Politics as therapy

You don't have to be mad to work for New Labour, but it helps.

Emily Hill

Topics Politics UK

In the last week or so, David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell have both confessed to suffering ‘clinical depression’ whilst in government. It’s personal testimonies like theirs, argued Comment is Free writer, Nick Johnstone, that ‘are the only means by which stubborn stereotypes [about mental health] can be re-written.’ But if writers, such as Johnstone, want to challenge the ‘stereotype’ that clinical depressives are ‘episodically violent’ ‘spineless, serial moaners’ who are incapable of functioning at high levels, then they’re going to need to come up with better examples than Messrs Blunkett and Campbell. (1)

For Blunkett and Campbell didn’t exactly ‘function’ very well whilst allegedly in the jaws of the black dog. Reading extracts from his newly published diaries, The Blunkett Tapes, the former home secretary recalls how he ‘was barely sleeping and yet I was being asked to sign government warrants in the middle of the night.’ The publication of the diaries has triggered a host of descriptions of Blunkett’s ‘hysterical’ behaviour. Whilst at the Home Office, it is alleged, Blunkett ordered the prison service to send in the army to ‘machine gun’ rioting inmates at Lincoln prison. If a prison riot led to internal debates at the Home Office on how to ‘handle David’ when David personally believed himself to be in full possession of his wits, one can only speculate on the sort of worries gripping Whitehall during the time that Blunkett believed himself to be going ‘mad’ at the Department for Work and Pensions.

But it is not clear just how ‘clinical’ their depression was whilst in government. Blunkett, even at his lowest ebb, never sought counselling or took anti-depressants. His ‘mental illness’ seems like little more than an exacerbated temper-tantrum in a career of sustained petulance. It started off with his snapping pencils and chucking them at Gordon Brown, and ended in his apparently leaking the news of his own affair with Kimberly Quinn to the News of the World to help him put pressure on her to admit the true paternity of her child (2). And although Alastair Campbell suffered a full blown mental breakdown in the 1980s whilst the news editor of a national Sunday newspaper, his depression in government seems to have amounted to having the ‘worst’ day at the time of Dr David Kelly’s suicide.

In government, supposedly recovered from his earlier breakdown, Campbell’s outbursts of temper and erratic attitude quickly became the stuff of legend. Former editor of the Today programme, Rod Liddle, was barraged with missives from Campbell. At first, Liddle recounts, he took them seriously: ‘this was, after all, the prime minister’s office talking and one was inclined to consider its imprecations carefully… But pretty soon these billets-doux became palpably absurd – and so I began to pin them to the wall next to the letters in green ink from listeners calling me a Zionist fascist Jew boy.’ When Campbell mistakenly sent Newsnight an email about the fielding of anti-semitic ‘pig’ posters before the 2005 election (’Posters done by tbwa according to polotical (sic) brief. Now f*** off and cover something important you t***s!’) he was widely thought to have ‘gone bonkers’.

But employing unhinged and irrational individuals who constantly threaten to veer into a political car crash is quintessentially New Labour. Under Blair, politics became pathologised. In the sustained drive to ‘connect’ with the emotions of the nation and to ‘feel’ the issues of our times, we all, to one extent or another, are seen to be in the grip of mental illness. In the void of meaning, we all need to look to our emotional intelligence for the answers. At the centre, therefore, manic behaviour in members of the cabinet is just acting out this collective political trauma. In the era of ‘personal’ politics, government is the ideal forum for working out your demons.

So it’s quite appropriate that Blair would think Campbell’s incontinent raving appropriate to ‘communication.’ And as chief therapist to the nation, too, it would seem entirely normal for him to invite Blunkett, a man just ejected from government for making a series of dubious choices, back into the cabinet for ‘therapeutic’ reasons: to help him ‘work through’ his problems. Blunkett repeatedly refers in his diaries to disputes over policy collapsing as he and Blair fall into each other’s arms for a nice little hug. As New Labour lost grip on reality, parachuting the unstable and irrational into positions of power must have seemed entirely appropriate.

But in wider terms, advertising Blunkett and Campbell as ‘good’ representatives of those efficiently coping with mental health problems or Blair as the ‘model’ employer for hiring them, is mad in itself. Presumably, it is meant to teach us the ‘lesson’ that even domineering control-freaks are poor wounded souls, really. But this does no service to the mental heath debate. People with genuine depression deserve sympathy and understanding: of course they do. But if mental health charities want to persuade the public that mental health is a serious issue, and not just the idle whingeing of a couple of self-absorbed stress-heads, they need to recruit better poster boys than Blunkett and Campbell.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Mental health

spiked-issue: British politics

(1) Spinning the Blues, Comment is Free, 10 October 2006

(2) Private Eye, 13 October 2006

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Topics Politics UK


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