me’ plea that this has been a ‘challenging year’. Well, indeed, it has been extremely challenging for members of the BPS and the general public to find out what has gone on  and who has been personally responsible. So ‘challenging for whom and about what?’, we might all well ask. 

Bajwa as a role model of accountability

Talking of past form, Bajwa has been a poor role model for claimed transparency. His modus operandi has been deceptively simple: when people contact him about a matter that is not to his taste, then he simply does not reply to them. We have, on record, several examples of how mails from both individuals and in multi-signed versions have been simply ignored by Bajwa. Before his suspension, David Marks wrote to him about opening up a proper scrutiny of the Eysenck scandal. (This was twenty five years after the BPS were first contacted about the matter by Anthony Pelosi.) Marks was blanked by Bajwa. Three (sic) years later, after the latter had returned to his role, he still did not reply or apologise. He left it to a subordinate, Rachel Scudamore (Orwellian title, ‘Head of Quality Assurance and Standards’) to offer a viewpoint on the matter, using the first person plural in her token apology. Why did Bajwa not personally apologise in the first person singular? The answer seems to be, ‘because he could’.  

What is the point of being the CEO of any organisation if you are not the final resting place of accountability? In my view, Bajwa has brought more shame on an already shameful organisation. These dilettante managers with no respect for academic values are bringing British psychology into disrepute. In a separate blog piece, we will soon revisit how this standard setting of obfuscation and disrespect for members from the top then affects the staff culture in Leicester and will continue to do so unless there is regime change.

What is to be done?

We have been coy on this blog about making concrete suggestions about what should now happen, given that the cabal and its surrounding dysfunctional regime have survived. With an ex-employee in prison after her recent episode of serial offending, and an expelled malcontent President safely dispatched, the dysfunctional system can roll on uninterrupted. It might survive for a while, even though it is in a form of weak special measures from the Charity Commission. However, nothing lasts and the truth of the shameful recent history of the BPS will be told. 

My personal view is this. Bajwa and the Board of Trustees should now resign and the Charity Commission should appoint an administrator to ensure a democratic charity in full legal and regulatory compliance. True, not faux, Trustees would then be present to work at turning around a discredited shambles of an organisation. New managers could then give due respect to the skills and talents of the membership and ensure true not rhetorical transparency. 

To cite it in full, ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’ Cromwell’s advice remains sound but the shower running the BPS today will probably cling on to power until the Charity Commission or another legal lever will prise them from their bunker.

Board of Trustees, Financial issues, Governance

“A kid in a candy shop” or scapegoat.

Peter Harvey posts…

The above quote is how Viola Sander, until 2020 Executive Assistant to the CEO of the BPS, described her behaviour when she defrauded the BPS of around £70000. So, if a child runs amok in a tempting sweetshop because the fare is “too tempting”, what is the responsibility of the caregiver or the staff? None at all?

Now that (at least some of) the details of the major fraud have emerged (see Leicester Mercury, 8 February 2022), we can be more open about questioning just what has been going on at the BPS. We plan to disclose even more disturbing information about just how dysfunctional the BPS actually is. Amongst the multitude of questions to be raised in this particular instance, I want to focus on three main areas (1) how Ms Sander was selected and appointed; (2) why the oversight of her activities was so defective; (3) the accountability of her managers.

Just to remind you, Viola Sander had form, as the following extract from the Leicester Mercury makes clear

In 1984 she was prosecuted for a dishonesty offence and using ‘a false instrument’ and in 1998 she was given a 12 month suspended sentence for theft from an employer, the court heard.

That sentence was activated the following year, when she committed further thefts as an employee, and was jailed for a total of 15 months.

In 2006 she was given a community order for stealing from an employer.

In July 2014 she was jailed for two years for defrauding Leicester University out of £30,000.

She has 17 previous crimes to her name.

Selection

The post was Executive Assistant to the CEO – an important post, no doubt – but did its filling actually need to be outsourced to an external agency? The bland statement from the President to The Senate (7 February 2022) tells us that

“…the BPS used an external agency to perform reference checks for new employees…”

I can understand why the most senior posts within the BPS might benefit from being able to access a wider range of potential candidates than standard advertising might do, but this is not at that level. Surely, within the BPS administrative structure, there are able and competent managers part of whose job is to select and appoint staff? In addition, it is hard to comprehend why a psychological society with access to many specialists in organisational and occupational psychology as well as to many senior professionals who have extensive experience of selection, failed to use what expertise it has so readily available. Not only will this catastrophic failure have cost a good deal of money (from members’ subscriptions, of course) and caused serious damage the BPS’s reputation, it was quite unnecessary. Who authorised and approved the use of an external agency? Who chose the agency? What tendering and evaluation of the various bids took place? Who oversaw the process and was responsible for signing off the short-list? Did anyone actually check whether admission of previous criminal activity was included in the selection criteria (she is quoted as saying that she never told anyone because no-one asked)? What redress has been sought by the BPS from the agency? And who in the BPS hierarchy has been disciplined for gross negligence? And who, of those clearly accountable within the BPS, is still in post?

