Cherie and Tony bonding in a muddy Mayan ritual – it’s the ultimate example of how mumbo-jumbo has inundated Britain, writes Francis Wheen in this final extract from his fascinating new book
Everyone was at it. In Britain, allegedly the home of the stiff upper lip, the loopier manifestations of soul-baring may have been mocked but managerial mumbo-jumbo found an eager market. By 1995 the British government was spending well over £100m a year on management consultants, as branches of officialdom were forcibly transformed into “agencies”. What had once been straightforward public services, such as the health system or the BBC, acquired their own internal markets – which in turn created new blizzards of paperwork and extra layers of bureaucracy, all in the name of efficiency …
Tony Blair had never concealed his reverence for management gurus. In the summer of 1996 he dispatched 100 Labour frontbenchers to a weekend seminar at Templeton College, Oxford, where a posse of partners from Andersen Consulting lectured the wannabe ministers on “total quality service” and “the management of change”. (The veteran Labour politician Lord Healey, who also spoke at the event, was unimpressed: “These management consultants are just making money out of suckers.”) When Blair entered Downing Street, several executives from Andersen – and McKinsey, the other leading management consultancy – were seconded to Whitehall with a brief to practise “blue skies thinking”. Soon afterwards, in perhaps the most remarkable manifestation of New Labour’s guru-worship, they were joined by [lateral thinker] Dr Edward de Bono, whose task was “to develop bright ideas on schools and jobs”.
In the autumn of 1998 more than 200 officials from the Department of Education were treated to a lecture from De Bono on his “Six Thinking Hats system” of decision-making. The idea, he explained, was that civil servants should put on a red hat when they wanted to talk about hunches and instincts, a yellow hat if they were listing the advantages of a project, a black hat while playing devil’s advocate, and so on. “Without wishing to boast,” he added, “this is the first new way of thinking to be developed for 2,400 years since the days of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.” So far as can be discovered, the education department has yet to order those coloured hats, but no doubt it benefited from his other creative insights: “You can’t dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper”; “With a problem, you look for a solution”; “A bird is different from an aeroplane, although both fly through the air.”
Gurus are safe enough while peddling ancient cliches disguised as revolutionary new strategies. It is when they seek out instances of this wisdom in action that they come a cropper: the entrepreneur-as-hero often turns out to be merely human after all. In his 1985 book Tactics: The Art and Science of Success, De Bono offered the lessons that might be learned from a number of people who “would generally be regarded as ‘successful’.” After studying these inspiring examples, “The reader should say, ‘Why not me?”‘ The millionaires he extolled included Robert Maxwell, subsequently exposed as one of the most outrageous fraudsters in British history.
Even the no-nonsense Margaret Thatcher was a devotee of mystical “electric baths” and Ayurveda therapy. But she was a mere dabbler compared with more recent inhabitants of Downing Street. Cherie Blair found her devout Catholicism no impediment to flirtations with New Age spirituality – inviting a feng-shui expert to rearrange the furniture at No 10 and wearing a “magic pendant” known as the BioElectric Shield, which has “a matrix of specially cut quartz crystals” that surround the wearer with “a cocoon of energy” to ward off evil forces.
The catholicism – if not Catholicism – of her tastes was further demonstrated in 2002 by the revelation that she employed a former member of the Exegesis cult, Carole Caplin, as a “lifestyle guru”. Through Caplin, the prime minister’s wife was introduced to an 86-year-old “dowsing healer”, Jack Temple, who treated her swollen ankles by swinging a crystal pendulum over the affected area and feeding her strawberry leaves grown within the “electro-magnetic field” of a neolithic circle he had built in his back garden.
It was long assumed that Tony Blair, who wears his Christianity on his sleeve, did not share his wife’s unorthodox enthusiasms. But that was before he and Cherie had a “rebirthing experience” under the supervision of one Nancy Aguilar while holidaying on the Mexican Riviera in the summer of 2001. The Times’s detailed account of the prime ministerial mudbath is worth quoting at some length:
“Ms Aguilar told the Blairs to bow and pray to the four winds as Mayan prayers were read out … Within the Temazcal, a type of Ancient Mayan steam bath, herb-infused water was thrown over heated lava rocks, to create a cleansing sweat and balance the Blairs’ ‘energy flow’.
“Ms Aguilar chanted Mayan songs, told the Blairs to imagine that they could see animals in the steam and explained what such visions meant. They were told the Temazcal was like the womb and those participating in the ritual must confront their hopes and fears before ‘rebirth’ and venturing outside. The Blairs were offered watermelon and papaya, then told to smear what they did not eat over each other’s bodies along with mud from the Mayan jungle outside.
“The prime minister, on holiday just a month before the 11 September attacks, is understood to have made a wish for world peace. Before leaving, the Blairs were told to scream out loud to signify the pain of rebirth. They then walked hand in hand down the beach to swim in the sea.”
Although Mayan rebirthing rituals are not yet available in Britain through the National Health Service, some of Cherie Blair’s other peculiar obsessions have already been adopted as official policy. In January 1999 the government recruited a feng-shui consultant, Renuka Wickmaratne, for advice on how to improve inner-city council estates. “Red and orange flowers would reduce crime,” she concluded, “and introducing a water feature would reduce poverty. I was brought up with this ancient knowledge.”
Two years later, the government announced that, for the first time since the creation of the NHS, remedies such as acupuncture and Indian ayurvedic medicine could be granted the same status as conventional treatments. According to the Sunday Times, “The inclusion of Indian ayurvedic medicine, a preventative approach to healing using diet, yoga and meditation, is thought to have been influenced by Cherie Blair’s interest in alternative therapy.” An all too believable suggestion, since Cherie was a client of the ayurvedic guru Bharti Vyas and officiated at the opening ceremony for her holistic therapy centre in London.
The swelling popularity of quack potions and treatments in recent years is yet another manifestation of the retreat from reason and scientific method. According to a 1998 survey by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the use of homeopathic preparations in the United States more than doubled between 1990 and 1997. In Britain, by the end of the 20th century the country’s 36,000 general practitioners were outnumbered by the 50,000 purveyors of complementary and alternative medicine – some of whom receive the seal of royal approval.
The Queen carries homeopathic remedies with her at all times. Princess Diana was a devotee of reflexology, the belief that pressure applied to magical “zones” in the hands and feet can heal ailments elsewhere in the body. Prince Charles has been a prominent champion of “holistic” treatments since 1982.
Most alternative therapies, homeopathy included, are closer to mysticism than to medicine. This may explain their appeal to the British royal family, whose survival depends on another irrational faith – the magic of hereditary monarchy, so fiercely debunked by Tom Paine and other Enlightenment pamphleteers.
Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions is published by 4th Estate. Francis Wheen will be appearing at Foyles bookshop in London on Thursday March 11 at 6.30pm. For further details call 0870 420 2777.
» See also: Would you buy a way of life from a guru?