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.