The Sunday Times

February 28th, 2010

Behind the bullying, Brown is a dangerous weirdo

It was reassuring to hear from the prime minister last week that he has never hit anyone. No one had openly accused him of it, so it was perhaps a little odd that he felt obliged to volunteer this information. But in a week of avid speculation about his violent rages and his tendency to kick things, it was probably worth his claiming that he never actually punches anyone. People might believe it. And Brown and his supporters may even have succeeded in persuading some people that he is not a bully at all, or that if he sometimes gets a bit cross it is only with himself.

I myself am completely unpersuaded by Peter Mandelson’s oily account of the prime minister’s high-minded good nature; after all, during his long and bitter estrangement from Brown, Mandelson went about telling journalists that Gordon was out to get him.

The real question isn’t whether Brown is a bully. It would be very surprising if the prime minister were not a bully, in some sense. Most people with power abuse it. Many act badly under great pressure. There are ferocious bullies at the top of most competitive worlds: in such worlds bullying is just the distorted, hypertrophied face of authority and power. The real question is whether Brown is the right sort of bully.

Bullying comes in many forms. At its most benign it is the technique of the sergeant-major or the old-fashioned schoolmaster to force the best out of unpromising recruits and students. I sometimes think that if I had not been relentlessly bullied by the best teacher at my school — regularly subjected to fear, abusive criticism and public humiliation — I would not have been forced to work hard and learn something. Bullying like this is unpleasant but it is not exactly personal; it’s not personally meant and the bully doesn’t particularly enjoy it. Above all, it is effective.

The kind of bullying of which Brown is suspected is entirely different. It is the uncontrolled raging of a desperate man, driven in his frustration and misery to lash out randomly at anyone nearby.

All the anecdotes about Brown’s rages, for what they’re worth, paint much the same picture: they reveal a man so absolutely overwhelmed by his own ambition and vanity, and so obsessed by the fear of injury to either, that at moments of threat he loses the run of himself. Such a man might well lose the run of the government in the process, for hysterically blaming the messenger, indulging obsessively in paranoid rumination and terrifying junior staff is not compatible with effective leadership; furiously denouncing anyone who disagrees with him as a traitor is unlikely to encourage people to speak truth to power; shifting blame onto advisers and briefing against them in the media will corrupt their advice, and isolate him.

This is bullying not as strength but as a counterproductive symptom of weakness. In a prime minister it is very alarming. And in the Brown government we see the results you might expect — constant indecision, U-turns, resignations and hasty and short-lived initiatives; a government at the mercy of its own changing moods.

What’s important here is not so much the bullying itself as the mental disorder beneath it — the red-hot emotional lava heaving beneath the eruptions, and its dangers in a public man. Admittedly amateurs are unwise to step on such uncertain ground, but having over many years had to think hard about various kinds of personality disorder in my extended family, I shall rush in where angels fear to tread. Besides, Brown abandoned any claim to respect for his privacy with his Piers Morgan interview, demanding our understanding for him as a person. He might not like that.

Whatever the truth of Andrew Rawnsley’s portrait of Brown, the prime minister is without a doubt the strangest, most emotionally dysfunctional person I have met. We were together at a dinner once and I felt that his inability to behave remotely normally was almost pitiful.

At times he fixed a broad, exaggerated smile to his face, almost randomly it seemed, and directed it at someone, but he kept getting it wrong — the wrong moment to smile, the wrong person to smile at and occasionally the wrong place to smile at. When challenged by one guest on some difficult economic point, he kept baring his teeth in the opposite direction, at the lovely bosom of a guest on his other side who was not part of the conversation. He made me think of an android with faulty programming.

Brown had not endeared himself to other guests at drinks before dinner with his arrogance. Lecturing several of us on the merits of Latin and the humanity of Adam Smith, he made it plain he assumed we were all less well educated and less intelligent. He had misjudged his company but had neither the quickness nor the social skills to pick that up or put it right, and this at a moment when he was clearly trying hard to make friends and influence people. When challenged, as an honest man who prized honesty, to put right, if only in private, a certain dishonest statement in parliament that day, he weaselled out of it.

Gordon Brown’s lack of self-knowledge and his lack of understanding of others, like his compulsive bullying and his obsessively savaged fingernails, seem to me to be clearly pathological. I may not be qualified to say so, but I am entitled to wonder about it and so is the electorate.

Recently a story emerged that Brown was being prescribed powerful antidepressants; the allegation was never substantiated so it was dropped. But what struck me was the widespread view at the time that a prime minister should not be asked about his mental health. That is nonsense. Significant depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders and autism-spectrum disorders all can and do profoundly affect a person’s judgment and behaviour in disastrous ways. All are difficult, and some impossible, to treat. It is clearly in the public interest to know whether our prime minister is suffering from any of these disabilities.

When Brown was close to overthrowing his predecessor, Frank Field supposedly begged Tony Blair not to “let Mrs Rochester out of the attic”. We know what Mrs Rochester did when she got out. She burnt the whole house down and herself with it. I cannot know where personality ends and pathology begins, but I do not think that such matters, in public life, should be kept secret.