The case for a Political Leaders’ Emotional Wellbeing programme

Acknowledging the present

Like many folk we continue watching – with a combination of incredulous frustration and not a little despair – the UK Government’s relentless conveyor-belt of iniquitous behaviours. (Even if you’re not in the UK yourself, no doubt your country is not immune from at least some malaise in the operation of its government, so you may find this a useful case-study.)

The evidence that the UK’s constitution is demonstrably unfit for purpose is all too clear – as is the populace’s powerlessness to do anything about it until the next general election.

And while it’s all very well calling this out, and although it may be cathartic to engage in that oh-so-British tradition of tutting, and collective hand-wringing, such responses do nothing to solve the problem, nor address its root cause. Crucially, another general election brings no guarantee the system will change. So the problems will either persist or – even if the symptoms go away for a while – they’ll almost certainly return.

We’d therefore like to make a couple of suggestions which (if they haven’t already occurred to you) may be useful to consider. Perhaps you might even find them interesting enough to contribute to.

Emotional fitness

The first of our ideas was prompted by a friend of ours who, in 2018, applied to join the Metropolitan Police. One of the last pieces of her recruitment process was a psychological evaluation. Such evaluations are now a well established part of the process for any UK police force, and those in many other countries. And rightly so. Surely it’s a no-brainer to check that someone isn’t a psycho before issuing them with a truncheon, a warrant card and a pair of handcuffs.

Of course, stories over the last few years – particularly coming out of the Metropolitan Police – call into question the efficacy of this system. Baroness Casey’s recent review explicitly does so. Even so, for all the demonstrable flaws of the psych evaluation system, surely no one would say it should be ditched. Quite the reverse in fact: the calls are for it to be extended and made more effective.

So here’s the thing. It seems everyone would accept it’s a no-brainer that a person needs to prove – before they’re given the job – that they’re psychologically fit to enforce the laws of the land. Why, then, is this not also a minimum hygiene requirement for those who are going to make those laws?  Seriously, why not?

People may protest about the practicalities of implementing such a policy, but those issues can surely be overcome if the will is there. And why wouldn’t it be? From a well-being-of-the-nation perspective, how could anyone make a case for saying citizens don’t have a right to expect this as a minimum hygiene requirement from those whose actions and decisions affect the lives of us all?

Ongoing psychological support

We feel such a requirement would be a useful start, but wouldn’t be enough. We recently watched a re-run of the documentary about Margaret Thatcher’s years in office. And it was fascinating to be reminded of how, the longer she stayed in Downing Street, the more detached she became from the real world. The Westminster bubble is evidently a distinctive (and seemingly toxic) environment. Even back-bench MPs must be affected by it. They bear a lot of responsibility for the quality of people’s lives. They’re surely also affected by the emotional impact of an often hostile media, not to mention some of the difficult stories they may have to deal with when they sit down with their constituents each week.

So, in addition to having to pass that psych eval before they enter Parliament (or at least become members of the Government) should it not also be a mandatory requirement that all MPs have weekly sessions with a qualified coach or counsellor? This would be partly for emotional support and, in some cases, might also help them progressively address their own personal baggage, which must surely affect the quality of their decision-making on your behalf. Psychotherapists get regular ‘supervision’ as a matter of course, which helps support their emotional well-being. Why, then, is this not the default for Parliamentarians, whose mental health can affect everyone else’s lives?

Taking a global view

We appreciate some might say that people who are politically well-connected would find ways to get around such a system if they wanted to. They might choose coaches who shared their political leanings, and merely go through the motions rather than address the gnarly internal ‘stuff’ which gives rise to their potentially harmful cognitive biases. So any such system would likely work only if those ‘psychological support workers’ were independently appointed and supervised.  But, by whom? After all, this problem isn’t restricted to the UK.

So here’s one more thought to leave you with.

The United Nations was set up in 1945, when the issue of mental health was highly taboo. But how many of the world’s problems since then – other than natural disasters – have been caused by political leaders who were (er, how can we put this delicately?) ‘psychologically challenged’. Can you think of a single conflict started by political leaders who were truly at peace in their own hearts? (Not to mention the numerous atrocities committed by national leaders within their own borders.) Of course not. And with the growing climate emergency, that widespread emotional unwellness now surely risks contributing to the increasing number, scale and frequency of natural disasters too.

Could a PLEWP be a solution?

To address this problem at source, then, perhaps it would be healthy to do a little thought experiment. People now appreciate the importance of mental health. Discussing it and supporting it no longer carries the stigma it did in the mid 1940s. So, if the UN were being set up today, might not part of its mechanisms for underpinning humankind’s well-being include some sort of “Political Leaders’ Emotional Well-being Programme”?  Just imagine a world in which members of every Government across the planet were being emotionally supported, every week, by UN appointed coaches.

When you first hear that idea it may sound radical. But just pause for a moment, and look at the 75+ years of historical evidence of not having such a programme. Is it such an outrageous concept? Or, in the interests of the people of the world – given what we’re seeing in the UK and other countries – should this not be a no-brainer?  Our guess is that it would be only the most emotionally damaged politicians who would be against it – which would surely tell its own story to the voters.

But how could it work in practice?  Given the highly toxic nature of the current political environment in the UK and other countries, would the PLEWP be enough on its own?  Or would it work only in the context of a more holistic remodelling of how countries are governed?

And if so, what might that new model need to look like?