Let us consider contemporary verdicts on the current Prime Minister's mental health in more detail. In an article entitled 'Are we witnessing the madness of Tony Blair?', and written in the build-up to the war against Iraq, Matthew Parris outlined his concerns. He contended that inspirational leaders often had to spend their time being 'certain of the uncertain, convinced of the undemonstrable'. And, he added, so did the mentally ill, which made it difficult to distinguish between the two. Blair had developed a 'fierce, quiet intensity'—a quality that Parris associated with the 'mad' constituents he had encountered when he was an MP (Tory). He felt that the Prime Minister was using illogical arguments in his case for attacking Iraq and that he had a 'demented capacity to convince himself that it is the other guy who is cheating'. According to Parris, Blair's remark that he would ignore Security Council vetoes which were unreasonable was 'stark, staring bonkers'. Blair was retreating 'into a hopeless, desperate optimism'. Parris also thought that Blair's belief that he could reconcile the irreconcilable—i.e. unite America and Europe over Iraq— was 'a familiar delusion among people who are not right in the head'.
On the last point, Parris is partly correct: there is certainly an analogy between believing in what cannot be demonstrated and delusional thinking, but it does not necessarily follow that they are the same thing. Otherwise, one could argue, for example, that belief in God was evidence of delusion. Admittedly, the definition of what constitutes a delusion is problematic, and Parris's position does find some support from those, such as the psychologist Richard Bentall,7
who argue that delusions are not qualitatively different from ordinary thoughts but are at the extreme end of the spectrum.
Parris highlights Blair's illogicality. Some mentally ill people do indeed make illogical statements, but then so do many of the sane. It is also hard to agree that great optimism is a sign of madness. Likewise, Blair's belief that he could bring opposing factions together may have been ill-judged but is hardly evidence of delusional thinking. Parris's 'diagnostic criteria' do not accord with those of clinical psychiatry. Does it follow, then, that they are worthless? Might he be expressing a certain kind of folk wisdom about the Labour leader, which, although it might not be found in a psychiatric textbook, is part of an established and vital cultural tradition of puncturing the pomposity of our leaders? Or is he simply making a political attack on the Prime Minister, disguised as a psychological profile? Our response to these questions will be influenced by our political and professional allegiances.
Another journalist, Peter Dunn, from the New Statesman, likewise questioned Blair's sanity. After interviewing several psychiatrists and psychologists, he wrote that Blair displayed 'self-delusion on a heroic scale'. He added: 'He is one of the few politicians who has never told a lie because his belief in whatever he says... is total'. The problem, he suggested, was that Blair was 'a man who doesn't really know who or what he is'; Blair was like an actor, assuming different roles to suit different situations. Dunn wondered whether Saatchi's infamous Tory poster of Tony Blair with 'demon eyes' might have been onto something. Dunn's model of madness embraces several elements—an exaggerated opinion of oneself; a lack of identity; a flair for acting; and a satanic demeanour. This model would not convince many psychiatrists. They would criticize the muddling of distinct conditions such as psychosis and psychopathy, and they would be dismayed at the equation of mental illness with demonic possession. According to Dunn, however, 'the suggestion that... Blair is mad is now firmly in the public domain'.
The lay discussion about Blair's sanity reveals underlying attitudes about mental illness. These attitudes are largely negative. If, for a moment, we accept the argument that Tony Blair is mad, his plight does not seem to have aroused much sympathy. Rather the Prime Minister is condemned, and his condition is said to be characterized by self-deception, personal inadequacy and possession. Such a view is of course deeply offensive to people who actually experience mental illness. As well as painting an inaccurate and confused picture it adopts old-fashioned notions of moral degeneracy and satanic influence.
The lay discussion also illustrates how psychiatric terminology can be used and abused, especially in the political arena. A famous example in history was the case of George III, who experienced bouts of confusion during his reign. The king's mental condition was discussed repeatedly in Parliament. His allies downplayed the symptoms to ensure that George stayed in power, while his enemies, who wanted the Prince Regent installed in his place, seized on any evidence of mental infirmity to have him deposed. The king was clearly disturbed (the most probable diagnosis being porphyria) but political allegiances affected how his condition was interpreted.8