Oversight

This heading should be seen as ironical. Again, from the Leicester Mercury

The criminal activity began in August 2018 and continued until it was discovered in January 2020.

and

…a 17-month crime spree, which involved more than 900 fraudulent transactions.

There is reason to believe that the total amount may be higher than £70000 as there are a number of unaccounted for transactions.

From the Leicester Mercury again

Viola Sander’s underhand activity included spending £26,000 on Amazon purchases as well as £1,470 on hairdos at a Nicky Clarke salon and £450 on a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.

Her taste for the high life also saw her spend £1,981 on taxis, £1,369 at an opticians, £600 on lingerie while also treating herself to trips to Paris and Frankfurt, a cruise, watches, a sofa and other indulgences

Was there no upper limit to expenditure that needed approval from a senior member of staff? Didn’t procedures within the BPS require that any expenditure over £1000 needed prior authorisation? Was there a level within the BPS at which non-compliance with procedures was routine? To say that there was a failure of oversight is something of an understatement. Were full and detailed receipts submitted? Were they elegant forgeries, crude alterations or simply non-existent? And if they were, who at Director level signed them off?  Did no-one smell a rat? Did any junior staff become suspicious? If so, did they feel safe to raise them with those above them? Or did they raise them and they were ignored? Who was Ms Sander ultimately accountable to? Has anyone else within the organisation been disciplined for incompetence?

Accountability

Someone in the BPS was managerially responsible for this employee – she reported to someone. Someone in the BPS was responsible for scrutinising receipts and expenses claims. Someone in the BPS was responsible for the day-to-day monitoring of finances. Someone in the BPS has the responsibility to ensure the financial probity of the organisation.  Who set up and monitored the financial controls and procedures? We understand that there had been a previous recent (unconnected) fraud following which strict financial controls were put in place. Were these followed or was there a culture of non-compliance? Would it be too much to suggest that the ultimate financial management the organisation starts with the Director of Finance (DoF)? The CEO and DoF were suspended after the discovery of the fraud. However, the DoF left soon after that as reported by the Third Sector 

“…it was revealed that the charity’s chief executive, Sarb Bajwa, was on “extended leave”, according to the charity, and its director of finance and resources, Harnish Hadani, resigned in December 2020 to start a new role.

Note that the resignation of the DoF took place whilst he was suspended. So one of the key individuals who would be able to throw some light onto this murky affair is not available for comment. This is particularly important as his Linkedin page records that, during his time as Executive Director of Finance and Resources at the BPS, he was responsible for  

“…finance, human resources, facilities and procurement.”

We believe that he is currently CFO/Finance Director of the National Lottery Community Fund.

But others must take their share of responsibility too. These are the Trustees. One of the key tasks of Trustees of a charity is 

As a trustee you must take steps to make sure that your charity’s money is safe, properly used and accounted for. Every trustee has to do this. Even if your charity has an expert to manage its finances, you are still responsible for overseeing your charity’s money

So however much they might want to distance themselves, each and every one of the Trustees in post during the time of the fraud bears some responsibility.

We have identified in other posts (see here and here) the significant failure of the BPS to ensure the true independence of Trustees. The Board, as currently constituted, is simply made up of members with multiple roles in the BPS and long-serving BPS junkies. I would suggest that a truly independent Board with expertise and insights into the actual management of a large organisation and with nothing to lose by rocking the boat, might have avoided this scandalAnd note that the proposal for three new trustees outlined in the Charter changes goes nowhere near far enough to remedy this problem.

This is a shameful and sorry reflection on the British Psychological Society.  And we need to remember that the Vice-President (President during the time of fraud), in his resignation letter, stated that he had 

“… repeatedly raised concerns about aspects of the management of the Society and inadequacies in the oversight the Board has provided.”

and, further

“I believe this has also been evidenced in the failure to communicate openly with members or staff about the issue of irregular expenses payments made to a former member of staff and the serious inadequacies of financial controls that were identified in the subsequent external investigation…”

The President-Elect (who could not possibly have been involved in this), who set out his stall to change and reform matters, was cruelly hounded out of his elected position and publicly vilified. This dysfunctional and misgoverned Society needs radical reform which won’t happen either by glossing over past problems or by aspirational Pollyanna statements (see here). In their joint statement to the membership, the President and the recently returned CEO stated

“…we will need to be open, flexible, and reflective to meet these challenges. We can commit from the outset, however, always to do our best to communicate openly and transparently, and to be the sharer of good news and bad.”

