Mark Argent
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Politics:: articles since 2015 General Election
Thinking on a delusion

20 May 2015, first published in Liberal Democrat Voice

On the morning after the General Election, feeling rather shell-shocked by the results, I turned on the radio and caught John Dowland’s lute song In darkness let me dwell. The music captured the feeling of the moment, but context was more thought-provoking: a Radio 4 programme The glass delusion, exploring a seventeenth-century phenomenon of people thinking they were turning into glass.

The link to Dowland was because melancholia was seen as a disease of the imagination. That flowering of melancholic music and the glass delusion were reflections of what was going on in society at the time.

Delusions are manufactured symptoms which make life bearable: they beg the question of what someone with a delusion is escaping from. Freud’s influential essay Mourning and Melancholia suggests that the two look very similar, but in mourning there is a clear sense of what has been lost, but in melancholia it is something unknown, or unacknowledged, so melancholia is more generalised.

This leaves me thinking about the election. We face some big issues: globalisation, climate change, the European Union, and the potential breakup of the UK. These were barely mentioned. Even talk of the NHS focused on money and fantasies of threats, ducking the real issues of increased life expectancy and fear of death.

The Tory victory owes a lot to their stoking fears of the possible influence of the SNP on Labour, in flat contradiction of Labour’s assertion that there would be no deal, and of the reality that MPs returned by Scots constituencies have the same right to be involved in government formation as all other MPs.

Many in England were relieved that Scotland voted “No” to independence. Demonising the Scots to ensure an English-dominated majority and then ignoring their MPs seems bound to undermine the union. The poor standing of the Tories in Scotland owes a great deal to Margaret Thatcher and her legacy. It is as if they invented a delusion of the SNP/Labour threat to avoid engaging with the real threat of breaking up the UK. It’s no less dangerous in that they have been rewarded by having a small majority.

Globalisation and climate change are huge forces. One of the main tasks of the European Union is to create economic stability to enable us to face them. TTIP offers a way to extend that protection, though it has been met by lots of fantasised anxieties that have little to do with the actual text under discussion. Yet with populations of 1360 and 1250 million respectively, China and India both have more people than the EU and USA combined (825 million). Active involvement in the EU offers protection, yet UKIP and the right wing of the Tories seem to want to escape to a long-lost world where we were a colonial power. Like all delusions it is believable, not because the facts support it, but because the delusion makes people not see the facts. There is a half-focused mourning for an unspecified something lost — remarkably close to Freud’s definition of melancholia —   which stops people engaging with reality.

This starts to make sense of the poor showing of the Liberal Democrats. We’re an internationalist party, that engages with globalisation, is deeply (though not uncritically) committed to the European Union, and with a realistic approach to building a low-carbon economy. If those things are scary, and people are making a delusional flight from them, then our low vote makes sense.

By contrast, we now have a minister for the disabled who has a record of voting against disability benefits , an equalities minister on record as opposing gay marriage, the beginnings of an attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act, and a referendum being promised on membership of the EU after discussion of repatriation of powers, even though the House of Lords Europe Committee reported that this is against the national interest. Where Liberal Democrats pulled the coalition to a place of wise engagement, the Tories on their own seem drawn to a delusional world where they make up their own reality in a way that is profoundly dangerous.