As Britain nervily approaches an unpredictable general election, it’s hard not to identify with a certain troubled soul from one of our greatest dramas and reflect that “something is rotten in the state of” our politics. And, at long last, the psychotherapy profession has started to take note.
Following a letter signed by 400 counsellors and psychotherapists saying society was ‘thrown completely off balance by emotional toxicity of neoliberal thinking’, psychotherapists Richard House and Andrew Samuels told the Guardian that “the time has surely come for an ‘emotional audit’ of the impact of what, to many, appear to be heartless, un-thought-through policies that are merely penalising and punishing the already disadvantaged still further.”
And, about 30 hours after votes are counted, an important new conference will propose that a psychologically wounded elite adversely affects our society and will explore the implications of this for therapy. It’s a first, for psychotherapy and politics haven’t been easy bedfellows. Traditionally, journals and training programmes steer well clear of this messy and banal subject. I recall being instructed to remove all political references in a BJP letter in 2011, so this new initiative represents a great leap forward. The consulting room, I believe, can ill afford to exclude the injustice and profligacy that is the societal backdrop to many people’s lives.
With so much knowledge of human motivation and behaviour, why has our profession neglected championing a healthy political life? In some ways, with our preference for the rarefied world of unconscious processes, we only have ourselves to criticise for this omission. As James Hillman said, “we’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world is getting worse.” We have access to powerful tools for transformation but tend to get bogged down in the myth of individualism, running from the political to hide in the private, morbidly afraid of generalisations, systemic perspectives, national characteristics. Moreover, as the politics of blame, of fear, and of denial are on the rise, our profession has something important to offer, since these emotional processes are exactly our area of expertise.
Yet the profession remains an outsider discipline, chiefly because it has failed to evolve a common body of understanding. For my own practice, I found it necessary to study psychodynamic, systemic, somatic, transpersonal and archetypal sources. Such approaches are often poopooed as ‘eclectic’ in favour of orthodoxy. I remember Bob Young, who brilliantly taught Kleinian methodology, telling me sagely, “Nick, you have to pitch your tent somewhere.” But the history of psychotherapy is like that of the church – beset with feuds, schisms, and unbridgeable rivalries. Result: the public do not have consistent psychological knowledge to rely on, and political commentators are not armed with what we already know.
For example, if psychotherapy and politics were in dialogue, commentators would be able to denounce the politics of blame from a psychoanalytic understanding of the mechanisms of disowning and projection. Next it could be explained why people invariably turn to chauvinism when they feel scared, and the fear-mongers might be ignored. With the help of a little Transactional Analysis, we might agree that regimes that act out as angry victims, ensuring an entire region maintains a medieval mind-set, need regulating with very tough love.
Our general discussions could take place at more profound level. Take the notion of “British Values,” for example, that regularly occurs in media debates, such as the laudable Question Time. Debating this always ends up at best a shallow mess, at worst an excuse to pathologise those we don’t understand. It is as if people imagine you can possess values. But as Psychosynthesis teaches, values are self-existent, archetypal; you can align with them, they can inspire you; you can try to follow some of them – but you can never own any.
I believe that psychological knowledge is indispensible in helping to tackle pressing political problems, many of which have a long history. But some are new, like political apathy. This infects vast numbers. Young people, understanding Russell Brandt’s anarchic message, may forgo the one expression of power they possess – their vote. Remembering how long it took to achieve universal suffrage, some find this rightly shocking; but many feel there are no real choices. And they are not wrong: the blurred distinctions of party politics are partly because global liberalisation of capital has rendered all parties effectively impotent, so that policies of the elected appear largely uniform.
The price of politics of blame and denial
Apathy, however, is a traceable side effect of the politics of blame, now ubiquitous. Media and politicians collude and no one dares to sidestep it; the electorate are bored by it. The politics of fear, meanwhile, is doing OK, embracing a good old English archetype – John Bull. Having magically reinvented himself as trustworthy man of the people, a hedonistic stockbroker’s son, ex-public school, peddles an archaic anti-foreigner doctrine to those shocked at how rapidly their world is changing, as the free movement of labour rewrites our familiar provincial landscape.