If we are to take this seriously then they can start by being open and transparent about all of what has gone on with this case. And despite the continued references to the “…last twelve months..” we would remind you that many of the problems identified here have existed for years and remain unexamined and unacknowledged. Perhaps now would be good time to put these claims of openness to the test.

Board of Trustees, Governance

THE ONGOING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST AT THE CENTRE OF THE BRITISH PSYCHOLOGICAL SOCIETY – AN OPEN LETTER 

David Pilgrim has sent this letter to the President, the SMT, the editor of The Psychologist and to various journalists who have an interest in what is going on in the BPS. He has also sent it to the Charity Commission.

To whom it may concern

The incipient reform (in January 2022) of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the British Psychological Society (BPS), to now include three properly independent members, is welcomed. It is a reactive signal that all is not well with the structure at the centre of a putative learned body and registered charity. 

Sadly it does not go far enough, if the BPS is to regain and retain public trust and that of its members. Many have been trying, and failing, to make this point about the needed radical root and branch reform of the governance of the Society in recent times. They have been ignored or dismissed as malcontents.  A large fraud now subject to sentencing in the Crown Court, and the disappearance of three Presidents (one expelled and two resigned over a two month period in 2021) are symptomatic of the most recent crisis in a long troubled organisation.

The culture of misgovernance, which has enabled both financial wrongdoing and policy capture, has been afforded by a blatant structural problem, dating back to the Royal Charter of 1965. At that time a BoT was required, but its precise membership not defined a priori. In 1987 a second bite of the cherry was offered but not taken, when the Royal Charter was revised. This has meant that for over fifty years the Society has been run by a BoT with no public involvement and where conflicts of interest have been inherent: we have had faux-Trustees not the real thing. To date the BoT has been constituted wholly from within the BPS, with external scrutiny being missing completely.

Any good charity knows that they should appoint Trustees, who are fully independent of the workings of the organisation (and the people involved as employees or volunteers). A Trustee should be defined by their ability to walk away from the role, with no personal disadvantage (of money, status, personal goals or cognitive/political interests). Given that under current arrangements all of the Trustees have conflicts of interest, then this criterion of independence has failed continually. The incumbents, as appointees from Boards and other sub-systems, should be accountable to Trustees not be Trustees themselves. The Presidential triumvirate is an important democratic counter-balance, but note that even this is from the membership not the general public.

Until the BoT is reformed fully in line with this point of best practice about Trustee independence, recommended by the Charity Commission, then the cultural legacy of poor governance and its adverse consequences are likely to persist. This and related points will be discussed at length in a book soon to appear, which I am editing: The Crisis of British Psychology: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction (Phoenix Press). 

Sincerely

Dr David Pilgrim 

"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Board of Trustees, Ethics, Governance

Is an authentic history of the BPS possible?

This post has been modified to include an addendum (shown after the references) to include feedback received since the original posting = Blog Administrator (8 January 2022).

David Pilgrim posts….

During 2021 the large fraud in the BPS was dismissed as a minor footnote in the Society’s accounts. Three elected Presidents disappeared over a two month period. Two resigned and another was expelled after a kangaroo court and a rigged appeal. In the interim period between the latter two events, he was publicly disparaged in a YouTube video. 

For most of the year the CEO was suspended in the wake of the fraud. A temporary President was drafted in, with the help of a contrived illegitimate election, to bolster the diminishing credibility of the Board of Trustees. The Psychologist played its faithful role, as ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’, in what it reported and, more importantly, what it did not.

In the midst of these political events, poorly explored in public, there was another that went under the radar.  An over-worked and under-paid part time archivist, in the History of Psychology Centre (HoPC) resigned, leaving it with no academic director or archiving staff and an uncertain future. Although the HoPC is not the singular route to build up a history of British psychology, it is fairly important. Accordingly, its sustainability, as a vaunted part of the BPS, is crucial for scholarly activity both inside and outside the Society. 

The SMT have done little or nothing to protect it in recent years. Their mind has probably been elsewhere, managing the crisis they both inherited and amplified. One tactical option they seem to have chosen is to suppress history and to be evasive about their own detailed accountability. If that interpretation is correct then their motivation to support a proper history, especially recent history, will be weak or absent.

Whatever else we might say about the BPS, it is not a learning organisation. That aspiration would entail organisational norms, which celebrated transparency and honest reflection about current problems and their antecedents. Many of the postings on this blog have explored failures of probity and the evasion of learning from them on the part of the SMT and Board of Trustees. Here I want to just focus on the possibility of a history of the BPS.

