LM Archives
  2:06 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

In Blair's post-Diana New Britain, the experts want to psychoanalyse society and propose psychotherapeutic solutions to social problems. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick prescribes a complete rest from this 'delirium of desire'


The breach in the border between the public and the private revealed in the national mourning for Princess Diana is closely linked to the trend for reassessing all social relationships in emotional and psychological terms. The outcome is a new moralising project that seeks to regulate our behaviour by intervening at the level of our most intimate feelings.

Tony Blair's 'caring, sharing, giving' speech at the Labour Party conference sought to capitalise on his success in capturing the national mood after the death of Diana. Though the emotional pitch of British society reached a new intensity over the royal funeral, the trend towards public displays of private feeling had already become familiar in response to earlier events such as the shootings at Dunblane. Indeed New Labour had long anticipated the expanding scope of psychology in political life.

In March 1995 key New Labour figures such as Mo Mowlam (now Northern Ireland secretary) and Patricia Hewitt (now head of Blair's Downing Street policy unit) met with leading psychotherapists and academics at a conference at the Tavistock Clinic, Britain's most prestigious psychoanalytic institution. The contributors self-consciously counterposed the values of 'attachment' and 'identity rooted in belonging' to the notorious Thatcherite dictum that 'there is no such thing as society' (see E S Kraemer and J Roberts, The Politics of Attachment: Towards a Secure Society, 1996).

Since New Labour's election victory, psychoanalysing society and proposing psychotherapeutic solutions to social problems has become increasingly popular. In his latest book Britain on the Couch, clinical psychologist Oliver James acclaims Blair's success as a 'cause for hope'. Displaying sometimes awesome crassness, James brings together the thoughts of evolutionary psychologists, studies of animal behaviour and researches in psychopharmacology with anecdotes from his own clinical practice and extensive speculations on the psychopathology of the royal family, based on tabloid biographies.

James quotes surveys revealing that a 'large proportion' of the population is 'dispirited, disappointed and angry' (p307). He reckons that around one third of British adults could be diagnosed as having some form of 'psychiatric morbidity'. Adding those manifesting tendencies towards 'violence and impulsive aggression' brings the proportion of those deemed in need of intervention 'to around one half - perhaps 20 million people' (pp308-9).

James' solution (admittedly 'short-term') to this problem? Put them on Prozac, the popular anti-depressant drug. He reports how, shortly before the election, he put his modest proposal to Jack Straw, now home secretary. Straw was apparently 'mildly amused at such a mechanistic formulation', though this did not discourage James from his conviction that 'this is a useful way of thinking about the problems he faces in his job' (p307). Straw's response suggests that his objection was to the impracticability of the proposal rather than on any grounds of principle. Indeed there are numerous examples of the advance of the trend towards the psychologising of society.

Take the recent spat between Betty Boothroyd, speaker of the House of Commons and some of the New Labour women MPs, who accused her of being too tough in requiring the new members to follow procedure and of failing to support her sisters against the barracking of the Tory backwoodsmen. While Boothroyd's unsympathetic response simply confirmed the gulf between New Labour and the old order, there can be little doubt that the trend away from 'adversarial', confrontational politics towards a 'feminised', consensual approach is in the ascendant. In Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, one of the most 'touchy-feely' of the Labour cabinet, presides over a process of negotiation that has successfully redefined this long-running conflict in terms of rival problems of emotional insecurity, requiring collective psychic reconciliation rather than a political solution.

At home the government's solution to problems of marital strife, difficulties in child-rearing, or unemployment among single mothers is professional counselling, increasingly enforced by state agencies rather than being merely offered as an option. Meanwhile the professionals are moving on to colonise new areas of national life. One of the key events on the fringe of the Labour conference was the launch of Antidote, a campaign by a group of 'psychotherapists and other members of the caring professions' for the wider promotion of 'emotional literacy'.

Appropriate behaviour

The new psychopolitics offers the framework for a code of behaviour to replace the outmoded moral systems of the past. As private emotions come to the fore, they are accorded public values, positively or negatively, and people are judged according to the worthiness or otherwise of the feelings they display. This process was clearly revealed around the funeral of Diana: Blair's trembling chin, Charles Spencer's vengefulness - good; Prince Charles' stiff upper lip, the Queen's restraint - bad. In general, the new code elevates the values of intimacy and authenticity, it favours increasing self-esteem rather than self-control, the quest for individual happiness rather than individual achievement.

Today people are judged according to their attitudes as much as their actions. Look, for example, at the new curriculum for medical education recommended by the General Medical Council (Tomorrow's Doctors, GMC, 1993). Whereas in the past, medical students had to satisfy their examiners that they had a grasp of basic medical science and its clinical applications, they are now obliged to demonstrate competence in three areas of apparently equal weight - knowledge, skills and...attitudes. The GMC guidelines detail a dozen 'attitudinal objectives' that must be attained, 'both in relation to the provision of care to individuals and populations and to his or her own personal development'.

One 'attitude' now deemed essential to the practice of medicine is an 'awareness of personal limitations, a willingness to seek help when necessary and the ability to work effectively as a member of a team'. Though the heroic medical pioneers of the past were clearly in denial of their inner frailties, they did manage to make significant advances in the understanding and treatment of disease. Taking the flawed and self-obsessed telly docs of ER and Casualty as their role models, tomorrow's doctors may not even make it through the ward round. Medical students will now have to display the correct attitudes as well as learning the facts; conformity is mandatory.

