Why Miliband wants to mess with our minds

Bereft of political vision and with no ideas for how to remake Britain, the Labour leader wants to boost our mental health instead.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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So, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s first post-party conference speech is to focus on the ‘biggest unaddressed… challenge of our age’. He is to confront ‘part of a taboo running across our society which infects both our culture and our politics… a taboo which must be broken if we are to rebuild Britain’. It sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Indeed, it sounds like Miliband has really grasped the nettle this time, proving once and for all that what he lacks in charisma, charm and elocution, he more than makes up for with sheer political vision.

Or at least, it might sound like that until you realise what Miliband believes is the ‘biggest unaddressed challenge of our age’. Here’s a clue: it’s got nothing to do with transforming, let alone improving, the material conditions of our lives. Miliband’s political focus is not external stuff; it is entirely internal. He believes the biggest unaddressed challenge of our age is… the increasing prevalence of mental illness. Labour might not have any ambition to change the world, but it seems very keen on changing our minds.

As dispiriting a snapshot of Labour’s politics as Miliband’s speech is, the obsession with citizens’ interior lives is not limited to the Opposition benches. Rather, it has been a signal feature of successive British governments since at least the late 1990s. Under Labour prime minister Tony Blair, for instance, the assertion that ‘as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier’ – to quote Blair’s happiness tsar Richard Layard – quickly became something akin to accepted wisdom among the political class. Material affluence, raising living standards, increasing people’s incomes – such aspirations seemed old hat to the new breed of happiness- or wellbeing-obsessed politicians. The goal of public policy was now to make us happy – which really is as sinister as it sounds.

Yet when the financial crisis finally exploded in the autumn of 2008, the party-political shift in focus from material to mental states seemed almost cynically sensible. If one’s happiness bears little relation to the economy, then politicians might even be able to spin economic stagnation as an opportunity for people to reassess their priorities. In other words, if consumption is also a form of pollution, as Layard described it in the early 2000s, then the inability to consume as one had once been able to in more credit-friendly times represents a chance to clean up citizens’ habits. Little wonder, then, that in 2010, continuing where Blair and his gloomy successor Gordon Brown had left off, newly anointed prime minister David Cameron launched the national happiness index – an attempt to ‘measure’ the nation’s wellbeing.

So the rendering of our interior lives as a suitable object for policymaking is not a Miliband innovation. In fact, desperate Ed’s demand that a variety of mental health therapies be available on the National Health Service seems remarkably similar to an idea mooted at various intervals over the past six years by none other than Professor of Happiness himself, Richard Layard. Indeed, in How Mental Health Loses Out in the NHS, a heavily press-released report published in June, Layard was in typical New Agey form: ‘A person is deprived not only if he lacks income but if he lacks the other means to enjoy his life. And the biggest single source of deprivation is lack of mental health.’ Hence the call for the government to spend billions on mental health therapies.

It is not hard to see why the leader of a party as intellectually bankrupt as Labour would cling to the latest variation of the happiness agenda: unable to come up with something approaching a plan to clamber out of the current trough of economic despond, it is easier to fiddle around with our supposed spiritual impoverishment instead. Not that it is an entirely cynical move on Miliband’s part; the element of sincerity makes it worse than that. So profoundly uncomfortable is today’s political elite with the idea of economic growth, which is now viewed as damaging to the planet and to our fragile mental lives, that trumpeting the importance of mental health in the twenty-first century probably does appear to Miliband as a decent moral position.

But just how much of a problem is mental illness? According to Miliband, one in four people will be affected by it. According to Layard, who called it the great ‘hidden’ problem, one in three families will have someone suffering from it. But because mental illness is a taboo, ‘[sufferers are] often ashamed about it’, so ‘they don’t talk about it’. Which raises the question: if the problem is hidden, if it is supposedly suppressed by taboo, how on earth do Miliband or Layard know that mental illness is widespread? An absence of a problem is somehow turned into evidence of its hidden existence.

That Miliband feels comfortable making the one-in-four assertion doesn’t just rest on this strange if-you-can’t-see-it, it-exists logic. Rather, it rests on the sense that mental illness does appear to be a growing problem. More and more people are diagnosed with some form of psychiatric ailment. More and more people do sign off work citing some form of depression.

But what is not often explained is why there are more and more diagnoses of mental illness today than at any point in human history. The reason, quite simply, is that an ever-increasing range of human behaviour and emotions is being medicalised, indeed diseased. As we’ve argued before on spiked, underpinning the increasing diagnosis of mental illness is the massive expansion of the categories of mental illness. The changes undergone by the so-called bible of the psychiatric profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), illustrate this trend. When it was first published in 1952, the manual contained a then unprecedented 60 diagnostic categories for mental illness. By 1994, the fourth (and current edition) recognised a total of 384 mental ailments (plus 28 ‘floating diagnoses’). And if the preliminary revisions are any indication, the fifth edition, due in 2013, looks set to supply psychiatric practitioners with yet more labels for disorders and illnesses we didn’t even know we had.

It is not, then, that we as a society are more mentally ill than ever before. It is that our everyday, mundane behaviour is increasingly being classified in diagnostic terms. Shyness becomes ‘avoidant personality disorder’; anger becomes ‘intermittent explosive disorder’. In 2009, then UK health secretary Alan Johnson was even prepared to turn feelings of anger or frustration prompted by recession-induced unemployment into a mental-health issue, as he promised to roll out mental-health services to help people ‘affected psychologically by the recession’. We are in the process of being turned from citizens into potential patients, with the state on hand to offer a great big group hug.

What is genuinely depressing about all this is that Ed Miliband is meant to be the leader of the Opposition to the Lib-Con coalition. His party is meant to provide an alternative vision of society. Instead, it seems content merely to propose a form of alternative therapy.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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