An unhealthy obsession with health

The fuss over William Hague's illness recalls Communism's insistence on feats of longevity
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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM HAGUE'S enemies are exulting: he is sick, which means that he is a wimp, which means that he should not lead the Conservative Party. "It looks as if we've got a Gaitskell on our hands," muttered one.

The comparison with the gifted but physically frail Labour leader who contracted a mysterious viral infection and died in 1963, a year before the General Election, is maliciously excessive after the Tory leader's week off with sinusitis. But politics is an atavistic business and a fearful one. Its modernity is skin deep. The slightest sign of mortality among leaders causes outbreaks of sympathetic nervousness among their colleagues.

The solicitousness shown to political invalids is no compensation for the seeping of authority.

"They treat me like a piece of ancient porcelain," complained Gaitskell when his first symptoms started to show.

Anthony Eden's nervous exhaustion was concealed from the public, even though the increasingly desperate letters to Churchill betray his desire to stop fighting: "I have heavy news about my health ... they [the doctors] say firmly that I am endangering my life by going on."

Poor Mr Hague must feel even more wretched than is usual after a painful operation. Having inherited a weakened party, he knows that he cannot afford to display weakness himself. As Susan Sontag observed, there is a "kingdom of the sick", at odds with the culture of vital appearances on which politics depends. In purely political terms, the arrival of Mr Hague's mother at her son's bedside to enable Ffion to return to work was thoroughly understandable. But it does not help a man of whom John Redwood reputedly remarked, on his first encounter: "I've just met a very old baby."

Politicians are tribal leaders and as such are supposed to reflect the collective well-being of their cause. Mao-Tse Tung understood this when he swam the Yangtse river in old age after a period of isolation to prove that his strength was undiminished. Ronald Reagan's political instinct for self-preservation was so strong that he insisted in attempting to walk away unaided after being shot close to the heart.

The West is producing a cult of young, vital leaders - Blair, Clinton, Gerard Schroder - who are conspicuously active.

Mr Blair's adept heady-ups with Kevin Keegan contrasted with John Major's sedentary appreciation of cricket. Mr Clinton relishes the thought of another elderly Republican challenger. Herr Schroder is often photographed cycling - a feat that would be unthinkable for the ponderous Chancellor Kohl.

The end of Communism has seen the passing of the gerontocracies of Eastern Europe and of their own peculiar rules of engagement. General Secretaries were tested not on whether they were compos mentis - Brezhnev's doctors warned the Politburo long before his death that he was senile - but on their longevity. The dynamic ruthlessness of modern capitalism would consider this a poor test of efficiency. But, in regimes that were both vain and insecure, the very ability to carry on at all was significant.

Two years before his violent death, I watched (with rather a lot of coffee breaks) the late Nicolae Ceaucescu deliver one of his three-hour speeches of pseudo-scientific gobbledegook and asked an irreverent Romanian how this charade would be received. "If he'd spoken for an hour, it would have meant he was dying. Two hours, and he's succumbing to his internal enemies. Three hours means he he's in control."

Boris Yeltsin is the last representative of this school of stubborn survival. The wonder - after a triple bypass and a drink problem - is not that he governs well, but that he governs at all. The longer he resists the rumours of his imminent demise, the less likely it seems that he will succumb, and the stronger his internal position.

One former adviser to Mr Yeltsin has grown so tired of answering the question, "What will happen when he dies?" that he now answers, "Yeltsin won't die."

Physical illness cannot be disguised by spin medics. Mental illness can, which should worry us a lot more. Roy Porter's fascinating radio series Case Notes provides a sobering account of how far the protectors of the powerful will go to conceal the human weakness of those who govern us.

In the case of Ronald Reagan, Porter says, there were ample signs of the first stages of the onset of Altzheimer's while he was still in power, noticeably so during the Iran-Contra hearings. But his spectacular incoherence and muddled repetitions were ascribed to evasiveness. This condition is entirely normal among politicians.