Another 'attitudinal objective' for medical students is that of 'respect', for 'patients and colleagues'. Indeed the concept of 'respect', like that of 'apology', enjoys the highest status in the new moral framework. One of the major events of the recent party conference season was Tony Banks' joke about William Hague's resemblance to a fetus. Though I thought this was very funny, all official commentators solemnly agreed that it was disrespectful; Banks only secured his ministerial job by making a cringing apology. 'Respect' for Diana demanded the reorganisation of television schedules; 'respect' for the victims of Myra Hindley's crimes of 30 years ago threatened an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Meanwhile, controversy raged over whether the Queen would apologise in India over the Amritsar massacre and whether Blair would apologise in Derry over Bloody Sunday.

These controversies reveal an acute sensitivity to slights, real, imagined or historical. They also suggest that such sensitivities are easily assuaged by the emptiest of gestures. In fact this exposes the inauthenticity of the public display of emotion. 'Respect' offered glibly to status rather than earned discreetly by achievement is hollow. 'Apology' without genuine contrition or reparation is like the Oprah Winfrey-style confessional, degrading to everybody involved. Though Banks' apology carried all the sincerity of Blair's reading at Diana's funeral, such is the devalued currency of feeling in Britain today that both were widely accepted as good coin.

Though the politics of the emotions has grown rapidly in influence in Britain under New Labour, it has been gathering momentum for some years, notably in the USA where it originated. Writing nearly 20 years ago, Christopher Lasch fiercely criticised what he dubbed 'the awareness movement' and its influence in diverse areas of American life (The Culture of Narcissism, 1979). He identified the source of the malaise in the national 'failure of nerve' following defeat in Vietnam and economic stagnation. He discerned a 'mood of pessimism in higher circles, which spreads through the rest of society as people lose their faith in leaders' (p17). The result of this loss of confidence was that 'economic man' had given way to 'psychological man', characterised as the 'new narcissist' who was 'haunted not by guilt but by anxiety' (p22). Lasch's analysis appears as a prescient take on recent developments
in Britain.

Escapist fantasies

Lasch incorporated much of Richard Sennett's critique of the political consequences of the new narcissism (The Fall of Public Man, 1977). Sennett recognised that the decline in class consciousness led to a tendency for people to blame themselves, rather than the structure of society, for their inferior social position. As a result, 'politics degenerates into a struggle not for social change, but for self-realisation' (Culture of Narcissism, p66). For Sennett, 'when the boundaries between the self and the rest of the world collapse, the pursuit of enlightened self-interest, which once informed every phase of political activity, becomes impossible'. Reducing politics to psychology, removing the boundary between the public and the private, meant in practice the end of politics.

Lasch summed up Sennett's conceptualisation of the difference between the old and the new: 'The political man of an earlier age knew how to take rather than desire...and judged politics, as he judged reality in general, to see "what's in it for him, rather than if it is him". The narcissist, on the other hand, "suspends ego interests" in a delirium of desire.' (p66) From Blair's refusal on taking office to draw his full prime ministerial salary to his Brighton sermon on the virtues of compassion, the repudiation of self-interest has been one of New Labour's cardinal principles. But if politics is divorced from self-interest, then any hope of using politics as an instrument of social change is abandoned.

For Blair, the political realm is a sphere into which he projects his undoubtedly virtuous personal and family life. But what about that section of society identified by Oliver James as suffering from disappointed aspirations and shattered attachments? For them the world of politics is dissolved into a private realm characterised, on the one hand, by abuse of self and hostility, if not overt violence, towards others, and on the other by escapist fantasies of the sort nurtured by Princess Diana.

The basic problem, as Lasch emphasises, is that 'the cult of intimacy originates not in the assertion of personality but in its collapse'. The characteristic feature of modern society is its loss of confidence in itself and the resulting crisis of individual subjectivity. The penetration of market forces into every area of personal and social life - a dynamic enthusiastically embraced by New Labour - both intensifies the conflictual character of public life and destabilises personal and family relationships.

'Our society', concludes Lasch, 'far from fostering private lives at the expense of public life, has made deep and lasting friendships, love affairs and marriages increasingly difficult to achieve' (p69). Hence the turn from the public to the private offers only illusory solutions to the problems of both the individual and society.

The subtitle of Lasch's book, 'American life in an age of diminishing expectations' receives a striking echo in James' endorsement of Blair's achievement in winning the election while going 'to great lengths to douse expectations about how much he could achieve' (p324). He strongly approves of New Labour's emphasis on obligation and personal responsibility and pursues the authoritarian logic of the new psychopolitics to alarming conclusions. To encourage people to be more realistic and to reduce their aspirations, he recommends the strict regulation of advertising (extending the principle of banning cigarette adverts) and the reduction in the proportion of US-made television and films ('hugely destructive to our well-being') to less than five per cent of the total. Satellite and cable networks which refuse to conform should be jammed and foreign ownership of newspapers should be banned. The delirium of desire threatens to culminate in the tyranny of New Labour's therapists.

Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk