Article Published June 21st, 2019
Theresa May’s final days as Prime Minister
Dr Freud’s prognosis from her therapy
by Ira Straus
Chair, Centre for War-Peace Studies
21st June 2019
These notes were found lying on the desk of Dr Freud on 14 June 2019. In light of their public importance, they are being made available to the public.
It is to Mrs May’s credit that she has sought again my counsel in these final days, when she will determine her legacy both to the world and to her own psyche. She needs all the self-awareness she can get in these critical days, when she could be so easily tempted to treat herself as irrelevant.
It is a pleasant part of my life to have the great and powerful sometimes come in to lie down on my couch and try to understand themselves. I have yet to receive the same favour from Mr Corbyn, about whose case I could probably find even more to say; but perhaps that will come.
Summary of session of 10 June 2019
Having given up the Party leadership, Mrs May is beginning to ease up on the most immediate layers of her structure of mental blocks. This is enabling her to sense, as yet inchoately, that her deepest suppressed dream is to cancel Brexit.
She is not yet ready to let this dream rise to her conscious mind. During her final days in office, her subconscious is locked in this in a race against her overdeveloped superego. One might call it a race to see whether she can in short order tame her superego enough to develop a proper ego of her own, mediating between her id and her superego; and thence to act with sufficient maturity as to leave office on terms she will be able to live with for the remainder of her life. In this race to become conscious, she is hobbled by a powerful compulsion: to focus on routine duties, in effect waiting out the remainder of her tenure. This compulsion is also a temptation: to avoid taking responsibility.
In her subconscious, there is a dream, the dream of cancelling Brexit, as a final gift to her country and her party. In her dream, it would release both country and party from their agony and self-ruinous posture, giving them a chance to recoup their losses. In her nightmare, on the other hand, she leaves with Brexit still treated as sacred and inevitable; her country harms itself economically with it; possibly losing its very existence as a united Kingdom; her Party remains divided in spirit, possibly divided altogether, and is reviled for a generation to come for having brought Brexit and all its consequences down upon her country. Thus far she suppresses her dream as unacceptable, disreputable, ridiculous; and suppresses her nightmare also, for the very reason that, even as her own government researches show the nightmare to be based solidly on reality, she feels a need to defer to those who deplore and ridicule those researches as “project fear”.
In her conscious and public posture, Theresa May affirms that cancelling Brexit or holding a second referendum would be a dangerous jolt to society. The arguments seem to be rationalizations, motivated by a somewhat different force within her mind: an awareness that a referendum or cancelation would bring on accusations against her of the sort her psyche can least bear, accusations of betrayal and treason, that is to say, of extreme transgression against the superego; and that the accusations would come from the faction of her party into whose hands she alienated the custody of her superego after the referendum.
Summary of patient’s case
When Mrs May sought my counsel, it became apparent that she had never developed the kind of ego of her own that is appropriate to the age of maturity, or what constitutes a “mature ego”: one capable of mediating as a rational actor between the superego and the id. In childhood one has an immediate strong set of desires, an id that seems to be everything; but soon finds it controlled by superior external authorities – parents, the Father Figure, the superego that with time gets partially transferred into the hands of the larger society, before which one develops a conscience. When one alienates one’s conscience into the hands of other authorities, reconstituting an overly powerful superego as if from childhood, this is the condition of infantilization.
Mrs May always had an overly developed superego, as seen in her deference to her received higher authorities and her rigid sense of duty before them. She suffered severe mental blocks from this.
Her excess of superego was exacerbated by the referendum, a shock that pushed her to suppress her own opinion of what was best. It created a new layer of superego. She came to treat the Referendum as a sacred injunction whose result must not be crossed.
May’s words and lines, “Duty”, “Our duty to deliver Brexit”, “Brexit means Brexit”, could be considered classics in the category of slips of tongue that reveal subconscious difficulties, or what my readers have come to call Freudian slips. The repetitive invocation of duty, as if a supreme duty that brooks no other considerations, bespoke the overdeveloped superego at the expense of the rational actor role of the ego.
The “Brexit means Brexit” line derived directly from the “No means No”, a line redolent of authoritarian parenting and political correctness alike. There is a frequent correlate phrase — “zero tolerance” — that denies the normal fact that multiple legitimate considerations exist and refuses the ego its space to perform its function of adjudicating among them. This was echoed by Mrs May, first in elevating Brexit to the level of a sacred exclusive duty, next in drawing of a series of red lines about its meaning, lines that banned her ego from adjudicating with other ordinary legitimate interpretations and that, between them, eliminated so much space as to exclude any solution that could be implemented.
