What are these wimps doing in Downing Street?
The real problem is not Brown’s behaviour but the therapy culture’s cultivation of self-styled victims who experience everything as ‘bullying’.
By far the most disturbing and revealing thing about ‘Bullygate’ is not Gordon Brown’s behaviour – which sounds relatively normal for an overworked boss – but the fact that some of his staff phoned the National Bullying Helpline to complain about him. What are these wimps doing in 10 Downing Street, the pulsing heart of British government? Their emotional fragility and self-pity makes them utterly undeserving of the title ‘leaders’, and reveals much about the real crisis enveloping the British political elite – no, not any ‘bullying culture’, but an ethos so weak and unstable that it would alarm even the geekiest kid cowering in the corner of a school playground.
The aspects of Brown’s behaviour that we are supposed to be shocked by are not shocking. Not if you’ve ever had a high-pressured job or worked as part of a team doing something important. His so-called ‘reign of terror’ at 10 Downing Street, which has now earned him the moniker ‘Prime Monster’ from the Sun, included ‘swinging back his arm and clenching his fist’, ‘shoving aside and swearing at a senior adviser’, and ‘grabbing his deputy chief of staff by the collar after Revenue and Customs lost disks containing the personal data of 20million people’. And? I’ve done at least two of those things myself, and I only edit an online magazine (as important as spiked is) rather than run a national government.
The revelations from the ‘Downing Street bunker’ – made in political journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s forthcoming book and further inflamed by the head of the National Bullying Helpline who says beleaguered Downing Street staff called her up – are mild stuff. You would expect such behaviour in normal high-powered offices around the country, never mind in an abnormal office like Downing Street. This is where decisions about wars and laws are made before being presented to parliament and where the lives and livelihoods of millions of people are discussed. What would be truly alarming is if there was no fury or fisticuffs in such an important place of work. Who’d want to be ruled by a government in which no one ever raised their voices or threw a can of Coke at a useless secretary? Such prefect-like behaviour would be a sign that the government didn’t take its immense responsibilities seriously enough.
No, the real problem is the way Brown’s behaviour has been reinterpreted first by his staff and now by the media and experts. Everyday office tensions have been redefined as ‘mental torment’. Putting pressure on staff to get things done has been relabelled a ‘reign of terror’. Shouting is renamed ‘abuse’. Downing Street workers have described themselves in anonymous interviews as ‘victims of Brown’s temper’. They complained first to the Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, who reportedly had a word in Brown’s ear, and later phoned the National Bullying Helpline (NBH) like overgrown children complaining to teacher about the tewwible, tewwible things the big boy done to us. The government is ‘in denial’ about its ‘bullying culture’, declared the NBH boss Christine Pratt. Well, if the name fits. (Oh I’m sorry, is that bullying, too?)
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‘Bullygate’ demonstrates the extent to which, courtesy of the rise and rise of the therapy culture, human relations have been redefined as sites of lasting damage and abuse. In effect, even running a country has now been redefined as ‘bullying’ and high expectations of governmental staff as ‘mental torment’. With its view of human beings as either fragile or volatile, as either victims or bullies, who require counselling or anger-management therapy to boost their self-esteem or to deflate their inner fury, the therapy culture has redefined everything from work to play, from anger in offices to tussles in playgrounds, as ‘bullying’. The passions, furies, clashes and doubts that make up what it means to be a busy, engaged, working human being are increasingly medicalised as mental-health problems or emotional disorders. And the solution, apparently, is external intervention by cool-headed therapists who have the expertise to defuse dangerous human passions. Perhaps that Pratt woman should be posted permanently at Downing Street to ensure that none of our leaders ever loses the plot.
There are many problems with Brown’s leadership, as we have documented exhaustively on spiked. But the fact that he sometimes shouts at staff and makes exacting demands is not one of them. Some have demonised him for trying to ‘get things done at any cost’ - but it is more likely Brown’s and Labour’s broader political disorientation that makes him lash out, a feeling of not knowing what to do rather than a feeling of really wanting to get things done. The bigger question ought to be: what is Brown’s style of leadership designed to achieve? To pass petty laws, put forward half-hearted solutions to big economic problems, and elevate security over liberty, it seems to me. The current focus on his attitude, his physical manoeuvres behind closed doors, distracts from the more profound question of what purpose and destiny he deploys his style of leadership towards.
‘Bullygate’ does indeed point to a severe crisis of leadership in the British political elite. The problem, however, is not a ‘bullying culture’ but an unwieldy emotionalism and powerful sense of victimhood within Downing Street. The most alarming thing is that some of the people responsible for running the country should phone a helpline to complain about being shouted at or shoved, that individuals with huge political responsibilities should indulge in childish emotional tantrums and exercises in self-pity. It is testament to the lack of any overarching political goal or common visionary outlook at the top of the Labour elite that such tale-telling to external forces can take place. In such a fragile, therapised climate, it’s no wonder the government has been incapable of keeping secrets, preventing leaks and keeping staff and members ‘in line’.
Of course in many ways, Brown, and before him Tony Blair, have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs. Both of them promoted the therapeutic anti-bullying agenda, both in schools and in workplaces, and both have gleefully taken part in the politics of emotionalism, where what a politician feels and how he emotes becomes more important than what he believes in (see Brown’s recent weepy TV interview with Piers Morgan). Recently, some right-wing critics of the New Labour government have claimed that it has instituted a ‘Bully State’, kind of a super-scary nanny state – but the real problem today is the ‘anti-bullying state’, where the government has conspired in the therapeutic transformation of everything from hard work to ideological zeal into a disorder. Now, New Labour is not so much being hoist with its own petard as rammed by its own therapist’s couch.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)