A ‘toffee-nosed twit’ with wacky views
Why has an anti-logic ‘stir-fry psychobabbler’ off the TV been invited into the upper echelons of Whitehall?
With every new government, it seems, a new generation of celebrity mumbo-jumbo psychobabblers also passes through the doors of 10 Downing Street.
The Blairs’ highest profile adviser was Carole Caplin, the crystal healer and advocate of exotic oils and celery-leaf teabags who once convinced Tony and Cherie to take part in a Mayan rebirthing ceremony. Gordon Brown had comedian Ruby Wax, who – after taking a course in psychotherapy and neuroscience – was invited to train Home Office officials to be ‘more aware of their colleagues, clients and partners and how to present a more human face using humour, empathy and honesty’.
Now, the appointment of C-list TV presenter Kris Murrin, dubbed the ‘stir-fry psychobabbler’ by delighted tabloids, shows that the Lib-Con coalition wants to continue the trend of inviting eccentric advisers into the corridors of power. In fact, Murrin is more than an adviser – she has been appointed to the higher echelons of the Civil Service as head of prime minister David Cameron’s ‘implementation unit’, on a salary rumoured to be close to £150,000. Her appointment has reportedly left some at Whitehall ‘bewildered’. That is hardly surprising: an overview of her career so far suggests she is a rather bewildering individual.
Murrin, who studied social and political sciences at Cambridge University, has become an apparent expert in a wide range of things from behaviour and psychology to sustainable transport, parenting and children’s issues. This remarkable 42-year-old has clearly obtained immense expertise in a wide variety of areas – even if what expertise actually means for some of these areas is unclear.
One thing that is clear, however, is Murrin’s low view of ordinary people, which was evident in her various preachy TV documentary series. In these programmes, Murrin’s expert status provides her with a licence to sneer, point at and preach to a wide range of the populace about their laziness and general ignorance.
In Honey We’re Killing the Kids, Murrin used the latest computer-modelling techniques to artificially age children; it was intended as shock treatment to ram home to the parents the fact that if they don’t rear their kids the Murrin way then they will end up as baggy-eyed, bloated, balding slobs by the age of 40. Having turned the parents into tearful, guilt-ridden wrecks, Murrin could then be sure that they would acquiesce to her child-rearing techniques. Check out her quite creepy technique on YouTube. It’s no surprise that Murrin also played a leading role in working with the New Labour government to implement the equally patronising Jamie Oliver’s school dinner proposals, for which she was appointed to the board of the UK Schools Food Trust.
When she’s not wagging her finger and whining at working-class parents, Murrin can be found standing on the sides of motorways lecturing drivers. ‘We have a fantastic transport system’, she said to a driver in her 2008 Channel 4 series The Woman Who Stops Traffic. And what is that fantastic transport system? ‘A pair of legs.’ That four-part series showed Murrin stomp across the country on a one-woman crusade to wean Britons off their apparently mindless addiction to cars by pointing out the damage that their four-wheel dependency is doing to the environment and to children. Inevitably, ‘it’s about kids not dying of asthma and obesity’, she declared.
The negative reaction of the public was a welcome riposte to Murrin’s hectoring. In one episode, a man from Boston, Lincolnshire shouted at her angrily: ‘I’ve worked all my bloody life for what I’ve got there. I’m not going to let some toffee-nosed twit tell me what I can do and what I can’t do.’ The only things lower than Murrin’s opinions of the British public were the ratings for her anti-car TV show.
To my mind, Murrin comes across as a patronising misanthrope. Five years ago, even moralising liberal campaigners such as Lauren Booth were left open-mouthed (with awe, it should be noted) at how effectively Murrin was lecturing the British public. As Booth put it in the New Statesman: ‘I know I should dislike Kris Murrin for being so condescending, but the real problem I have with her show [on children’s eating habits] is that I want to be her. She says what we long to say to mums shovelling burgers into toddlers in the high street: “Do you want them to die? That is disgusting!”’
Murrin is also a management guru – a trade once described by The Economist editor John Micklethwait as being akin to ‘witch doctoring’. Workplaces, she believes, are repressing creativity through being straitjacketed by excessive rational and logical thought. This is the central idea behind Sticky Wisdom: How to Start a Creative Revolution at Work, a book Murrin co-authored with fellow ‘innovators’ at the ?What if! Innovation Company she helped to establish. (As the FT’s Lucy Kellaway notes: ‘Anything with a title that starts with a question mark is bollocks.’) Murrin says it was Socrates who initiated a ‘tradition of logic and argument’ which we are now indoctrinated in ‘from the moment we go to school’. And apparently this logical rigour serves to suffocate the sparks of creativity that Murrin so cherishes, where ‘there is no right or wrong answer, there are only, and always, alternatives!’.
One way to overcome the straitjacket of rational thinking in the workplace, argue Murrin et al, is to start ‘river jumping’, in order to stimulate ‘fresh thinking’ and build up our ‘freshness store-cupboard’. The brain is ‘hardwired to make creativity difficult’ and therefore various stimuli are needed to ‘trick it out of its non-creative channel’. Or to quote Murrin et al’s Star Trek analogy: ‘Work is a place where Spock behaviour is approved of and Kirk behaviour often suppressed.’ It’s the space-cadet school of management theory.
The ‘stir-fry psychobabbler’ moniker, given to Murrin by some of the tabloids, is a reference to one exercise in her book, in which Murrin & Co made a ‘wok’ out of beanbags and chairs and asked food-industry participants to act out being ‘a stir fry’ for two minutes. Not surprisingly, the food-industry workers were a bit uncomfortable at first, especially when they were given specific roles: ‘beansprouts’, ‘oil’. The book also asked hairdressers to ‘physically act out the whole haircare process from beginning to end as a piece of hair’ as part of what is labelled a ‘re-expression exercise’ aimed at getting people ‘out of their comfort/analytical zones to consider the feeling and emotions of the washing process’.
It’s no wonder that not everyone in Whitehall has welcomed the appointment of Murrin: back in 2008, reported the Daily Mail, she was already waiting in the wings with a hatful of ideas on how to identify those potential ministers with psychological flaws who would be unable to run a departmental budget. At the time, these stories were rejected as simply being the proposals of a ‘freelance consultant’. Now that she has taken up office, it remains to be seen what treats she has in store for civil servants and MPs alike.
It is alarming, of course, that senior figures in business and government are prepared to go along with Murrin’s nonsense. But also, there is some logic (sorry Murrin) in her being invited to take up a position of power. After all, she’s disdainful of ordinary parents, doesn’t like cars and thinks people should be content at work so long as they have beanbags and self-esteem – views that the Lib-Con government no doubt shares.
Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.
Previously on spiked
After some MPs complained that Gordon Brown was a bully, Brendan O’Neill asked what those wimps were doing in Downing Street. Frank Furedi took a look at seven deadly personality disorders and expressed his anger at state-sponsored happiness classes. Ken McLaughlin dissected a university guide to work stress. Or read more at spiked issue Therapy culture.