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Plebgate 2: the Wounded Leader’s baffling immaturity

How the internet has changed everything. One of its marvels is that you just type in the words ‘Blair’ or ‘Cameron’ and immediately get to watch video clips of these men speaking, meeting, walking, from their earliest arrival in the public eye right up to the present day. Long ago, it seems, we used to have the television news, and before that the Pathé newsreels, to remind us whom we had elected; now we can pretend a certain intimacy with our leaders, should we want it, that never before has been available.

Now, whenever I watch David Cameron, George Osborn, Michael Gove or Tony Blair, I have a problem: my over-riding impression is that they look so young – so youngish, so youthful … I am sorry, but I just can’t find the right word.

What could one say about the ever-smiling ‘it-wasn’t-me-Sir,’ face of Jeremy Hunt (Head Boy at Charterhouse before Oxford), ‘promoted’ in Cameron’s first reshuffle to the prestigious but unenviable job of Secretary of State for Health, in the wake the Murdoch scandal? What is the word for him?

Then there is the puckish International Development Minister and Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell (Rugby, Royal Tank Regiment then President of the Cambridge Union) famous for being very “upset” with police officers who made him get off his bicycle at the gates to Downing Street. According to media reports at the time, vehemently denied by the Minister, he allegedly denounced them as: “morons” and “f***ing plebs!”

Why? Had the Minister had a bad day? ‘F***ing plebs’? That’s a phrase I haven’t heard since my own days, when it was a special term reserved for new boys and the other ranks in the nearby towns. A ‘Pleb,’ in case you wondered, is a real public school insult, a favourite weapon in the schoolboys’ personal language arsenal, rife with insults informed by the rational diet he is fed while away from his family. The word comes from the Classics (the study of ancient Latin and Greek); for a pleb, meaning a kind of contemptuous lower order of being, is derived from the Latin word Plebians, the lower classes distinct from the Roman elite, the Patricians. It was a social model that greatly inspired the builders of the British Empire – which needs one.

The truth of what happened is all highly disputed, and currently the subject of much media interest. But one thing is certain: Mitchell was not wrong. According to a cabinet colleague, in a masterful piece of strategy, the Minister was apparently ”right to feel sorry for what he may have said.” Not wrong, then. This mutual support is the stuff of legend, for the ex-boarder’s Strategic Survival Personality invented in childhood cannot be wrong – ever.

With his boyish centre-parted hair, though grey, trying to survive and determined not to get caught ‘out of bounds,’ as it were, Mitchell seems all of twelve. What is the right word for these men and their strange youthfulness? Dare I say ‘immature’?

Is this purely subjective, just because John Major was the last prime minister to be older than me? It is possible, but I really think not. Certainly the passage of time means that age seems more and more relative. Popular wisdom suggests that it starts with noticing how young the policemen are getting. Perhaps next it switches to prime ministers. A third milestone, just sadly experienced, has to be the profoundly shocking revelation of someone standing up and kindly offering you a seat on the Tube.

I don’t think I am wrong about this: there is something irrefutably and objectively young that you can’t help noticing in these gentlemen. It is as if you can see the boy inside the man. It is as if they will always stay young and then perhaps suddenly turn into old men. Perhaps it is simply that with the ubiquitous media coverage that we now have, and which Tony Blair in particular courted and tried to tame, that we see more of them, more into them. If you have the eyes for it you can imagine, if not see, how young they are on the inside.

I don’t mean ‘young inside’ as in the popular phrase “You’re as young as you feel.” I am talking about sensing the presence of something that is not congruent with the person’s biological age. Now this remaining internally young happens to be one of the classic features of boarding school survivors. Having to grow up too fast and being encouraged to throw off childish things perversely means that there will inevitably remain something immature in them. It means that they can stay incongruently young – not like aging rock stars with their absurd greying adolescent looks seen on some late might documentary about the Seventies. But rather, it is as if they have not yet had enough of their mothers to care for them and worship them, which they haven’t.

Thinking psychologically, we may sense that the presence of various aspects of their selves that they had had to disown, and therefore failed to integrate, contributes to their immaturity. It means that something of the child will still be, as it were, alive – in a hiding place, but peeping out. Carl Jung had a name for this phenomenon: the Puer Aeternis.

Speaking of boys within men, I cannot fail to mention the other prominent Etonian – I hardly dare use the usual phrase ‘Old’ Etonian – Boris Johnson, who seems to trade off his youthfulness, to play at being an over-grown schoolboy, with his unruly mop of fair hair and his bicycle; one wonders what happened to his cap, blazer and satchel. If it is a gimmick for Boris – the public doesn’t seem to need him to have a surname – it was certainly not intentional on the part of Blair and Cameron. Neither man wanted to look a boyish figure of fun. Quit the opposite. Their cultivated image was of serious concern. Towards the end of his reign, Blair began to look increasingly worn out and aged by the burdens of the job, whilst remaining strangely young. Will that continue if he maintains a relentless path towards personal fortune, for which he, at the time of writing, is becoming increasingly famous?

Fascinatingly, Michael Sheen, the Welsh actor who has now played the part of Tony Blair in three films seems also to be preoccupied with his youthfulness. He had never met the politician but had based his performance on the study of video clips. In the 2006 film, The Queen, starring Helen Mirren in the title role, Sheen’s Blair tussles with Her Majesty, who is the same age as his deceased mother, in a strange intimacy. Asked by interviewer Rebecca Murray what was the most difficult thing for him to capture in playing Blair in the film, which depicts a horrible coldness in the Royal Family, Sheen replied:

Just to have the kind of gravitas of a Prime Minister the same time as having the kind of youthful energy that he had when he came into power in ’97. So getting the combination of that and hoping the people would accept me as him and accept me as Prime Minister because I think I look about 12 in the film.

The serious point is that socially privileged boarding children are forced into a deal they have not chosen. They trade access to a normal family-based childhood for the institutionalised hot-housing of entitlement. Paradoxically, because they have to speedily reinvent themselves as self-reliant pseudo-adults, they struggle to mature. The child who could not grow up organically (and who ex-boarders were trying hard not to be) gets stranded, as it were, inside of them. In consequence, psychologically, an abandoned child complex inside these leaders ends up running the show.

The political implications of this are huge, for it means that it’s the children inside the men running the country who are effectively in charge. In other words, my analysis shows that, to quote the title of Part II of Wounded Leaders: we are being run by “The Boys In The Men That Run Things.”



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