Corbyn, Blair and Emotional History
Before the drama of this weekend unfolded, an article in the Independent commented on the emotional politics of the Labour leadership campaign. Written by a psychiatrist, it cautioned that the characterisation of Jeremy Corbyn’s Leftist ideals as “emotional”, and his opponents’ centrist proposals as “rational”, wilfully fails to acknowledge the impulses of human nature. It may be comforting for the Right of the party to suggest that their views belong to the ‘superior realm’ of facts and logic, and that such pragmatism is borne of a mature social and economic astuteness, but the reality is that every thought has ‘an emotional substrate’ behind it .
Tony’s Blair’s emotional substrates have come to the fore of late: the idea that Corbyn presents something new is ‘laughable’; his politics are ‘Alice in Wonderland’; and his supporters are in need of heart transplants. However, the contradictions of his position are barely concealed; he also complains that the leadership race had become a ‘politics of parallel reality… in which reason is an irritation, evidence a distraction [and] emotional impact is king’ . Blair’s emotional pleas on behalf of rationality and reason have created a pleasing irony for his opponents; the more desperate, personalised and impassioned the attacks, the less impact they had on the fast-growing Labour Party franchise.
Blair’s clumsy confusion of passion, pragmatism, insults and despair betrayed the reality that the thoughts and actions of politicians (and everyone else) are emotionally driven. And when we encounter social or cultural phenomena that violently contravene (or accord with) our beliefs, our emotions become particularly exercised. It is the relation between emotions and their social and cultural contexts that has driven a growing interest in the history of emotions over the last 20 or 30 years.
This historiography, whether leaning towards more cognitive-psychological or socio-cultural interpretations, coheres around the understanding that a person’s emotional behaviour results from a combination of raw feeling, driven by a biological impulse, and a judgment or evaluation. It is the judgment or evaluation that is culturally, socially and politically defined, rendering emotions historically contingent, and therefore demanding of attention within the discipline . Context is everything.
Sometimes, the emotional mood of the nation can imbue cultural understandings of appropriate behaviour, such as the privileging of modes of restraint and self-control, which have governed norms of masculine behaviour in Britain and America at various points in the modern period. Peter Stearns describes such phenomena as emotionology. Alternatively, Barbara Rosenwein uses the idea of emotional communities to describe dominant characteristics of different social groups in the mediaeval era, while William Reddy has developed the concept of emotives, to describe the words historical actors use to express feeling, within emotional regimes.These different approaches show how emotions can provide helpful conceptual frameworks within which to assess historical circumstances, changes and continuities on a number of levels. .
For political leaders, their emotional demeanour, the emotional characteristics of the social groups they are addressing, and the prevailing emotional context, are important components of success. Martin Francis illustrates this to good effect in his analysis of Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold MacMillan, Tears, Tantrums, and Bared Teeth: The Emotional Economy of Three Conservative Prime Ministers, 1951–1963 , in which the men’s successes and failures are mapped against their emotional relevance at particular socio-cultural moments.
Though his political leadership years are behind him, Tony Blair might do well to take heed from such historical accounts. As with many on the Right of the party, he misjudged the emotional mood of the leadership electorate, while his increasingly emotional claims to represent rationality and reason came across as disingenuous and out of touch. Paradoxically, it was Corbyn’s more measured expressions of thoughts and beliefs, which revealed heartfelt judgments of the present political situation, that ultimately had greater resonance.