How do you explain behaviour so egregious that it ends your ministerial career? How do you justify breaching legal restrictions you yourself imposed on everyone else? How do you excuse physical intimacy with a colleague when thousands were unable to touch and hold those that they most cherished, sometimes even for the last time? Ever since his resignation as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care following leaked CCTV of a passionate extra-marital clinch with his unpaid adviser and lobbyist Gina Coladangelo, Matt Hancock’s rationale has been the supremacy of the heart over the head. The disgraced minster asserts that he broke his own guidelines ‘because I fell in love with someone’, gushingly declaring to interviewers that ‘We fell in love, and that’s something that’s completely outside my control’. For Hancock, love had clearly conquered all, and public affairs could not withstand the challenge of private feelings.
This notion that statecraft may struggle to assert itself against the unsettling power of affect may seem like yet another baleful symptom of a world in which emotions have been granted too much legitimacy and indulgence in public life. There seems to be a convention, albeit one rarely tested, that we live in an ‘age of emotion’. The ascendancy of feelings over thought appears almost universal – whether reflected in the triumph of anti-intellectual progressive platitudes in our universities, the visceral politics of Trumpism, the anger and grief created by both the Covid pandemic and political debates over Brexit, or in a growing belief that institutions (whether schools, employers or even, in the case of the confected anguish of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the royal family) have an obligation to sustain and enhance the ‘mental health’ of those for whom they are nominally responsible. Contemporary politicians (even those, such as Boris Johnson, who vaunt their classical educations) no longer seem to aspire to the model of Cicero, whose suspicion both of displays of emotion and affected manners was still being promoted as a template of constricted elegance and dignified stoicism in prescriptive literature on public civility as recently as the 1950s. Judging from the recourse to the language of ‘hurt feelings’ in the Dominic Raab ‘bullying’ scandal, even the civil service – whose pragmatic, unsentimental, and disinterested approach to policy making has long served as a model of repudiated passion – has not been immune to the disruptions of the affective domain.
In fact, emotions have always been entwined with politics – and not just because humans are inherently emotional creatures. Emotions can serve as a political resource, and anger, fear or shame have regularly been deployed to further ideological stances or personal ambitions. Political emotion, however, operates within definite conventions and constraints. These protocols – which I would term the ‘emotional economy’ of politics – attempt to regulate when displays of emotion are appropriate and when they are not. This regulation is of course never absolute and is deeply marked by contradiction and inconsistency. For example, democratic political cultures in the modern period supposedly repudiated displays of public anger, but righteous indignation has usually been deemed justified and acceptable. Public tears may suggest a dangerous lack of self-control inappropriate in a public figure, but, on selected occasions, moist eyes can be seen to reflect sincerity, authenticity and compassion.
The contradictions in the emotional economy of politics were already only too evident from the onset of the modern age. The Enlightenment created an impulse towards rationalizations of all kinds, but it also promoted a culture of ‘sensibility’ which had important political aspects, not least in fostering notions of empathy that could form basis of political action. After 1789, along with the emphasis on the power of human reason, revolutionaries emphasized that natural sentiments, available to everyone and acquired through the senses, could serve as the basis for morality and political reform. The revolutionary fervour of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the anti-slavery movement that arose in the same period, both spoke to the significance of emotion as a political resource.
The priority for historians is to understand the contingency of emotional conventions and standards in politics, to map how they vary across time and space, but also to explain them and not take them as self-evident. To take one example, in the late 1940s and 1950s emotional control was a critical motif in British political discourse. Self-discipline was considered a vital requirement for effective public service and displays of unfettered emotion were regarded as inappropriate. Serious, sober, and ordered behaviour from Britain’s political leaders accorded with the cultural norms of a society that identified restraint as vital to the complex task of postwar social reconstruction. Once the war ended, competence and efficiency became the test of political effectiveness.
The emergence of this new emotional economy in politics was dramatically symbolized by the replacement in 1945 of Churchill (whose indifference to the culture of self-control was acknowledged in his declaration to the painter John Rothenstein that ‘if I have been of service to my fellow man, it has never been by self-repression, but always by self-expression’) by the notoriously unassuming and impassive Attlee. Moreover, uncontrolled emotion transgressed a conception of British (or more accurately, white Anglo-Saxon) national identity that was rooted in self-restraint. British reserve and discretion were deliberately counterpoised to the unregulated emotional cultures of various others, most notably foreign demagogues, boisterous Americans and people of colour (whether they be anti-colonial insurgents or newly arrived West Indian immigrants).
This emphasis on emotional self-control in the immediate postwar years was bolstered by changes in media and political communication. The decline of the mass public meeting severely circumscribed the potential for demagogy, disruption, and physical violence in electoral politics. In place of the old-style rally, politicians became increasingly reliant on the agencies of radio and television to project both opinion and personality. Radio was, of course, not without its demagogic potential, as the fire- brand broadcasts of Father Coughlin in the prewar United States had demonstrated. However, the Reithian ethos that dominated the BBC until the 1960s left little scope for spontaneity and passion in political broadcasting. On television, too, politicians found a lack of oratorical flourish was a virtue rather than a liability. As Harold Macmillan observed, ‘Almost everything that one has learnt for public speaking has to be forgotten for a television performance. One has to remind oneself all the time that it is not a speech but a conversation; and that the audience, however large in the aggregate, in fact consists of two or three persons sitting quietly in a room, not subject to any of the emotions which can be stirred in a great public gathering’.