Celebratory and critical histories

Until the middle of the 20th century, British psychology was expanding slowly and loosening itself from the constraints of both medicine and philosophy. Early historical accounts, such as that of my old teacher, Lesley Hearnshaw, paid little critical attention to the Society and focused mainly on epistemological tensions (Hearnshaw, 1964). His task was empirical: map out what could be discerned to date about theory and findings, within the strengths and weaknesses of the British empiricist tradition. A critical take on that history awaited (cf. Pilgrim and Patel, 2015).

At that juncture, some early signs of malaise had to be acknowledged during historical uncovering. Hearnshaw was a friend of Cyril Burt and began to write a celebratory history of his work after his death in 1971. As the proofs were being prepared, accusations were emerging of Burt falsifying data and people. Hearnshaw had, as an old fashioned honest scholar, to re-write his ending. Hagiography had to be replaced with Burt being damned with faint praise. He had been President of the BPS (1941-1943). He was the trusty servant of the eugenic tradition developed by Pearson and Spearman at University College London. He was the main man in the mid-20th century.. He was a public intellectual promoting an elitist eugenic view of human nature and he was not challenged by his peers of the time (Chamarette, 2019). At that time he was Mr British Psychology.

Burt succeeded Spearman as Professor of Psychology at University College in 1932. He always maintained the Spearman-Pearson position on ‘innate general cognitive ability’, which could be ‘objectively determined and measured’ (Burt, 1909). After the Second World War, he shaped the structure of British schooling and his advice to policy makers was well received in his Eugenics Society lecture (Burt, 1946).

Hearnshaw sadly had to record Burt’s fall from grace for the first time, leaving others to squabble over the best post-mortem (Hearnshaw, 1979; cf. Mackintosh, 1995).  These efforts reflected efforts to respect the Popperian hope that science is self-correcting, via falsification and open contestation about findings and interpretation. In recent years, psychology in Britain and elsewhere has faced two challenges in this regard. The first is the replication crisis and the second relates to cheating; at times in psychology and other disciplines these have overlapped. 

The Burt scandal reflected badly not only on British eugenics and British psychology but also on the BPS itself, given his past Presidential role. The force of eugenic psychology meant that ideology preceded findings; Hearnshaw used the phrase accurately from logical philosophy of Burt ‘begging the question’ (Pilgrim, 2008). Findings were co-opted selectively and then massaged (or invented) to maintain a pre-existing ideological position. This drama has repeated recently in the critique of Burt’s student, Hans Eysenck. 

At the time of writing I understand that this matter is being reviewed by a group in the Society.  Eysenck’s implausible findings about cancer and personality were reviewed by King’s College (KCL). Eysenck successfully courted funding from the tobacco companies. In exchange he offered them the comforting theory that cancer-proneness and addictive tendencies were inherited. The narrative of these coming together to account for lung cancer incidence could then displace the idea that big business was encouraging addiction for profit and was the source of a major public health problem. Favourable research might augment cigarette marketing.

In 2019 the KCL review* of Eysenck’s work concluded that it was ‘unsafe’ and incompatible with expectations of good clinical research. Criticisms of this work had been known since the 1990s and eventually lobbying from those like Anthony Pelosi prompted the KCL review and the incipient look back from the BPS (Pelosi, 2019).  

An organisation without a memory?

Will the BPS be forced to deal (eventually) with the Eysenck question, as they had in days gone by to deal with Burt and his dubious findings? The jury is out for now, but the following might be relevant to note. The editor of the Journal of Health Psychology, David Marks, wrote to Sarb Bajwa in November 2018 asking for the BPS to take its responsibilities seriously about Eysenck, and received no reply. 

Three years of radio silence later and after a prompt, Marks still had no reply from the CEO but he did get a response from Rachel Scudamore (‘Head of Quality Assurance and Standards’) apologising for Bajwa’s inaction. She opted to use the first person plural to avoid a third person accusation of her manager. 

Why Bajwa did not reply apologetically himself is not known. However, it was a time when those at the centre of the BPS would quite often fail to reply to concerns. (We have reported this norm of contempt from the centre in previous postings, often about very serious matters.) One manifestation of secrecy at the centre of the BPS has been a casual indifference to membership inquiries and concerns. 

As is often the case with scenarios like this, when trying to communicate with the powers that be in the BPS, we enter an Alice in Wonderland World, while being asked to take those leading the Society seriously. Credulousness is demanded in the face of the incredible material facts. The BPS until proved otherwise, is a self-deceiving and secretive bureaucracy. For now, with its governance unreformed and a cabal culture normalised, it is an organisation without a memory (cf. Donaldson, 2002).

This much we can say

In light of the above we can see a pattern of a rhetoric of history being taken seriously, alongside evasiveness in practice about any meaningful historical reflection. The HoPC has great rhetorical value for the BPS: just go onto the website and see it there as a key advertising feature for an alleged learned body. For now, like with much that is claimed from the cabal, this is bullshit. 

