Theresa May on the psychiatrist’s couch
Marching over the cliff, chanting ‘it’s our duty’

by Ira Straus

11th December 2018

Everyone has their mental blocks –thoughts and fears that hold their minds hostage. The PM’s are holding her entire country hostage; a tragic situation, hostage to a policy she herself believes is harming it. Can anyone help her get past the blocking thoughts? Can the Parliament get past them without her?

There has been much comment on the rigidity of the PM. She has drawn so many red lines as to rule out any space for movement to either side of her; even arguably ruling out the space she herself occupies. They have become an albatross around her neck, indeed around the neck of the entire UK. Her manner and methods have been preventing the Parliament from exercising deliberative judgment on the one question in years that is of truly existential import for the country: Brexit.

The freedom of thinking, deliberating, and choosing: this is the very heart of the liberty Britain has built over the course of hundreds of years of representative government. It is quite unacceptable that, in the most important instance for its exercise in a generation, it could be blocked by a PM’s own mental blocks and red lines. This threatens a catastrophe of historic proportions. To head that off, it is necessary to understand the sense of compulsion that is leading on the PM, and ask whether a mental path can be found out of the compulsion.

I offer these suggestions, not with any sarcasm, which would be easy, but with a saddened sense of sympathy, and with some alarm for the victim.

What is a “red line”? It is something very close to a mental block. Red lines are tactics used when negotiating properties and interests. The tactic is to present the guideline forcefully as if an absolute. The practice of feigning its absolute character can often turn it from an instrumental tactic into a fixed strategy. A guideline within the push and pull becomes a dangerous mental blockage: a line of thinking and proposing beyond which people are warned that they must not step on pain of severe social penalties. And what is a “mental block”? It is simply a red line in the mind: a point beyond which one has been warned — and has come to internalize the message and warn oneself — that one’s thoughts must not stray, or else something terrible will happen.

When a PM lays down red lines for society and Parliament, it becomes a serious matter. It can serve to infect the entire public space with what were already troubling enough personal mental blocks. Personal tragedy becomes national tragedy.

How the mental block was formed, how it blindfolds the Government and obstructs society’s view: this is our concern here. And how it could somehow nonetheless be seen past, bypassed, and let us hope against hope, overcome, even if at the last moment.

The basic structure of the mental block has been expressed by the PM in a manner just at the edge of lucidity. And not just once, but on many an occasion. She has said repeatedly that she and the Government and all MPs have a “duty” to “deliver” on the “instruction” of “the people” in the Brexit referendum.

All four of the terms we have put in quotation marks above are misleading, not to say false, on the level of public logic on which they were given. Yet they are plainly compelling to her on another level: if not the level of reasoned logic, then the level of the other logicsof the psyche, or psychology.

One could deconstruct the terms at length. I’ll recall only briefly the corrections that have been made about them:

“Duties”: They are multiple in politics. The only supreme duty is to exercise judgment among duties and keep them inproper perspective. There is no good logic to demanding that everyone must take up a sense of “duty” to “deliver” Brexit, supreme over all other duties. Yet in the logic of the psyche, such misplaced demands are not unknown; Mr John Locke observed that he who imposes on his own mind will also impose on others.

The sole “instruction of the people” under the law is to send a representative to deliberate and vote at Westminster. There was no “instruction of the people” in the Brexit referendum, it was advisory. Half of those who showed up to vote in it gave one preference, half the other.

“Delivering” is at first sight a somewhat more legitimate term than the others, but only because it is ambiguous. We are not talking about “delivering” a baby conceived in utero, against the abortion of which people can give a real moral case and draw their personal red lines. All we are talking about here is “delivering on” an idea conceived politically, something that must always be subject to thinking again and, yes, aborting.

Mrs May’s delivery mantra is akin to a demand for delivering on all of the oft-dubious promises made on the campaign trail by a party that wins an election. God save us from a party that would really deliver on all of its platform and campaign promises! It is only totalitarian parties that seek to do this, by trying to hold onto their power until the end of time, and keep upping the ante on policies that aren’t working and increasing their power toward the point of totalism to try to make it somehow work. Among liberal or modern democratic politicians, fortunately, campaign promises are matters for negotiation in practice. The delivery on them must always be subjected to the supreme duty of the representative, the one about which Burke made one of his wisest comments: that of exercising good judgment and discretion.

