Tuesday 20 August 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Politicians are human too, with all our vulnerabilities'

Politics seems to be the last profession where it is still OK to dehumanise people, but to what end

TESTING TIMES: Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May surrounded by colleagues in the House of Commons in London last week
TESTING TIMES: Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May surrounded by colleagues in the House of Commons in London last week
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

A turning point for some of us was when Nick Boles quit the Conservatives last Monday night after his 'Norway' Brexit plan was defeated again. His voice cracking with emotion, he said: "I have given everything in an attempt to find a compromise that can take this country out of the European Union, while maintaining our economic strength and our political cohesion. I accept I have failed." And so he quit the party, there and then, in front of everyone.

It wasn't actually Nick's emotional outburst that got me. It was whichever one of his colleagues was heard to say, "Oh Nick, don't go, come on." There was something so human about it. When you first heard it, it seemed almost laughable. But when you thought about it, it made you realise that these people are just human beings like us, in a terribly difficult situation, most of them doing their best. You might think many of them are very misguided, and we would all agree that some of them are downright craven. But what is becoming clearer all the time is that, for the most part, what we are dealing with here are decent human beings, most of them probably driven more by public service than money, most of whom are at the end of their ropes now. And yet we have, in the media, and in our own heads, completely dehumanised them.

It's understandable in a way that we have tarred them all with the same Boris Brush. Those who tend to suck up most attention in the Brexit disaster are the more unsympathetic figures. And because Brexit affects us Irish so disproportionately, and because there is a strain of toxic anti-Englishness in this country anyway, we have tended to start viewing all UK politicians with contempt, or at best, with condescending amusement and a sense of superiority.

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Which is odd in the world we live in today. We pride ourselves on our sensitivity around mental health these days. We pride ourselves on "having conversations" around it. And we pride ourselves on our sensitivity in general too. For example, where celebrities once existed almost solely for the purpose of our entertainment, where the deal was that they got paid loads of money and in return, we got to comment on them and revel in their misfortune, now you can't pass any remark on a celebrity in case you would affect their mental health or shame them in some way. You can't comment on the looks of people who have made a career out of their looks. You can't say a word about their soft-porn music videos and their half-naked Instagram posts. We treat everyone with kid gloves and respect these days. Indeed, it can often seem as if the more privileged that people are, the quicker they are to claim victimhood. If some people on their social media fail to tell them how great they are, they are 'haters' and this upsets them deeply.

But somehow, this new dispensation does not extend to politicians, especially if you don't agree with them.

So let's picture life at the heart of Brexit for most ordinary MPs from the little scraps we've been hearing. Tory MP Julian Lewis offered one vignette of the kind of stress people are under when he told the House of Commons recently that he saw two MPs in tears at the prospect of having to vote against a three-line whip again on Theresa May's deal for a third time. It's hard enough to defy a whip once, but these people were being asked to do it repeatedly. You don't get to be an MP without a certain amount of toughness and resilience. The fact that MPs are now going around crying openly to other MPs suggests things are bad.

And that wasn't a one-off. Former Tory minister Rob Halfon said last week that "parliament is undergoing a collective nervous breakdown - a cross between Lord of the Flies and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".

A female MP told last week how a male MP from an opposition party broke down in tears to her over how he won't be able to go home and see his kids over Easter because of the curtailing of the parliamentary Easter break. "This place is a boiling pot of mental ill health," said the MP.

We've heard, too, about many other tear-stained meetings. When Theresa May announced to her MPs recently that she would step down if her deal got passed, there were many MPs weeping.

Huw Merriman MP, who is parliamentary private secretary to Philip Hammond, revealed that his waist size has dropped from 34 inches to 30 recently due to stress. He cited not just the direct stress around the House of Commons but also abuse from constituents who disagree with him. People making comments like "those guilty of treason used to be lined up and shot". Merriman said he was now seeing a counsellor "to get proper control over his life". He admitted he had always been a 'pull-yourself-together merchant'. But he said now he needed to make sure he was properly looked after and encouraged all his colleagues "that we look after our mental health".

Even the big beasts are being affected by this climate of fragility and heightened emotion. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who, let's not forget, used to supplement his MP's salary with hundreds of thousands in earnings as a QC before he became AG, has been showing the strain recently: "It's undesirable to have so many Members of Parliament who look so tired as they are," he said in a recent radio interview, before confessing that he had taken to reading poetry to "order his thoughts".

Cox was, of course, previously almost reduced to tears in the Commons when Brexiteer MP Nadine Dorries defended him in a motion around contempt of parliament. It says something about the frayed emotions around the place when a guy like Cox is getting weepy in the house.

Last week, deputy speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle sent out an email encouraging MPs to "access the support that is available and look after each other".

Hoyle reminded MPs and parliamentary staff that they were "all human and it is vital at times of heightened stress in the workplace that we can access the necessary health and well-being support". He pointed to the mental health dangers of people working "very long hours for extended periods of time while facing extraordinary pressure". The supports available to MPs include a 24-hour counselling phone line.

I know that lots of you will think, 'Oh, the poor little lambs, a pity about them'. But the truth is that nowadays, in any other workplace, this level of stress and abuse would be considered unacceptable.

And that's what politicians are, human beings in a workplace, largely people with families, doing a job that can be very demanding.

We should also consider that having them stressed and exhausted is possibly not the best way to get good decisions and effective policy-making.

Abuse of politicians has become a national sport in this country, too.

They are subjected to abuse and stress that is no longer allowed in any other walk of life.

Whatever about the politicians, it's surely not good for society, and for the future of politics, for it to be the last forum where it is acceptable to dehumanise employees.

Sunday Independent

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