The heart of the matter

The pulse of political life shouldn't be tested by gossip about the state of the prime minister's health.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

When I read that a specialist doctor had been driven by motorbike to Number 10 last year (1), reports of Tony Blair’s ‘health scare’ seemed overplayed. The prime minister wasn’t whisked across London in an ambulance. A month before, Blair had been given electric shock treatment for an irregular heart beat at Hammersmith Hospital, London. He was back at work the next day.

According to Dr Howard State MP, Labour chair of the all-party men’s health group, racing hearts are a common condition in middle-aged men. (2) Blair says that the hospital appointment was the only day off he has taken for health reasons in seven years (3). So why the ongoing fuss about the British prime minister’s health?

A recent BBC documentary called the The Downing Street Patient reignited concerns about the state of Blair’s heart. In the programme, Dr Lewis Moonie MP, a former government minister, said that the electric shock treatment Blair received after being diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia in October 2003 is not a regular treatment for so-called racing hearts. ‘Anaesthetising somebody and giving their heart electric shocks is not something you do in the routine run of medical practice’, he said (4), arguing that it would be better for the prime minister to tell the full story ‘instead of saying it’s nothing’ (5).

Unfortunately, the fact that Blair’s minor health problem may well be nothing counts for very little in today’s confessional culture. Politics today is highly personalised, meaning that a political debate becomes easily subsumed by an obsession with an individual politician’s personality, lifestyle and family life.

Outside of Westminster, personal health has become one of the obsessions of our times – in particular, the work-related ‘stress’ that is assumed to have caused Blair’s racing heart. The government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that up to five million people in the UK feel ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed by their work (6). In this context, no wonder speculation about the prime minister’s personal health gains a wider, more interested audience than it deserves.

Although the prime minister draws the line at distributing copies of his medical records, he is breaking an unwritten rule that prime ministers try not to talk about their minor medical conditions. According to The Downing Street Patient by Michael Cockerell, the writer and political documentary-maker, prime ministers have always lied about their health (7).

In 1953 Sir Winston Churchill famously asked newspaper editors to hide his ailing health when he suffered a stroke. Bill Deedes, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, and, in 1955, a parliamentary secretary in one of the ministries of Churchill’s government, described this as ‘an agreement, not a conspiracy, to keep it quiet’. He added, ‘it was important to maintain the appearance of normality’ (8). According to Lord Alexander Stockton MEP, Christopher Soames, parliamentary private secretary and Churchill’s son-in-law, ran the government during that time (9).

Of course, the public should know about the state of health of their prime ministers when it is so clearly in the public interest. But we shouldn’t confuse an inability to run the country with an obsession about a politician’s mental state and physical health when there is no evidence that they aren’t fit for the job. The pulse of political life shouldn’t be tested by gossip about the state of a politician’s health.

What makes the fixation on Blair’s racing heart even more peculiar is that the discussion is not really about his health at all. His apparent fitness or otherwise is continually used as a symbol of political standing. Who would have noticed a quickened heartbeat in 1997, when New, Young Labour had just won the general election, booting the tired old Tories out of office? Yet a few years on, Blair always seems to be having his worst months ever – accompanied by photos of the prime minister before (youthful and fresh) and after (grey and haggard).

No doubt Blair finds this irksome – but in many ways he has himself to blame, having self-consciously promoted a youthful, healthy image to the media, and conscientiously played the game of personality politics.

The interest in politicians’ personal health – and politicians’ willingness to indulge that interest – is also apparent in the USA. During his recent campaign for the Democratic Party nomination, John Kerry made sure his health because a talking point. ‘Check out my gut, check out my heart’, he told voters (10). The I’ve-got-more-biceps-than-the-other-guy approach is, of course, not new to US politics, where candidates have historically competed to present the best image of the rugged male.

What has changed is the way politicians rush to present themselves to the public for an examination of their physical and emotional health, and it says something about the enfeebled state of politics today. Far from attempting to avoid associations with physical weakness, Kerry took tales of his operation for prostate cancer, and the way he looked after his dying mother, on the campaign trail. ‘What you’re hearing is the real story that I want to talk about’, Kerry said in January 2004. ‘I don’t want the words of politics to get in the way of seeing the problem.’ (11)

The discussion about personal health is a form of anti-politics. It is about indulging in speculation about how a politician treats himself and others privately, but says nothing about how he might treat the nation when it comes to their healthcare provision. Whatever the facts are about Blair’s dodgy heart, details of his personal health are just not important for the body politic.

Tessa Mayes is a contributor to the Sunday Times. Her book Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age (spiked, 2002) is available from Amazon (UK).

(1) Blair back to work despite health scare, by Matthew Tempest, Guardian, 27 November 2003

(2) The Downing Street Patient, broadcast on BBC2, 29 February 2004

(3) ‘No. 10 “hid Blair’s health problem”’, Richard Brooks, Sunday Times, 22 February 2004

(4) The Downing Street Patient, broadcast on BBC2, 29 February 2004

(5) The Downing Street Patient, broadcast on BBC2, 29 February 2004

(4) Health and Safety Executive home page

(5) Surging Kerry gets personal with voters, Mike Glover, Guardian, 22 January 2004

(6) Health and Safety Executive home page

(7) The Downing Street Patient, broadcast on BBC2, 29 February 2004

(8) The Downing Street Patient, broadcast on BBC2, 29 February 2004

(9) The Downing Street Patient, broadcast on BBC2, 29 February 2004

(10) Surging Kerry gets personal with voters, Mike Glover, Guardian, 22 January 2004

(11) Surging Kerry gets personal with voters, Mike Glover, Guardian, 22 January 2004

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Topics Politics


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