Downing Street Blues: A History of Depression and Other Mental Afflictions in British Prime Ministers
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Cameron and the Conservatives
A river navigator's control purports to extend over the entire watershed of the river. When the figures are totted it up it is quite clear that a significant proportion of Prime Ministers suffered from social anxiety -- which doesn't quite fit the stereotype of a successful politician or those opting for the rough house of democratic politics. Fourteen of the Prime Ministers suffered from some form of anxiety 28 per cent which is predictable but in eleven of the fourteen it takes the form of social anxiety, double that found in the general population.
Davidson surmises that there are three possible explanations for this. Firstly a well-developed sense of empathy which people with SAD often have which in turn could lead to wanting to bring about social reform through a career in politics or secondly, a strong desire to overcompensate for perceived shyness and thirdly in a cocktail of other attributes, social anxiety could manifest as a type of narcissistic personality where even the 'vulnerable-sensitive' type is prone to tendencies to cruelty, bossiness, intolerance, opportunism, arrogance and a demanding manner.
Given the tendency for all political careers to end in failure -- an observation made by the gifted but divisive twentieth century British politician, Enoch Powell -- and what appears to be a repeating scenario, Prime Ministers becoming more and more beleaguered as their administrations start to unravel, forming kitchen cabinets and seeing conspiracies all around, it is remarkable that paranoia is not more in evidence but Davidson cites only one instance, that of Harold Wilson.
But then there could be a set of psychological disorders peculiar to democratically elected leaders and another set reserved for authoritarian rulers. When Harold MacMillan was once asked what the key was to being a politician, he said, 'Events, dear boy, events! According to Davidson, Britain's disastrous foreign policy and diplomatic performance between the Wars were badly hamstrung by the mental condition of Baldwin, MacDonald and Asquith. Whereas, in the circumstances of war, what might otherwise have been an awkward debilitating cluster of symptoms, proved triumphantly enabling, for instance, for Winston Churchill.
Unfortunately, his alcoholism in all probability led to the subsequent onset of dementia and the abrupt demise of his second term in office. The 'black dog' depression was a major factor in Churchill's make-up and this time Davidson cites an observation of Storr about the circumstances Churchill found himself in, 'If all depressives could be engaged in fighting wicked enemies, they would never suffer from depression.
But in day-to-day existence, antagonists are not wicked enough, and depressives suffer form pangs of conscience about their own hostility. Moreover, Davidson positions Churchill on the 'bipolar spectrum' along with five other prime ministerial candidates, who all seemed to thrive in the conditions of national emergency and the call for strong leadership. Thus Davidson does not inevitably regard psychological difficulties in a negative light or as a personal deficiency, especially if they lead to a more realistic assessment of life's complexities.
He says that just as mental illness has its own neurobiology, so has wisdom and he cites Gladstone as embodying this very quality. He says that while it would be an obvious error to imply that wisdom and mental illness cannot co-exist, a wise leader, prone to mental disorder and aware of it is more likely to manage his or her episodes of illness with better judgment. To climb the greasy pole of the British system no doubt requires some remarkable gifts but ,as this book shows, these leaders were not supermen but subject to the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, and, frequently, faced with situations of extraordinary moment buckled under the pressure.