The key to any story is the motivation of the characters. However, something that happened recently in Britain reminded me that people are not rational and may have quite unreal, self defeating and contradictory motivations.

The Home Secratary, under the prodding of our Prime Minister, Bonkers Brown, just fired the Chairman of the Government Scientific Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. His crime was to publish a scientific paper giving the degree of harm of various recreational drugs.

The list in order of harm based on actual evidence is: Heroin, Cocaine, Barbiturates, Methadone, ALCOHOL, Ketamine, Benzadrine, Amphetimine, TOBACCO, Buprenophrine, Cannabis, Solvents, 4-MTA, Methylphenadate, Anabolicsteroids, GBH, Ecstasy (and similar), Alky Nitrates & Kat.

Based on this, Professor Nutt advised that Cannabis and Ecstasy should be downgraded for legal purposes. That is the purpose of his Committee, to give the Government scientific advise – which they gave for free unpaid. Ecstasy is classed as a Grade A illegal drug with Heroin and Cocaine, and Cannabis a Class B. Alcohol, meanwhie, is being heavily pushed by the Government who have scrapped most of our alcohol control laws and allowed 24 hour drinking, massive sales of cheap booze in supermarkets etc. Alcopops, aimed at young people, is cheaper than mineral water to buy. Of course, the Government makes a great deal of money out of taxing nicotine and alcohol.

Professor Nutt, incidentally has a medical degree from Cambridge and has just been poached by Imperial friom Bristol to be Director of their Neuropsychopharmacology Department where he will be developing Positron Emission Topography scanner techniques to track drug effects on the brain.

But Bonkers has decreed that Cannabis is lethal so what does Professor Nutt know? What finally enraged Bonkers was Nutt pointing out that ten times as many people die from recreational horse riding as recreational ecstasy.

Nutt reports the following conversation with his political masters:

MP: ‘You can’t compare harms from a legal activity
with an illegal one.’
Professor Nutt: ‘Why not?’
MP: ‘Because one’s illegal.’
Professor Nutt: ‘Why is it illegal?’
MP: ‘Because it’s harmful.’
Professor Nutt: ‘Don’t we need to compare harms to
determine if it should be illegal?’
MP: ‘You can’t compare harms from a legal activity
with an illegal one.’
repeats …

I have also given evidence to politicians and can confirm their inability to think rationally.

So put yourself in Gordon Brown’ motivational position. What motivations would you give such a character. He schemed and plotted to take the PMship from Blair and now he has it the resuls have been a disaster but he has pleaded with his party not to sack him. What do think his motivation might be? I know we call him Bonkers but he is not actually mad, in the clinical sense.

Power: he is near powerless.
Status: he is a national joke.
Respect: see earlier comment.
Ambition to achieve a goal: he has shown no sign of having any ideas.

How would you bring Brown to life as a protagonist for a reader? What would you make his motivations and how would he rationalise his desire to cling to office until next year’s electoral disaster? How would you make the irrational seem rational?


The photo is taken at Greenwich (promounced gren-itch) with the financial centre of London, the largest in the world, across the Thames in the distance. Greenwich is the old Royal Observatory and I am standing on the zero line.


  1. >Wonderful picture, John.In regards to providing motivation for Brown I would probably start with a status title being his main goal. He wouldn't care that he's the laughing stock of the country. He is The Man, and he has the title to prove it. Loosing that title would be a major blow to his self-image so pleading to not be sacked is fully justifiable because the title is the only important thing. How does one write that to be believable? It would be a major challenge. This reminds me of that saying about the difference between truth and fiction mainly being that fiction must make sense.

  2. >I've always pronounced Greenwich Green-Witch. (Comes from how I learn words, and my odd notions of how to say them. Highlights include that I used to say rendezvous Ren-Der-Vez-Er-Us.)I hadn't realized or had forgotten about the Labour-Alcohol connection in my reply on the Bar.As for Brown's motivations, clinging to the fiction that Labour made good choices makes it more possible for Labour to get back into power. Down the road, if Labour doesn't die, it should end up in power again. Refusing to admit defeat or error makes it easier to rehabilitate Brown and Labour, making the job of hypothetical future Labour leaders easier. If Brown is still alive then, they can pay him back in various ways for this.Even supposing his perceptions matches yours, Brown folding publicly and asking what was wrong with people for putting him in power might disillusion his adherents and Labour's followers. If they go over to BNP or the Tories, this might cause a shift in public opinion that would kill Labour.One point: An illegal activity, if the legal system has any effect, is done less than if it were legal. Presumably, making, say, murder or rape illegal decreases the occurance of such. Comparing statistics between legal and illegal acts can thus be fallacious. The MP's argument does not appear to be along this line of thought, but I am not sure such would have been retained all the way to here if Nutt just didn't notice it.I really do not know near enough about UK agriculture to say for sure, but if horses are not key to any vital industries, a motivated enough UK government could completely eliminate all horse racing deaths by killing or exporting all of the horses. The question is, what if horse racing were only banned with the same degree of motivation used against ecstasy?

  3. >Leaving aside the rather large chunk of political material, why would someone maintain a belief in the face of huge amounts of evidence to the contrary? All the evidence from various levels of psychology and psychiatry is that when someone is strongly invested in a particular belief, be it "the world is flat", "the moon is made of blue cheese", or whatever, to the extent that this belief has become part of their being, they respond to facts that contradict that belief as personal attacks, and attempt to punish the attacker. If you've been told all your life that twiddling your thumbs is evil and will make you go blind, and someone you trust tells you that all the research suggests thumb twiddling is a beneficial activity, you're going to react angrily. Thumb-twiddling is evil: you know this. The knowledge that thumb-twiddling is evil and harmful is part of you and can't be changed without changing you.If, by some chance, you find yourself in a position of power, you will try to ban thumb-twiddling. And to protect people from the evils of thumb-twiddling, you'll do whatever you have to in order to stay in power.Oh, and Greenwich? Jeez, John, give us one of the difficult English pronunciations next time! 😉

  4. >My dead father used to say that "objectivity is also a form of subjectivity". That was probably at the root of his fairly miserable life. He couldn't admit mistakes to correct them.However, politicians live in that world. They eat, drink, and think in terms of managing public perception. Because you have to be convinced to be convincing, they become more effective when they believe their own propaganda. Brown is sure he's doing the right thing, and nothing will make him budge. Politicians don't usually care about science, except as a source of legitimacy for their policies. They don't want science, they want a state religion that a modern population would accept.BTW, Paul Graham agrees with Kate.

  5. >Dear ChrisI think you are on the right track. Brown is an immensely complex character. He wants to be number one and manages to twist reality to fit.John

  6. >Dear WangInteresting point. He thinks he is helping Labour down the line. In reality, the longer he stays as PM the lower the Labour vote in May's election and the longer it will take them to regain power.John

  7. >Dear OriOne of the things that has distinguished New Labour is their obsession with spin and news management. Politicians actually seem to believe that people draw their political views from the press. In my experience, the reverse is more likely. Media reflects its reader's opinions.Spin has destroyed New Labour's credibility. All the signs are that the Conservatives are poised to go down the same road. Their l;eader is an ex PR man.John

  8. >Dear John,It seems that the latest generation of politicians, on both sides of the aisle and of the pond, believe they are considerably smarter than the voters. As such, they should be able to build whatever public opinion they want as long as nobody pulls a Professor Nutt and argues with them in public.They forget that the hayday of totalitarianism was over fifty years ago, and that our ability to propagate information outside their control has gotten considerably better. Then again, I don't think politics attracts particularly smart people.

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