The casual use of censorship by the cabal and the biddable role of The Psychologist reflect a disdain for academic freedom. Even if the HoPC were to be rescued from its near oblivion, what chance it developing and defending a critical, rather than a sycophantic and celebratory, history of the BPS? Will the SMT bother to finance such an academically independent Centre? Alternatively, will they continue to let it wither on the vine, while retaining its vacuous image cynically on the website? The BPS has huge reserves, some of which are being squandered on a poorly justified ‘Change Programme’ to the tune of (at least) £6 million. ‘Spare some change for the HoPC, governor?’ ‘Sorry mate, busy spending it elsewhere.’

As for the Eysenck review, we are all curious to watch its development. Though never given a Fellowship of the BPS, his leading role in British psychology has to be acknowledged by friend and foe alike. After his death in 1997 an annual memorial lecture was set up in his honour in the Society. It sits proudly in celebration of the British eugenic tradition, alongside the Spearman Medal. 

Some have already queried the point of mulling over Eysenck’s flawed work (maybe like digging up Cromwell’s body and chopping off his head during The Restoration in 1661) (Hall and Scarnà, 2019). However, if the BPS cannot pronounce on the integrity of Eysenck’s work then who else can? Maybe the review of these alleged sins of the past is a convenient diversion from those of the present. Either way, his own words might be an ethical guide:

I always felt that a scientist owes the world only one thing, and that is the truth as he (sic) sees it. If the truth contradicts deeply held beliefs, that is too bad. Tact and diplomacy are fine in international relations, in politics, perhaps even in business; in science only one thing matters, and that is the facts. (Eysenck, 1990: 229)

The KCL reviewers were unimpressed by the facts he favoured. At the time of writing, fourteen retractions from journals have been recorded of Eysenck’s work. His critics trace problems going back to just after the Second World War. Their vulnerability lies in Eysenck’s eugenic thought, repeating the problem of his mentor. A contradiction of his approach was that he was both a methodological behaviourist and a biogenetic ideologue. His cancer work reflected that: heredity accounted for causes but the treatment of patients warranted CBT (behaviour therapy was its ‘first wave’.) 

How the BPS review of Eysenck’s work exactly came into being, and who was chosen to be part of it, remains a mystery. As with much that goes on in the BPS we will never know. Groups emerge by grace and favour and a tap on the shoulder to candidates who will not rock the boat.  Given the preference of the CEO and the illegitimate President to look forwards, Pollyanna fashion, and never backwards, the prospect of an honest history of the BPS in the recent past looks slim indeed (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-35/january-2022/president-and-chief-executive).

Conclusion

The Burt and Eysenck examples show that historical clarifications, guided by Popperian criteria of scientific correction and probity, are not easy, but they are at least possible in an open democratic society. Sadly it looks as though currently the BPS does not have the intellectual culture to deliver the same expectation. Toxic managerialism and a lack of independent trustees (a structural fault traceable to 1965 and not rectified when the opportunity arose in 1988) have suppressed, rather than celebrated, the obligation to learn from experience in the public interest. 

Anti-intellectualism, censorship, secrecy, PR, spin, impression management and rigged expulsions and elections, for now dominate the decision-making priorities of the leadership. As a consequence, bullshit constantly displaces implausible claims of transparency. Maybe we will have to look outside for an authentic historical reckoning. It may have to come from the courts and investigative journalists. 

References

Burt, C.L. (1946) Intelligence and fertility. Eugenics Society Occasional Papers Number 2.

Burt, C.L. (1909) Experimental tests of general intelligence. British Journal of Psychology III 94-107.

Chamarette, M. (2019) Psychologists as public intellectuals: Cyril Burt at the BBC in the 1930s. Stories of Psychology Meeting organised by the History of Psychology Centre, November 7th.

Donaldson, L. (2002) An organisation with a memory. Clinical Medicine 2, 5, 524-7.

Eysenck, H.J. (1990) Rebel With A Cause London: Transaction

Hall, J. and Scarnà, A. (2019) An aggravating controversialist or ahead of his time? The Psychologist November, 32, 5.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1979) Cyril Burt: Psychologist Icatha NY: Cornell University Press.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1964) A Short History of British Psychology London: Methuen.

Pelosi, A.J. (2019). Personality and fatal diseases: revisiting a scientific scandal. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 421-439

Pilgrim, D. (2008) The eugenic legacy in psychology and psychiatry. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 54, 3, 272-284.

Pilgrim, D. and Patel, N. (2015) The emergence of clinical psychology in the British post-war context. In J. Hall, D. Pilgrim and G. Turpin (eds) Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives HoPC Monograph No 2. Leicester: BPS.

