"Androgynous ... Narcissistic ... A man who could not face conflict or reality ..." These were the claims at a psychoanalysts' symposium, writes Clare Garner. Their subject? Tony Blair
Monday 02 December 1996
"You won't notice the difference with me if I am sitting down or standing up - physically I'm a midget," he quipped. But to Brett Kahr, senior lecturer in psychotherapy at Regent's College, who introduced the meeting, Abse was an intellectual giant. "Leo is one of the most important minds both in British politics and, I would wager to say, in psychoanalysis as well." Abse was the man who had "dared to suggest that what happened to politicians before they entered the House in their childhoods might have an effect on what they did in it".
The occasion was a British Institute for Psychohistory symposium entitled "A Psychoanalytical Perspective on Modern Politics" and a celebration of Mr Abse's forthcoming 80th birthday. Mr Kahr had hand-picked the audience, in the hope of a more academically thoughtful debate concerning the Blair psyche than the press's hostile reception to Mr Abse's book.
Mr Abse began by quoting Freud's warning against the misuse of psychoanalysis for character assassination. "But Freud broke his own admonition," Mr Abse pointed out, by his "iconoclastic attack on the American President Woodrow Wilson in a book published late in his life." Legitimated, he launched into his analysis.
Although his book devotes considerable space to the theory that Mr Blair is an androgynous, narcissistic pervert, on Friday Abse concentrated on two formative experiences. The first was the intergenerational effect of the shame and outsider status conferred on his father, Leo Blair, by his illegitimate status. This, said Mr Abse, had caused a lifelong aspiration to become part of the Establishment, culminating in his becoming the chairman of his local Conservative Party.
But then the second event occurred. When Tony Blair was 10, his father was paralysed by a stroke. We were asked to picture what it must have been like for the boy to have witnessed his previously "powerful and overbearing" father's eyes following him around the room, a man now powerless. "Thus, when Blair entered adolescence with the inevitable reworking of the Oedipal battle [Freud's theory that the son competes with the father for the mother], his guilt and fear of his aggression was greatly exacerbated by the fact that his father was physically ruined."
The net effect of these experiences, Mr Abse argued, was to make Blair a man who could not face conflict or reality. "As this informed group will certainly know, this desperate attempt to banish aggression - which finds its expression in more and more politically conciliatory statements - will fail. Aggression, of course, cannot be outlawed. Aggression, like sex, will out."
Valerie Sinasan, a consultant child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, was depressed by the book. "It somehow summed up for me psychologically what is happening in this country," she said. "Are we not, as a nation, too depressed and envious to elect a leader that we deserve?" Mr Abse apologised for "spreading his depression". Citing Daddy Freud's famous rallying cry, "Coraggio", he endeavoured to lift Miss Sinason's spirits. Do not be despairing. Blair isn't the Labour Party. There are others who are less disturbed."
Dr Shankarnarayark Srinath, psychiatrist and senior registrar at the Tavistock Clinic, was also concerned with national psychodynamics. There was, he said, "an unconscious, shared fantasy between the leader and the party, a collusion between the leader and the led".
Mr Abse was off again. "We must not regress into a position of infantile dependency. Come out of the consulting room and come as informed, politically conscious individuals," he exhorted the assembled shrinks.
Another "psycho" from the front row of stalls pointed to a contradiction in Mr Abse's theory that Mr Blair blurs conflict. "My impression of Blair when he came to power was that he was actually operating quite a Stalinist regime within the party." A leader who was prepared to abolish Clause Four did not seem to him like a man scared of aggression. Mr Abse retorted: "He keeps his aggression for Old Labour. Nobody must end his dream."
Oliver James, a clinical psychologist, asked Mr Abse why he had failed to add any positive ingredients when "cooking up" his theory. Surely Mr Blair wasn't all bad? Could not his "psychopathology" be creative? "Are we sure Mr Blair is not more Mikhail Gorbachev than a pervy old Harold Wilson, a man attempting to reconcile the Socialist past with the post- Thatcherite present?" he asked. Mr Abse was back on the warpath. "Personality disorders can have a functional use," he conceded. "But it's hellishly dangerous for them to be a leader of a country."
Mr Abse's son Toby, 40, a lecturer in history at Goldsmiths College, was also present. He said he held with psychohistory "up to a point", adding loyally: "My father's account of Blair seems perfectly plausible to me."
One notable absentee was the celebrity psychotherapist, Susie Orbach, who sent her apologies that she was unable to make the meeting. Last week, Miss Orbach had expressed reservations about psychoanalysing from a distance. "I am more interested in how psychoanalytic ideas let us understand the social structure, rather than individuals," she said. "I love individuals as patients, but not in the abstract."
Her partner, Dr Joseph Schwarz, a physics and psychology professor, was also unable to attend. Earlier he had commented that Mr Abse was "very indulgent" in writing the book. "It doesn't take account of the stark political choice we are faced with. Even though I would share many of Leo's critiques, I feel now is not the time. Blair's third term. Then we're talking seriously about Leo's book."
Richard Simpson apologised that his "area" was "not particularly apt". The 43-year-old psychosexual therapist said Mr Blair struck him as "someone who doesn't like taking responsibility".
Mr Simpson left feeling stirred by the debate. "We elect the politicians we deserve. Maybe it's a mirror of society, that we as punters aren't taking responsibility for what is happening in Kentish Town, the people we see lying in the street. It's one thing to give them 50p and another to start haranguing politicians."
And shaken. "I'm amazed this book was published," he said. It's very brave for an ex-Labour Party MP to write this when we are six months from the general election. But maybe that's the point."
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