PROFILE: Tony Blair - The strain behind that smile

Brett Kahr puts the Prime Minister on his psychotherapist's couch and discovers a modern-day Hamlet

Brett Kahr
Saturday 24 July 1999 23:02


espite his grin, his teeth, his ears, Tony Blair is not the gift to cartoonists and impersonators that his immediate predecessors were. Margaret Thatcher's bouffant hair and soft yet steely voice made her an easy target as the "Iron Lady", and John Major was readily depicted as the colourless buffoon who tucked his shirt into his Y-fronts. But Blair, who last week celebrated five years as Labour's leader, has proved far more intractable, seeming altogether more enigmatic and less well- defined. Certainly, his ubiquitous smile has been a gift to caricaturists, but increasingly one wonders what lies behind it. Is he Bambi or Machiavelli? The indecisive bumbler portrayed on television by Rory Bremner? Or the master of manipulation and control suggested by Westminster pundits? Or the visionary architect of the more compassionate Britain for which so many voters had yearned?

The structure of Blair's character cannot so readily be dismantled or reduced to simple psychological formulae. As with all of us, his personality has been fashioned by a complex web of childhood experiences of love, loss and living. Yet a number of salient attributes have been widely observed, most notably his apparent inability to take the big decisions. A current poster campaign for a travel insurance agency boasts that it offers "more policies than Tony Blair", a reference to the way we seem still to be waiting for him to make up his mind about a host of issues ranging from the euro to the future of the House of Lords.

Indeed, at the last session of Prime Minister's Questions, William Hague likened Blair's government to so much "warm soapy water". No one would ever have called Margaret Thatcher wishy-washy; no matter what one thought of her as a politician or a person, she never wavered and she always advertised her views in no uncertain terms. A psycholinguist, or even a musicologist, could carry out a very interesting comparative analysis of her speech cadences and Blair's. Hers would emerge as hard and thrusting, his as soft and meandering.

But can modern psychology shed any useful light on our Prime Minister's psychic structure? To date, only one serious and substantial psychological analysis of Tony Blair's personality has appeared in print: the provocative book by Leo Abse, the former Labour MP whom Michael Foot once credited as the man who brought Freud into the House of Commons. In The Man Behind the Smile: Tony Blair and the Politics of Perversion, he rightly focuses on Blair's marked desire - one might even say compulsion - to avoid conflict at all costs, which Abse interprets as an "almost pathological fear of offending". This aspect of his make-up was well illustrated recently when he admonished the transport workers about value for public money. He was trying to be firm yet still managed to sound sweet and conciliatory.

The potent explanation Abse advances for the Prime Minister's bright yet often strained smile relates to what he has described as Blair's "terrorised childhood". He concentrates especially on the young Tony's relationship with his mother, Hazel, who, Abse suggests, may have been somewhat narcissistic and therefore insufficiently attentive to her son. Thus his need to be loved - inadequately fulfilled - propelled him, like so many politicians, to seek recognition and affection in the public arena. His excursions into theatre and rock music at school and university appear to confirm this tendency, and his celebrated impressions of Mick Jagger arguably verged on exhibitionism.

When Tony Blair was a boy, his father, Leo, suffered a debilitating stroke which ended his career as an aspiring parliamentarian, destined perhaps to be the next Conservative MP for Hexham. His sister, too, endured a painful and protracted illness. This incidence of serious ill-health within his family may well have contributed to his persistent smile, a defence mechanism of denial which may continue to protect him against the grief and loneliness of his childhood. According to Abse, the young Tony learnt to avoid conflict and escape despair by pretending that all was well. His contemporaries at the urham Cathedral Choristers' prep school recall that he often smiled even then, and his tutor at St John's College, Oxford, has remarked that as an undergraduate Blair appeared "extraordinarily happy".

Recent clinical research by Valerie Sinason, a consultant research psychotherapist at St George's Hospital Medical School, in London, has examined the prevalence of forced and toothy smiling in patients suffering from profound physical disabilities and severe emotional traumas. In her book Mental Handicap and the Human Condition, Sinason has theorised about what she has termed the "handicapped smile", an anxious, studied grin employed as a defence against unhappiness. I have witnessed this phenomenon myself during a consultation at a school for profoundly handicapped children, where many of the youngsters wore strained smiles as a protection against their extreme fear of being unloved or even hated.

Though Blair can often seem a charming and delightful man - and no doubt is - his trademark smile betrays the deep anxieties with which he must contend. I recall in particular the family Christmas card the Blairs sent last year, which showed the almost excruciating strain on the Prime Minister's face. One can, of course, attribute that anxiety to the excessive stress of his responsibilities, and this would be reasonable; after all, in the last few months alone Tony Blair has had to steer the country through the Balkan crisis, while coping with the personal worry of his daughter being involved in a terrifying, and perhaps near-fatal, incident on a plane journey.

But many mental-health professionals would trace his anxieties back to deeper roots, even if they are exacerbated by the pressures of his current job. I have come to regard Blair as a true example of a modern-day Hamlet who frets and broods over the decisions that his position demands. Hesitating, even prevaricating, he strides up and down the battlements of owning Street, canvassing opinion, consulting focus groups and smiling constantly. esperate to be everybody's friend, how can he kill King Claudius - or, at least, make some hard choices in the imminent reshuffle of his government, which may mean dispatching some of his friends?

Freudian psychologists may wonder about the effect on Blair of his success in attaining the highest political office when his father did not even reach the back benches. One cannot help but speculate about the potential for unconscious guilt - a conflict between the pleasure of triumph and accomplishment and the displeasure of having at the same time vanquished his ailing father and surpassed him. Freud first spoke of this phenomenon more than 80 years ago as the neurosis of "those wrecked by success". Such people often sabotage or delay their own decision-making in order to escape the true measure of an achievement that their mother or father could not match.

In order to resolve the intrapsychic conflict of having gained an office to which his own father may have aspired, Blair has managed to enjoy being Prime Minister by appearing not to do so. The anxiety and even suffering which Margaret Thatcher rarely showed become the means by which Blair can sabotage his own pleasure in his success. Here his smile serves a twofold function: it offers proof of his enjoyment of high office, and yet its strain reveals his simultaneous discontent. In this respect, he resembles Hamlet quite closely as a complex and absorbing character who struggles with his motivations.

Yet Blair's temperamental cheeriness must never be considered facile. I found his pre-election manifesto, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, extremely sincere and touching. It brimmed with hopes and dreams for the eradication of any and every social ill. And if Blair does have less of Thatcher's iron in his blood than warm soapy water, most people would, I suspect, prefer a prime minister who possesses the psychological capacity to pause for thought, to one who rushes into impetuous, and sometimes fatal, acts.

And, to its credit, Blair's whole cabinet takes thinking very seriously. At least two of his ministers meet regularly with psychologists and psychotherapists to discuss issues of child and family mental health, and also the promotion of what Professor Susie Orbach has called "emotional literacy". In spite of the sometimes unpopular conclusions they may ultimately reach, Blair and his colleagues actually represent the closest approximation to a psychologically orientated government that this country has ever seen.

We should not forget that Hamlet, perhaps the world's most popular play, has exercised its appeal precisely because it speaks to so many people and has done so over many centuries. If Tony Blair continues to succeed as our Prime Minister, it will be because we can relate to him as a man riven with all-too-human conflicts - and he can likewise relate to us.

Brett Kahr is senior lecturer in psychotherapy at Regent's College, in London. His book " W Winnicott: A Biographical Portrait" won the Gravida Award for Biography in 1997.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in