How would Britain react to a government of technocrats?

Greece had months of steadily tougher austerity measures. Italy had Berlusconi and a torrid spell in the headlights of the financial markets. Both were facing intense pressures from the EU to take radical measures that would help stabilise the Euro.

Being outside the currency zone, Britain isn’t in the same boat yet. But it’s not hard to imagine a situation where circumstances or bad policies could lead the UK into unsustainable borrowing costs, and the coalition proves not able to take the radical steps that markets demand.

Were this to happen, a government of unelected technocrats could be a realistic proposition. It wouldn’t take much constitutional fiddling to create a new government of all the (hastily ennobled) talents.

Setting aside the likelihood of the British economy reaching that state, what can polling tell us about how the country would react?

We can get some sense of what the initial reaction might be from questions about trust in different professions. Of course politicians fare horribly compared to others:

That said, while politicians are at the bottom of the list, business leaders and civil servants don’t do particularly well either. If the technocrats were seen to be drawn from their ranks, rather than being more like academics and scientists, we shouldn’t expect them to be embraced as the nation’s saviours.

But the problem with polling on this issue is that it can’t pick up one of the major risks for a non-political government.

The point of having a technocratic government is to take the politics out of important decisions. Perversely that could turn out to restrict the support for a new government.

A 2006 study by Drew Weston and others looked at the impact of partisan loyalty on people’s responses to public policies. They showed that strong partisan supporters evaluated questions about ‘their’ politician’s actions differently from how they reasoned about other questions of policy.

The partisans’ process of evaluating the actions of their favoured politician involved a different part of the brain from the part they used for dispassionate reasoning tasks. The result was that the partisans were more likely to ignore critical evidence about their politician, and to focus on weaknesses in opposing candidates’ actions.

All of this raises interesting questions about how much support a government that isn’t party political could have. A problem for any government taking controversial steps is that it faces opposition supporters who often won’t give its policies a fair hearing. But a source of strength is that it has its own partisans, who will stick with it through policies that they otherwise wouldn’t support.

Would this support translate to a technocratic government? Maybe those who strongly supported the arrival of the experts would experience a similar confirmation bias. But it may be that its support base would turn out to be less emotionally driven, and ultimately more fragile than the support that partisan politics can generate.

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