Mackintosh, N.J. (ed) (1995) Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

* The Institute of Psychiatry, where Eysenck worked, was subsumed into KCL in 1997, hence that College of the University of London now being the academic ‘owner’ of his legacy. 

Addendum

This post has prompted email feedback from colleagues. I am grateful to them for the following minor corrections and their invited clarifications.

1. The archivist who resigned in 2021 was now, I understand, full-time not part-time. She left behind an assistant to work on her own in Leicester. To date the review group, set up three years ago to reinvigorate the HoPC still has had no formal commitment from the CEO or SMT to support an academic director, who would be guaranteed full autonomy in their role. To my knowledge no meeting has taken place in the interim between the Chair of the review group and the CEO. I understand from anonymous sources that a consultant may be imported temporarily to advise on archiving. However, I have been unable to confirm this possibility and its source, if any, in SMT decision making. (A theme on this blog is the arcane nature of decision making at the centre of the BPS.) We would of course welcome a full and clear update from the CEO or the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ about their intentions about the ailing HoPC. I would put a very low probability of this happening, as the SMT have opted for a wilful and consistent policy of non-engagement with us. I have also sent a letter about my concerns about the HoPC to the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ (copying to the CEO). Based on past trends, there is little likelihood that I will receive a reply. Currently I am Honorary General Secretary of the History and Philosophy Section but I sent my letter in a personal capacity. The Section will of course be taking all of the above matters seriously in relation to the vulnerability of the HoPC now and its future prospects.

2. The Spearman Medal has now been abandoned by the BPS in the face of criticisms about its eugenic roots. It was awarded finally in 2020 but, note, was only set up in 1962. The latter date reflects a mainstream commitment to the eugenic tradition in British psychology well after the Second World War. The British Eugenics Society changed its name to the Galton Institute in 1989. This euphemistic naming and the current rationale for the Institute can be found on its website. In 2020 University College London, removed the names of Galton and Pearson from its rooms and buildings.

"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Governance

More bullshit about a shiny new future

David Pilgrim posts….

Readers of The Psychologist (first edition of the New Year) may or may not be inspired by the joint piece from Katherine Carpenter (BPS President) and Sarb Bajwa (BPS CEO), who are offering to lead us into a shiny new future. Your credulity is likely to rely on your answers to two starting questions. First, do you believe that the future of any system can be invented without reference to the reality of its past? Second, do you have grounds for trusting those currently leading the Society? My view is that both invite a negative response and here is why.

The future detached from the past

In open systems (and all human systems are open systems) future predictions are difficult. Nothing can be ruled out or ruled in for certain, apart from our individual deaths. However, systems theorists making this point (e.g. Bateson, 1972; Wilden, 1972) also recognise that there are ‘patterns that connect through time’. We can only make sense of the present by a careful description and appraisal of the past. If we do not, then we do so at our peril. The well-known cliché and truism is the adage from George Santayana, that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” An equally relevant insight came from George Orwell in 1984: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” In this case, those controlling the present are silencing the past and imagining a future that ipso facto cannot be gainsaid.

The piece from Carpenter and Bajwa was accompanied by a reassuring photograph of them side by side. This must be a very recent snap, because the CEO has just returned to his office after a year’s suspension, in the wake of the large fraud being investigated internally, and externally by the Leicestershire police. For those still in the dark, the initial magistrate’s hearing of the ex-employee is in January. The progress of the case will be tracked by journalists but an account in The Psychologist is probably unlikely.

Carpenter, was installed to replace the stitched up and spat out President Elect, Nigel MacLennan, during Bajwa’s paid absence. So this new alliance at the top of the organisation has leapt into action quickly to make the best of a bad job. Remember that Carpenter’s election debarred the membership voting for any of their peers as is the norm; only those on the Board of Trustees (BoT) or Senate could be candidates. The BoT just made this rule up to suit themselves at the time. In my view, and that of many now, Carpenter is an illegitimate President.

Maybe this sounds harsh or unfair, until we place the joint statement in a wider historical context; the very exercise being avoided by the two sources of central power in the Society, for now. It is silent about the details of both the current political mess and its relevant antecedents. The usual vague statements about shared difficulties in recent times are there. It is true that we have all been in the same Covid-19 boat, even if some of us have had a better cabin or window seat. But what about the political meltdown of 2020? Did we all just imagine it?  Carpenter and Bajwa are coy about this, so this is what happened, for the understandably uninformed. 