These underlying phrases, “No means No”, “zero tolerance”, have come in recent years to be used as a new method, alarmingly effective in some instances, for implementing an old wish of political and ideological fractions: the wish for being able to create new absolute rules under their own control, managed through adjudication in their own ideological space rather than under the rule of law. It serves to transfer custody of people’s superegos into the hands of the ideological faction as a superior authority, reducing people to a new infantilism. The partial alienation of the superego that always exists — starting with parents and transferring with time into the hands of society as a whole, ordinarily managed however in a moderate fashion through the centrist mainstream of society — is reinforced in this new method, after a temporary maturity, by a more total re-alienation into the hands of an ideological faction of society, one whose natural tendency is to be managed by an extreme wing or cutting edge that carries it ever further away from the centre.
Transference from personal to national neuroses
Mrs May’s case has taken on, through her language which has been laden with psychological consequences, a significance for the psyche of the country as a whole. She undertook to transmit to all MPs her attitude that their duties are fully dictated by the political commitment she and others made to implement the referendum results. She undertook to transmit to all Britons as well as all MPs her red lines and her extreme fears, running into the space of phobia, about what would happen in the event of any new referendum or a cancellation of Brexit.
As yet Mrs May, lacking clear consciousness of her neuroses, lacks also a concern or sense of responsibility for having communicated the same neuroses to much of her party and country. With time, absent a catharsis through a last-minute change of policy, she is likely to become more conscious of the troubling nature of the conditions she has been spreading. A sense of guilt is likely to grow concomitantly large and, as it will by then be beyond her power to correct its causes, import new problems into her future mental condition.
It is beyond my ambit to consider a psychoanalytic cure to the collective spread of these neuroses. It would require an army of some millions of psychoanalysts. The neuroses having been spread from a pinnacle of leadership, they are partially curable by corrective actions from that same pinnacle of leadership. Can a leader’s rising back out of neurosis also be a communicable cure? The evidence is that it can be, but rarely is.
Prognosis for cure for the national Brexit neurosis
Creating mental blocks is a natural act of authoritarianism, a temptation to which leaders readily fall victim. They usually end up falling themselves into the mental hole they have dug for their underlings. This is why they are so rarely willing and able to lead them out. Untying mental knots and rising out of the mental abyss requires a heroic act of liberating leadership. It is unlikely to be done in the case of Mrs May. But it has been done in the past, often in far more difficult cases.
Mr Gorbachev demonstrated that a skilled leader can sometimes guide his society up out of an entire series of mental blocks, one that has kept its mind buried far underground for decades. Step by step he led the country in disentangling its mental vicious circles and pushing its way past its mental blocks. The rehabilitation of one condemned factional opened up the question of rehabilitating more deeply suppressed earlier factions. The loss of each vicious circle left insecure a wider range of vicious circles. Each act of mental recovery brought into the edge of the visual field several others a wider vista. The abandonment of each lie left exposed an earlier, greater mendacity. Over a span of six years, he phased out an entire structure of mentocracy that had grown and entrenched itself over a span of more than six decades.
The task facing Mrs May is much less daunting in essence. It is only three years of mutually reinforcing neuroses, not sixty-some years. But it is also more daunting in one regard. She has only several days left in which to exercise leadership. In this time, she could at most get her society a first part of the way out of its new neuroses. It would allow perhaps for lancing of the most severe, or logically or legally the most decisive, of the boils that her tenure has fostered in the mind of the body politic. It may well be too late politically for Mrs May to call for a second referendum. Withdrawing Article 50 is a simpler move; it is something within her power to her last hour. It too would restore Brexit as the open question it in fact always was after the first referendum, but would not set forth the way to resolve the question.
In part it was the invocation of Article 50, which pundits have come to say was a premature invocation, that closed off the normal processes of the public mind on Brexit. By officially closing the main subject of Brexit, it relegated much of the actual thinking to an underground space. Neuroses grew strong to hide and block the disallowed thoughts. As revoking Article 50 would free the expression of the real public thinking, it would provide an opening for curative development.
Prognosis for Mrs May’s subsequent therapy
My plans for follow-on sessions are unfortunately based on the premise that Mrs May will not unravel most of her neuroses in her remaining days in office, develop a mature ego in the days, and take actions that will leave her with a sense of having in the end corrected what she could correct. I anticipate her to be dealing rather for some years to come with her feeling to have been a failure on a catastrophic scale. This is, like all prognoses, subject to the possibility that the patient will make sudden breakthroughs, climb over a series of mental blocks, and take unanticipated actions. As what she does in the next few days is critical for her future psyche, she could in these days confute my prognosis. However, I give the prognosis of failure a high probability. She has not shown signs of a strong wish to trespass her mental blocks, nor sought any accelerated schedule for therapy.