This era of emotional self-control in politics was relatively short-lived. The shift from austerity to consumer affluence from the late 1950s onwards meant that the dominant social currents were no longer defined in terms of rationality and restraint but in terms of immediacy, impact and sensationalism. Moreover, even in what we might regard as the classic era of emotional self-control in politics, there were moments when it proved impossible to turn down the political thermostat. The British government’s decision to use military force to restore British control of the Suez Canal in 1956 produced a political crisis that was seen – even at the time – as characterized by a heightened emotional temperature, provoking intense collective feelings of pride, anger, and shame. Suez created violent partisan confrontations both between and within political parties, but also created rancour and outrage which divided families and ruptured friendships. Contemporaries argued that there had been nothing like it in British public life since the Munich crisis in 1938, or the turmoil over Irish Home Rule in the 1880s. With the benefit of hindsight, it certainly seems fair to assert that there was nothing like it again until the paroxysms unleashed by Blair’s decision to support the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, or the Brexit debates of 2016-19.
Suez also produced a highly personal emotional crisis, that of Prime Minister Anthony Eden. Unlike his flamboyant predecessor, Churchill, Eden’s public style was characterized by a widely-admired composure and self-possession. Yet this reserved and dispassionate public performance obscured a private emotional disposition that was much more tempestuous. Eden feared that he had inherited the uncontrollable rages that plagued his father and thus laboured to keep his temper under tight rein. The loss of both his mother and his son in 1945 and the collapse of his first marriage created private despair, but the public façade was never allowed to slip. Ill-health added to his increasing loss of emotional self-control. From 1953 Eden developed intense abdominal pains after a botched gall bladder operation, and resort to Benzedrine exacerbated his insomnia and mood swings. Those who worked with him began to notice the volatile temperament that lay beneath the urbane veneer, as the Premier became increasingly irascible and petulant. In the context of heightened emotions roused by Suez, he could no longer suppress his overwrought sensibility which he had tried to keep under check for so long. Eden’s physical and mental collapse in November 1956 was soon followed by his resignation.
If Eden’s fall demonstrated the private (and indeed public) costs of an emotional economy of politics based on self-restraint, today’s culture of emotional disclosure hardly seems like an improvement. This brings us back to Matt Hancock’s excruciating recourse to over-sharing and onscreen PDAs. Politicians have long sought fame, but in the past it was usually related to renown or achievement. Contemporary politicians, however, have too readily embraced the prescriptions of modern mediatized celebrity culture. Human interest stories about celebrities are predicated on supposed popular access to the intimate lives and private feelings of public figures. The idea that this notion could be applied, beyond film stars, socialites, or sports personalities to the world of formal politics would have had much less traction in the era of Attlee or Eden. Winston Churchill, for instance, was one of the most recognizable and renowned people on the planet in the 1940s and 1950s, but the public was rarely permitted access to his family and domestic life and was given no inkling of his personal struggle with depression. Contemporary politicians such as Hancock, by contrast, attempt to align themselves with celebrity culture by (albeit orchestrated) disclosure of their private lives and feelings, in order to either gain sympathy or project authenticity. Hancock’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here was therefore nothing but apposite.
However, if working within this type of emotional economy was intended to facilitate a political comeback, Hancock appears not to have succeeded. Perhaps the problem is that the emotion he has chosen to share so extravagantly is romantic love. Love is certainly one of the primary emotions, but it is much more difficult to utilize as a political resource than the other primary emotions of fear, anger and grief (especially when the politics of Trump, Brexit and Covid have brought these particular emotions to the foreground of political discourse). Romantic love speaks too much of private claims to sit comfortably with a commitment to public service, as Edward VIII discovered to his cost during the 1936 Abdication crisis. Moreover, the British public (and indeed journalists and academic commentators) are today more comfortable talking about sex than about love. Such squeamishness about the emotional, as opposed to the physical, dimension of sexual attraction, has inevitably meant responses to Hancock’s bearing of his heart have been characterized by derision and scorn.
Of course, subsequent events – notably the appearance of the ‘Lockdown files’ and Hancock’s falling foul of the Led by Donkeys sting operation – have ensured that the dominant emotions associated with the former Health Secretary of late have not been love, but rather disgust, anger and contempt. Hancock is likely to find his resort to the claims of romantic love will do little to save him until he is forced to take on board two other critical emotions which have been singularly lacking in his particular rendering of the emotional economy of politics. Those two emotions, it almost goes without saying, are embarrassment and shame.
Martin Francis is Professor of War and History at the University of Sussex. He has written several articles on the “emotional economy” of post-war British politics. His most recent book is Empire, Celebrity and Excess: King Farouk of Egypt and British Culture 1936-1965 (Bloomsbury, 2022).