Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

As he prepares to take power, Gordon Brown has served notice to the Labour Party that he will make n

On the eve of the Commons debate on the future of Britain's Trident weapons system, I counted at least three conspiracy theories doing the rounds at Westminster about why the government was rushing into renewal of our independent nuclear deterrent. Each was exquisitely detailed; each had a certain degree of credibility. The first can be labelled the Blair Legacy Theory. This posits that the Prime Minister was always determined to sign up to Trident renewal before he left office, as a way of yoking Britain for ever to the fate of the United States - no debate, no consultation. This theory is given weight by an exchange of letters between Tony Blair and George W Bush dated 7 December 2006 in which Blair stated: "We have therefore to set in train the steps necessary to maintain our current submarine-based nuclear deterrent system, replacing those elements - in particular the submarines - that will reach the end of their planned life by the 2020s."

The second could be described as the British Aerospace Procurement Theory. This notes that the main beneficiary of any contract to replace the Trident fleet of submarines would be BAE Systems, currently the focus of corruption investigations in six countries across the globe. Is it any surprise, ask the proponents of this theory, that the decision by the Attorney General to drop the Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE's dealings with Saudi Arabia came just days after Blair had informed Bush of his intention to renew Britain's nuclear deterrent? Both were designed to guarantee the commercial future of the UK arms manufacturer.

No set of conspiracy theories would be complete without Rupert Murdoch, and so it is with Trident. The News International Theory has it that, over the summer, the media mogul became so concerned that Gordon Brown would distance Britain's foreign policy from the US that he warned Blair his support was no longer guaranteed. According to this version, the new spate of tough talking on defence, the war on terror and Trident in particular can be explained in part by a desire to placate newspapers in the Murdoch empire. Murdoch is said to have been particularly concerned that Brown was preparing to model his foreign policy on Olof Palme's: the Swedish centre-left politician of the 1980s was fiercely protective of his country's independence. Brown's support for Trident may not be enough to calm Murdoch's fears, however. Mark Leonard, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, has already coined the phrase "Olof Palme with nukes" to describe the direction of Brownite thinking.

Year zero

There is another explanation. Perhaps Blair and Brown genuinely believe that Trident replacement is the best option - that the decision must be made now in order to have the new hardware ready for 2024 when the present Trident system becomes obsolete.

Brown is privately disdainful of the rebels. He speaks of modernising the system as just the right thing to do. He does not credit the idea that there is a popular groundswell of opposition: a recent demonstration in Glasgow could muster only 2,000 protesters.

Within parliament he would do well to be less dismissive. The leaders of the rebel amendment to Trident, which called for a delay in the replacement timetable, claimed among their ranks many of Brown's closest allies. Even several ministers voting with the government confided privately that they were doing so with a heavy heart. "Politics is about compromise. Now is not the time to make an issue of Trident," said one. The sensitive period of transition is not the time for a gratuitous act of conscience, they argue. Now is the time to knuckle down and prepare for difficult local elections and parliamentary elections in Scotland and Wales. Now is the time to retrench and prepare for the succession.

Underpinning Brown's resolve on Trident is also a calculation on timing. On 21 March, he will unveil his tenth and last Budget, setting it in the context of a new "ten-year challenge". He will use that to help campaign for the May elections. It is only once those are out of the way that the real battle will commence. Brown argues that any policy intervention he makes before he formally announces his candidacy for the leadership will be counter-productive. Why give ammunition to either Blair's supporters or to David Cameron? He is keen to get all difficult issues out of the way before then. The formal launch of his campaign will, in his view, mark a year zero.

In many respects he may be right. Politics will immediately feel different, but not entirely so - and possibly not for long. Brown appears not to recognise that Trident is precisely the kind of issue that convinces Labour members who left the party over Iraq that they made the right decision. If Brown takes the view, as he seems to have done, that the "security agenda" is the one where he will make no concessions to liberal opinion he will face more battles within the party and the wider labour movement in the months ahead.

Turning point

On the face of it, the debate has been about the defence of the realm and the wisdom of Britain possessing an independent nuclear deterrent in the post-cold-war era. But, like the arguments over unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s, this is an internal discussion in Labour ranks about what constitutes a progressive foreign policy. Although the renewal of Trident is seen as an important "legacy" issue for Tony Blair, its consequences (the £15bn-£20bn cost, the further alienation of Labour activists, the yoking of Britain to America) will all have to be managed by Brown.

Beyond the life-and-death issues of nuclear proliferation, Trident could also mark a turning point in Brown's relationship with Labour.

After last year's vote on trust schools, when the government had to rely on Conservative votes to push through legislation in the face of a back-bench rebellion, Brown told friends that he never wanted a repeat. This rebellion is far more serious, but there is a sense in the Brown camp that if the party is now prepared to defy its leadership so openly, perhaps the moment has come to think again about the party.

Whoever wins the deputy leadership contest can expect to be given a free hand with the party, such is Brown's cooling to it. This is a remarkable turnaround for a man who is almost entirely the creature of Labour. Yet, in private, Brown is talking about ways of harnessing new forms of political expression in a country where membership of political parties has dropped from 10 per cent of the adult population to 1 per cent. He is even said to be considering the merits of (whisper it low) proportional representation, to renew popular engagement.

There is a contradiction here. Popular opposition to Trident may not have reached the levels of Brown's beloved Make Poverty History demonstrations, but it is impossible to deny that anti-Trident protests are a form of engagement. The anti-war marches showed that people can get excited about politics, especially when fired up by a belief that the government is sidestepping the democratic process. Conspiracy theories grow to fill a vacuum, but the difficulty facing Brown as he struggles to rebuild faith in Labour is that so often with this government, the conspiracy theories have turned out to be true.

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.