You don’t have to be mad to work here…

It is not new for political figures to be affected by mental illness – Winston Churchill was famousl

In the light of the recent carnage of the local elections, it is easy to forget that the present government is one of the most successful in history. In 10 years as the chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown never experienced the economic problems he currently faces as prime minister. However, in a decade which was undoubtedly good for business, the Tony Blair premiership was characterised by an approach that contrasts strongly with the no-risk approach to recruitment of many employers in the commercial sector. This can be clearly illustrated by two interviews which appeared in Sunday newspapers on 20th April.

The higher profile of these was the revelation in the Sunday Times that John Prescott had experienced bulimia during his spell as deputy prime minister. The media reaction was almost entirely scornful and can be divided into three camps: those who simply expressed some variant of “Ha – Fatty”; those who were snootily surprised that Prescott’s choice of addictive substance betrayed his working class origins; and those who noted the cynicism in the timing of the announcement, which coincided with the release of an autobiography which gives little attention to other more colourful incidents in Prescott’s life, such as the punch he threw at a protester or the affair with his secretary. The last approach was perhaps more intelligent than the others but, if its protagonists had thought even harder, they might have reflected that, had the story had emerged earlier, his mental illness might have done more damage to his career than either violence or adultery and this would be both unfair and rather disturbing. Commentators were quick to note that Tony Blair converted to Catholicism after leaving office, scared to do more than hint about his religious beliefs to the voters, but they failed to spot a similar pattern in the announcement of his deputy.

The man who decided that “We don’t do God” was Alastair Campbell and, while he did not attempt to hide it, he was equally coy about talking about his history of mental illness before he retired from his post. However, since doing so, he has been dedicating a great deal of energy towards raising awareness of depression, with which he was diagnosed in his late twenties. In particular, he commends Blair for giving him his chance after being elected leader of the Labour Party, even though he was aware of the previous breakdown and Campbell did not yet have the towering reputation he has now. In his interview in the Independent on Sunday on 20th April, he urged other employers to follow this example.

It is not new for political figures to be affected by mental illness – Winston Churchill was famously manic depressive. However, what has changed is the attitude towards using the experience in a productive way to challenge stigma. It was all too much for Churchill’s family when a mental health charity portrayed him in a straightjacket as they figured that he would wish to be seen as a strong leader without any demons. This completely misses the point which is that Churchill does not need to be protected and indeed his reputation weakens any stigma rather than the other way around. Like many others, Campbell says that his depression contributed to his success by making him tougher mentally but this is a romantic view. The reality is simply that mental illness is as common among talented people as among the rest of the population and a good manager makes use of everyone at his disposal. If the Tories win the next election, I hope David Cameron heeds this lesson.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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