Scotland is the only place where there’s any genuine political enthusiasm. On first glance, this appears rooted in nationalism. However, looking deeper, the wish for self-determination arises as much out of disgust at the elite’s duplicitous self-reinvention, their Bullingdon Club entitlement mentality and the public-school bullying that deadlocks debate in Westminster. For central to our leadership culture lurks one crucial and unique pathology, which I have studied for 25 years: Britain grooms its political elite by means of privileged abandonment in childhood.
Those who can afford the £30,000 per annum routinely dispatch their young to grow up in well-appointed boarding schools, believing they are doing the best for them. But here children learn an absurd doctrine of premature self-reliance, a fear of their own emotions and a horror of women. Notwithstanding, ex-boarder adults put on a good show of confidence, and – apart from a few jokes about it that we Brits all enjoy – very few people take the problem seriously. The private boarding habit is so normalised that, as fish don’t notice water, we ignore how extraordinary it is to foreigners, how traumatic to children, how regressive for society. Reframed as the ‘Independent System,’ and favourably polarised with state provision, it blinds us by a trap baited with ‘parental choice.’ Supported by special charity status and a massive financial lobby, it is politically untouchable and, I suggest, a generating plant for the politics of denial.
Even many psychotherapists, who are supposed to value parental attachments, are only very slowly waking up to its effect, rather like the public are only now beginning to realise that abuse in institutions has been widespread and is linked up with the power of the Establishment.
At the cost of a proper social democracy like our European neighbours, elite boarding is the primary means for maintaining an out of touch Establishment presiding over an anachronistic, top-down, class-ridden society. But crucially, all recent studies show that it also consistently turns out people who appear much more competent than they actually are.
The political fallout from separating children from their parents too young and setting them on a compensatory path of privilege is massive. The psychological impact of such formative experiences on Cameron, Johnson, Blair, and other boys who grow up to occupy positions of great power and responsibility, leaves them ill-prepared for authentic life in the adult world. The impact on our whole society from top to bottom cannot be overstated: the private boarding culture bequeaths the nation with a cadre of leaders who unconsciously perpetuate a culture of elitism, bullying and misogyny.
Unsurprisingly, ex-boarders are particularly deficient in non-rational skills, such as those needed to sustain relationships, and thereby not well equipped to be leaders in today’s world, where consensus and relationship work better than the threat of a gunboat. Besides, having not had enough belonging at home in childhood, many of our leaders just don’t get the idea of belonging; so how can they understanding that our current world requires communal decision-making? Whatever the political virtues of the European project, an ex-boarder leader like Cameron can only think of condemning or leading or it – never of joining.
Raised to grow up quick and become self-reliant, a psychological paradox affects ex-boarders, who struggle to properly mature. A child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded inside, as it were, and ends up running the show. This is why many British politicians appear boyish. Reluctant to open their ranks to women, who are strangers and unconsciously held responsible for their abandonment (by their mothers), the ex-boarder elite keep our politics locked in the past, failing to spot real threats: being drawn into disastrous foreign policy or the alarming gap between rich and poor.
Forced to eschew all forms of vulnerability in childhood, how would they understand the vulnerable in society? With two-thirds of the current cabinet from such a background, the political implications are huge: it’s the children inside the men running the country who are effectively in charge.
Boarding School Syndrome and the politics of blame are literally built in to our politics. The Houses of Parliament’s fake medieval architecture recalls a Victorian public school chapel; its adversarial seating layout ensures that the braying ridicule of opponents maintains the electorate’s apathy. Not so the beautiful modern chamber at Holyrood I visited the morning of Nicola Sturgeon’s inaugural speech as First Minster. Like most new parliaments it is horseshoe-shaped, based on a principle dear to us psychotherapists. Our group sessions are always in the round so that everyone can hear and see each other, so everyone feels part of the whole and belongs, so that even those with authority roles occupy equal seating.
By the way, politicians are very welcome at the conference; they might even pick up some tips. Here is a simple one from me. The Palace of Westminster apparently needs millions to repair it. What a great time to sell it off to the private sector as a tourist-trap museum of democracy and build a nice new round one? There are plenty of brownfield sites outside Birmingham. Come on – it’s Shakespeare country!