Bajwa was suspended and then returned after 12 months (sic). The BoT fully supported his return in November. However, note carefully, the Board are not independent Trustees. Since 1965 the latter status has been totally absent in the BPS. That is (one reason) why the Charity Commission remain ‘engaged’ with the BPS , though the former are being slow in their efforts and the latter seem to be oblivious to the moral and legal implications of their non-compliance to date.  The BoT are, though, accountable for their responsibilities in relation to financial probity, so the fraud must have been an unnerving scenario for them. Even resigning is not an answer because Trustees still have a ‘legacy liability’. Leaving the sinking ship is not a personal solution for Trustees, even if it may have a protective value for employees who have moved on.

With regard to the elephant in the room of independence, those involved in a charitable organization (as employees or volunteers) should be accountable to Trustees. Instead, in the BPS the ‘Trustees’ are appointed from within the organization or (in the case of the Presidential triumvirate elected but from the membership not the external public). Thus they may be Trustees, as self-defined since 1965 in the Royal Charter of the Society, but they are not properly independent and so they cannot offer impartial oversight, in accordance with expectations of good governance in a charity today.   

Even for well-intentioned people, of good faith, in the BPS these faux-trustees will inevitably have conflicts of interest. The latter are endemic to the culture of the BPS. An independent Trustee, in any charity, is one who is able to walk away from the role with no personal implications for their income, career or vested interests. This basic expectation is missing in the BPS and it has had, and continues to have, dysfunctional consequences. 

Untrustworthy leaders

Thus a structural flaw inherited from 1965 has now afforded a dysfunctional leadership culture. This well predated the additional dynamics triggered by the installation of a highly paid Senior Management Team after 2018. It is tempting to reduce the recent crisis to its appearance. Yes some of them are carpetbaggers with little or no historical understanding of British psychology or academic values.  They may well flit in and out of the Society. Yes, they indulged in arm wrestling with the BoT about who was running the BPS, that is until the meltdown created by the fraud. Then they had to spin their way out of the problem together. Yes, they colluded with the BoT in a kangaroo court to ruin the career of an honest man trying to deal with the misgovernance he had correctly identified. The scapegoating of the whistle blower Nigel MacLennan, on trumped up charges, served to create an ephemeral moment of seeming unity at the top.

All of this is true. If it is not true then a full and frank account from the SMT or BoT for the membership would be most welcomed and we will post it on this blog. However, the systemic problem in the BPS (Bateson’s ‘pattern that connects through time’) predates 2018. If a determined historian, forensic accountant or investigative journalist were to try to describe events in their entirety in the Society in the past 30 years, they would be considerably challenged for two reasons. 

First, a letter of permission would be required to access all the minutes of all the Boards (but especially the BoT). Second, and of more relevance, if that permission were granted they would find minutes that were skeletal, with important information absent or massaged to create the correct impression. This is not just about post hoc redactions. It is also what was chosen by those at meetings to record. Most readers will have witnessed the ‘this is not for minuting’ moment in many meetings in their careers. However, that tendency will have been in overdrive in the past decades of the BPS for its leaders to maintain, albeit implausibly, a ‘problem what problem?’ stance for so long.

Whether we examine the official accounts of the old oligarchy running the BPS (e.g. The Psychologist, 2017; The Psychologist, 2006) or the SMT driven-impression management more recently (to ‘control the narrative’) there has been no bad news forthcoming. When it has been hinted at, it has either been diversionary (e.g. forget the mess we created and look at our shared victimhood about Covid-19) or so vague that it is meaningless.

For example, when in that ill-advised performance Carol McGuinness read out the disparagement of Nigel MacLennan in advance of his appeal, there were vague allusions to a challenging year and being at a cross-roads. This YouTube clip available to the general public, link conveniently provided by the ever-biddable editor of The Psychologist, was an extraordinary exercise in bullshit. 

Did McGuinness tell us why the year had been challenging? No. Did she tell us what the directions on the signpost said? No. Did she tell us the relevant substance about why MacLennan has been expelled? No. Did she mention that the BPS was facing a scandal about a large fraud? No. Did she explain just how the BoT was going to respond properly and in good faith to the requests for governance change from the Charity Commission? No. Did she explain why it was worth spending £6 million on an ill-formulated ‘Change Programme’, installed without full consultation by the SMT? No. Did she mention the NCVO observation about a toxic culture in the BPS? No. Did she mention the resignation of David Murphy and his concerns about governance and finance? No. The BPS lost three elected Presidents in a period of two months in 2021, making Oscar Wilde’s comments on losing two parents a lesser joke in comparison. The list of silences goes on and on.

This context of obfuscation provides ordinary members with few grounds for vertical trust in the BPS. It is important to contrast that problem with horizontal trust. Those in say local branches or Sections tend to develop good collegial relationships with their volunteer peers and they have to suffer little or no bullshit from one another. That horizontal trust might even at times tempt some sub-systems to break away from the main body (see my conclusions below).

