There is a new psychological syndrome which has strong Canadian roots: paulmartinitis. It occurs when national finance Ministers become convinced that they need to lead the country and spend years plotting to do so, only to find on securing the top job that they are not capable of it. While Paul Martin is one Canadian example of this, he is not the only one – several national leaders around the world can be seen to be suffering from the syndrome. It also turns out that he may have “caught” some elements of this syndrome from John Turner and other elements from Jim Callaghan of Britain who was, looking back, also a carrier of the syndrome and suffered its consequence – humiliation at the hands of the electorate.
In the current political world, the Prime Minister of Britain, Gordon Brown, is clearly experiencing the full blown symptoms of this syndrome – political onslaught from all sides within their own party, arrogance, denial of reality, stumbling through several attempts to relaunch themselves and alienation from the electorate. Those around him are showing the usual signs of self-deception and undue loyality. His days are numbered.
There are three features of this syndrome which are worthy of note. First, the individual themselves remain convinced until the day they loose office that they are “the right person for the job” or, as Margaret Thatcher used to say “there is no alternative”. Further, the more obvious it becomes that this is not the case, the more vehement they are in asserting their inherent right to office. Paul Martin’s final election campaign contained so much vitriolic self-serving rhetoric that it would have been possible to provide sufficient hot air to fuel a round the world balloon race.
Second, those around the person suffering from this syndrome become so obsessed by the fear of failure. This in turn leads them to assert that there is no alternative to the Prime Minister. Harriet Harman, the Deputy Prime Minister of Britain and Jack Straw the Justice Minister and many others are demonstrating this feature at the moment with respect to Gordon Brown –in doing so, failing to mask their own underlying ambitions.
Third, and most important, the impact of the syndrome with respect to the work that Government is supposed to do and its impact on the electorate seems not to be a consideration for those seeking to treat the syndrome by removing the underlying cause – an ineffective Prime Minister. Fear of loss of political patronage, loss of personal position and loss of power by the party override concerns about health care, housing, food prices or the environment. So much time and attention is spent managing the syndrome and its effects that there is little time left to do the real work of government.
In the end, the only known cure for this syndrome is called a ballot. This is a complex procedure, used rarely because the risk of real career-threatening consequences are known to be high, and involves the electorate assessing the extent of damage the syndrome is doing to the country and themselves. In the case of Paul Martin, it lead to the collapse of the Liberal Party, which remains in the doldrums and not seen as yet ready for Government by many, especially those who remember Paul Martin. In Britain, it will lead to the collapse of the “New” Labour Party as we know it and the exile from public life for a period of time of Gordon Brown.
Other interventions have been tried by pioneering political surgeons – an internal party coup being one example of this. Margaret Thatcher fell because of just such a move made by Geoffrey Howe. A second intervention is to create the conditions for a scandal which will force the suffering Prime Minister to leave office. To be fair, the idea of Gordon Brown being involved in a sex scandal is, well, simply beyond belief.
As with all addictions, there is only one route that can avoid risky ballot surgery. It begins with the sufferer themselves admitting that they are not up to the position and seeking help. Former Finance Ministers Anonymous (FMA) recommends that the sufferer begins each day by chanting “I am not worthy” several times and, after a few days of this, resigning from office with the excuse of an illness. This is the first step to recovery. The second step is to find work that they can actually do, preferably out of politics – as did John Turner (eventually). I am sure that Gordon Brown’s own friends and private advisers are working on this particular cure strategy behind the scenes. We should wish them good luck.
Meantime, those around the sufferer and their public suffer. They can take relief by reading about Prime Ministers who are incompetent in other countries and saying “its not just us then” or by buying lottery tickets and hoping they will win enough to be able to leave the country - as many Brits already are