Greasy Pole: Obsessed With Disorder

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his keen sense of anticipation for my interesting speech… I know that for the hon. Gentleman’s party it is always somebody else’s fault… the hon. Gentleman is confused… the hon. Gentleman knows that I respect him… my hon. Friend is absolutely right… (Jim Murphy, Labour MP for East Renfrewshire, House of Commons 16 February 2011).


As the 2015 election draws nearer, we shall find ourselves under ever fiercer pressure to express our relieved gratitude for the courage and sanity of all the decisions taken by our Members of Parliament. As an early example of this, in summer last June there was a debate in the Commons about mental ill-health and the fact that sufferers of it are restricted in the opportunities open to them in employment and other fields. A surprisingly large clutch of MPs told of their experience of the illness in its various forms. Among them were Labour’s former Defence Minister, the renowned bruiser Kevan Jones and the Conservative ex-general practitioner Sarah Wollaston. In particular, one who seems likely to make it his recurring theme was Charles Walker, MP for the Green Belt (although Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer occupied) Borough of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire. Walker’s condition is not of a kind to make him uncontrollably violent or perilously demented; it is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which holds him in a grip of needing to carry out everyday actions-washing his hands, turning lights off – in sets of four. Symptoms can be effectively numberless – and debilitating: Walker relates ‘I say “My grandmother’s hat is green” four times, and then just to be sure I say it another four times, and then in my head I think, better say it 16 times, just in case’. Other sufferers may be compelled to open a door repeatedly to see if there is anyone outside, or to sit with their legs crossed in a particular, even if uncomfortable, way.


Walkerwas first aware of having the disease when he was 13 years old. It was worse at university, again when he worked at ‘marketing’ and then when he became an MP – after failing in the 2001 election against the immovable Steve Pound in Ealing North. He is inclined to ‘catastrophise’ – always prepare for the worst. (Although we might ask whether this may be connected with the requirements of ‘marketing’ and all that it implies in the need for unremitting drive to promote the processing of some commodities in the face of competition). And there was the House of Commons, inhabited with those inflated personalities who defend their self-constructed reputation for decisive and effective action against all questioners and faint-hearts, even although they fail to control this essentially anarchic social system. Informed by an interviewer that he is ‘incredibly honest for a politician’, Walker responds: ‘Well I can barely lie’ – which if it were true would in fact isolate him to a degree undreamed of by any victim of OCD.


Some of the speakers in the mental health debate described their symptoms in frighteningly colourful terms but Walker was not among them, preferring to flavour his account with a lighter touch, telling of his family likening him to an extra in Riverdance as he bounces in and out of the room. And he used some relaxed language: ‘Look, it’s not a problem, it really is not: let’s get over it guys and move on’. And then winding up: ‘Hon. Gentlemen, Hon. Ladies and friends, rock and roll, as they say’. But he is capable of a different type of colourful contribution. On 9 November 2005, when he was a new Member, the Blair government were defeated by 322 to 291 votes on their proposal to extend to 90 days the period of detention of terrorist suspects without trial. Walker got himself into the news by shouting ‘Police state’ at Blair, who left the chamber shaking his head in anger and later bitterly denounced his opponents. Walker is not always disrespectful to his leaders. On Margaret Thatcher he ‘… admired her from afar… a great woman, a great Prime Minister and she had love of this country emblazoned on her heart’. But he is not so bedazzled by the present leadership for on the matter of their opposition to the proposed rise in MPs pay he raged that Cameron and Clegg are ‘crass’ and ‘trying to make capital off their MPs’. Even further – and perhaps dangerously, he thinks that ‘there are many, many better people in parliament as humble backbenchers than those at the head of our parties ‘. He does not fit in completely with the Daily Mail stereotype of the predictable right-wing MP from a South England shire for while he thinks that immigration has been too free and rates himself as a Eurosceptic he supports same-sex marriage.


Mental illness does not take root and proliferate in isolation. There are many examples of it being a defence against the stress of survival in poverty – which validates those psychiatrists who might regard it as comparatively healthy, preferable to surrendering to those pressures. In another field there is a thicket of evidence about the psychiatric damage to soldiers who have survived one type of combat – Iraq, Afghanistan – only to find themselves laid low when they are invalided out and have to face the devastating disciplines of employment and shortage of money. On this basis it might be argued that politicians can endure the frustrations of struggling to reshape the savagery of capitalism only by diagnosing themselves as mental invalids. The history of politics is littered with examples of policies which governments have persisted with when, judged even by their own appalling standards, they were driving themselves into exposed failure. For example Iraq and Afghanistan were preceded by bloody episodes such as the Suez invasion in 1956, Kenya, Palestine… It is the same story in domestic politics, when ministers and their ‘experts’ apply their power over us by insisting on measures which were clearly doomed to failure – the Poll Tax, the Child Support Agency, Norman Lamont’s ERM. Charles Walker may speak about his OCD, apparently unconscious of the fact that trying to govern – to control – capitalism must demand a disorder which is obsessional and compulsive because this is intrinsic to a government’s priority to disguise the awful reality of their sick impotence.

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