Bullshit then is everything that is said and not said for the powerful to remain in power. What chance then our imaginary researcher being able to grasp the recent historical picture of how the BPS has functioned at the centre in the past few decades? This question has both an empirical aspect, with its implied methodological challenge, and an ethical one about the emergence of a longstanding culture of amorality at the centre of the BPS. 

The History of Psychology Centre

If you go on to the BPS website one of the little boxes you can open is about the History of Psychology Centre. This is a personal interest (I am a past Chair of the History & Philosophy Section and its current Honorary Secretary). In that Section we are keen to encourage a serious (i.e. bullshit- free) interest in the history of British psychology and the BPS. That part of the website has many gaps and there is clearly still much un-archived material. This is not the fault of the few people doing the archiving to date, who have been over-worked and underpaid.

If we dig deeper we find a concern about political and budgetary priorities in the BPS. The Centre has struggled on for years now with a part-time archivist, technically challenged by a transitional period between hard copy and digital material to deal with. The BoT (via the Research Board) has done absolutely nothing to reinvigorate the Centre and the SMT have ignored it as a political priority. It needs more than one full time archivist and an academic director, whose role independence is guaranteed in advance. (Given the compromised role of the editor of The Psychologist, this should stand as a warning about the need for an arms-length approach to a scholarly history of the Society.) 

This point about reinvigorating the Centre and its guaranteed academic protection has been made several times from those of us in the History & Philosophy Section to no avail. The Centre remains in a parlous state (the part-time archivist has recently left and not been replaced). Compare the lack of funding of the Centre with other BoT preferences, such as the controversial £6 million change programme, paid lawyers to advise on the expulsion of critics or the campaign to regain registration powers by encouraging new members in the mental health workforce, who are not psychology graduates. The costs noted here are direct (large amounts of the members’ subscriptions or the Society’s reserves) and indirect (the transactional time involved for all concerned). The History of Psychology Centre has been ignored as an organizational priority in this context of tellingly preferred projects.

A final ideological reflection

Here is a final summary thought then on the ideological point I am making here. This is gleaned from what is called, in the technical jargon of philosophy, an ‘omissive critique’ (Pilgrim, 2020). Why do we ask some questions but not others? Why do we invest time, effort and money on some goals and policies but not others? Why do we support and enlarge this part of the organizational structure but not that part? Turning that skeptical reflection on what has been happening in the BPS, and which priorities its leaders have emphasized at the expense of others, the shiny vision from Katherine Carpenter and Sarb Bajwa bears legitimate scrutiny. 

They are part of a cabal that for now is letting the History of Psychology Centre wither on the vine, while retaining it on the website for its semiotic value of creating the impression of a learned society. They have other pressing priorities, willfully ignoring the advice of Santayana and evading the foreboding view of Orwell. They want us to look forwards not back, because that is politically expedient to preserve the status quo for those enjoying power in a purported learned Society with diminishing credibility. Moreover, the BPS seems to be incapable for now of being a learningorganization. 

A learning organization requires honesty not bullshit, and candour about past failures (Sheaff and Pilgrim, 2006). It has to be ‘an organization with a memory’, not one of conveniently contrived amnesia and the crude escapism about imagined futures.  Without this honest reckoning about the past, the BPS will be in terminal decline as a credible body, claiming to represent British psychology in its disciplinary and professional forms.  

In 2000 many in the Division of Occupational Psychology  left the Society to form the Association of Business Psychologists (renamed ‘Psychology’ in 2003). In 2017 disaffected members in the Division of Clinical Psychology left to form the Association of Clinical Psychologists.  Both groups were tired of dealing with an arcane bureaucracy, with its self-interested leadership, which had lost its way and was insensitive to the needs of its members. That fractious fracturing may be the harbinger of a dark future for the Society, no matter what the illegitimate President and the returning CEO are saying in their Pollyanna piece in the New Year of 2022.  

Bateson, G. (1972) Steps To An Ecology of Mind San Francisco: Chandler.

Pilgrim, D. (2020) Critical Realism for Psychologists London: Routledge.

Sheaff, R. and Pilgrim, D. (2006) Can learning organisations survive in the newer NHS? Implementation Science 1, 27.

The Psychologist (2022) Joint statement to the BPS membership from the President-Elect Katherine Carpenter and the CEO, Sarb Bajwa. January 4-5.

The Psychologist (2017) Always cheerful and positive. Carole Allan’s appreciation for the British Psychological Society’s retiring Chief Executive. November, 30, 2.

The Psychologist (2006) Double top – Ray Miller in discussion with Tim Cornford: The Society’s new President in discussion with the Chief Executive. How do their roles work together, and where do they see the Society going? April, 19, 20-21.

Wilden, A. (1972) System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange London: Tavistock.