It will perhaps be appropriate to recall here what that great representative, rightly accepted as the core exponent of conservatism, had to say about the supremacy of the duty of prudence over the cheaper political duties: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

How the political trap became a mentalblock

Entrenched fears, circular narratives, mental blocks: these are familiar enough psychological traps. The PM has with her narrative walked into the trap and walled herself in. It leads to a fear of any change in her approach.

This is the only good explanation for her readiness to go ahead with doing what she considers damage to Britain when suchis on her fixed menu. Her rigidity is motivated on the surface by sense of caution and duty. Beneath the surface it displays elements of recklessness and suppression of her larger sense of duty.

The trap began small, with near-term pressures. There was a need for taking strong positions in a condition of political crisis. A referendum had been held for the purpose primarily of shutting up the Brexit backbenchers in the Conservative Party, but with the politically necessary disguise of presenting it as intended for the public interest and respect for the public will. It didn’t turn out to shut up the Brexiteer backbenchers; instead a slim majority of the voters supported them. The Party had to figure out what to do with this. It felt boxed in by its formal rhetoric and by promises that had never been intended seriously. That is not an unusual situation in politics. What is unusual is how damaging its solution became.

The solution was to pretend to have been always serious about taking the voters’ preferences as dispositive of the question, and no matter which way the referendum would turn out or by how large or small a margin. This insincerity raised the stakes a hundredfold on the earlier one. It also hardened the earlier secret about the actual political intention of the referendum, one that was an all but open secret at the time, turning it into a larger consolidated structure of insincerities and secrets.

Instead of confessing to their fibs, parties usually up the ante on when half-caught. They try to be convincing in denying the truth. Which is what they did after the Brexit referendum.

They felt they had to pretend that they had been sincere, when they had talked about respecting the outcome of the referendum as dispositive. And they were indeed sincere in thinking that the Brexiteers should respect it and shut up if, as expected, they lost the referendum. They had never really bothered to think about what it would mean for they themselves to “accept the result” were Brexit to win the vote. Instead of finally pausing to think the day after, they went on, linearly, with their campaigning reassurances about their own sincerity. Turning it in the process from a small fib into a rather big lie, and thence into a rather big mental block.

This transformation is made even more radical by refusing space for reconsideration, no matter what facts emerge about consequences, and no matter how likely that opinions have in fact changed. When referendum is used to dispose of a radical, “troublemaking”option and get it off the table, this proves subject in practice to revisiting the question whenever enough of the “troublemaking” faction considers conditions or political opinions to have changed sufficiently. Yet when instead a radical new departure comes out of the referendum, it is being treated this time as less subject to reconsideration than a status quo result would have been. That is pragmatically disastrous and logically inexplicable. The only explanation is psychological. Mainstream politicians have a strong sense of shame, in some cases too strong. It is a terrible thing when it leads them to dig the entire Government into a deep hole of lies and psychoses, all for the sake of avoiding a moment of deep shame.

The Japanese have a ritual of accepting and resolving shame by apologizing and bowing. It enables them to move on. It is a ritual that has been performed recently by Prime Minister Abe. Would that Mrs May were to follow his example.

Embracing the referendum result: the birth trauma of the May Government

The referendum outcome was a traumatic experience that seared the Party’s mind and indeed the mind of half the country and the large majority of the political class. The leadership contest that followed was the birthing experience of the May Government, and it burned that trauma into Mrs May’s mind and the mind of her Government. It was truly a birth trauma for her Government.

The PM role in these conditions led Mrs May into a harsh new way of speaking. She fell into using a language of supreme power and red lines in many a matter, not just in her past sphere of law enforcement. She had not only to take a position in favor of a Brexit to which she was in fact opposed, but to draw red lines against thinking and expressing her own actual views, roping her mind in from ever considering and drawing logical conclusions from her actual views. To keep her country from suffering too terrible a damage in the process, she had to pursue a minimal Brexit, bereft of the ideology that motivated Brexit among its enthusiasts, in fact contradicting that ideology on many a point.

To accomplish this dual feat, she had to grant herself an exception to draw some of the logical conclusions that crossed her red lines. And then draw more red lines all around her, some of them contradictory to her existing ones. Her little moat narrowed further. In logic, it was squeezed out altogether, leaving her floating in the ether. In practice it deepened her isolation, and with it the temptation of digging in deeper.

To be sure, there are other explanations for her rigidity, such as the political motivation — to hold her party together. Since partisan motivation always exists, imputing it is a safe move in political discussion. It explains the inexplicable. Such explanations are best however as supplements to the psychological one. Inevitably partisan motivations play a part in forming policies. They help us understand the origin of the narratives that developed into vicious circles. They do not however suffice to explain the embracing of the vicious circles, or the sticking to a line that has proved counterproductive for those original party purposes.

The mental entrapment itself — its narrative modes of perpetuating and enforcing its mental blocks – has become more important than its original sources. The practical need is to focus on motivations relevant to the pressing question: how can a normal self-regard berecovered by Britain and its leadership? How can empirical self-regard be pulled up out of the vault into which it has been pushed? Nothing could be more important for the country than to escape the mental and policy trap into which its Government has fallen.

In principle it is never too late for Mrs May or anyone else to dig themselves out of the psychological hole. In practice, if she remains unable or unwilling, it becomes critical for Parliament to do so for itself. As it has at last begun to do.

What is stopping Mrs May? One can see in many of her comments a feeling of deep, self-denying commitment when it comesto Brexit policy. Some of these are original defining commitments of her rise to the position of PM. It is a normal psychological phenomenon — a normal abnormality, so to speak — to think of original commitments as defining oneself, in this case defining an entire Government. It becomes a matter of heridentity: a birthmark, an eternal absolute, something she must not betray. There is plainly a feeling of duty in this. It is expressed by endless repetition of the line that she and the Government must “deliver Brexit”, and her repeated assertions that this is the basic obligation of the Government. Repetition of such a definition of obligation turns it into a defining element of identity: that this is who we are and who we must be. At the same time, however, she notes other commitments, some of them in tension with Brexit and far more obligatory in character to a neutral observer, such as the duty of preserving the cohesion and integrity of the United Kingdom.

The commitments to which she expresses a feeling of supreme duty are in fact rather numerous, and as we have seen, mutually contradictory. This flows directly from the fact of proceeding with a project that she feels is deeply contradictory to the national interest: it creates contradictory obligations in her own mind. It cannot help but leave her feeling overcommitted, “in over her head”. It takes away the internal recognition of the actual, normal ranges of freedom of choice. She tells herself that she has no option but to keep trying to square the circle of Brexit. Continually trying to square the circle comes itself to be felt as a virtue. Sisyphus is supposed by some to have grown proud of his fidelity to a never-ending duty. But then ,Sisyphus really did not have a choice; he was already dead, consigned to the immortality of the underworld. It is a sorry spectacle when mortals chain themselves down the same way.

The sense of virtue in sticking to contradictory duties has the effect of taking the PM some distance away from the British tradition of political behavior. It is a tradition that recognizes a wide range of flexibility and freedom, bounded within important long-term obligations for upholding the evolved society and keeping faith with generations past and future. In contrast to what praises itself as “principled politics”, it keeps in mind the larger picture, a picture in which much is hopeful in our historical development, and in the larger human evolution of which we are a part. It knows that prudence — practical good choice — is the best way of sustaining the hope of our history.  

A boxed-in rigidity ties in with the opposite sense: the sense of melancholia, what Locke and Hume diagnosed as a mental trap, and what the romantics and existentialists celebrated as profound, unlike those superficial commonsense Brits. It drives the practical, progressing British tradition under the water.

Britain’s future depends on making its way back up out of the water, back into the ordinary sunlight. Punctuated perhaps by an ordinary London rain and fog, and cheers through it all.