Out of mind

Is Blair a psychopath?
July 19, 2003

A few days before the start of the Iraq war, the newspapers carried a picture of a young soldier, an 18-year-old boy. I have a teenage son. I projected his features onto the page. A week or so later, driving to work, I heard the news that a boy soldier had been killed in action. My heart sank. When I learned that it was not the boy in the picture, I felt an irrational sense of relief. The dead boy had a different name; he was a year older. It was still shocking, but the effect was at the cooler, cognitive end of the empathy spectrum. It lacked emotional charge. I knew neither of these young men, but the photograph made the difference. The image had seeped into my limbic brain. Faces are points of convergence between people. The dead boy was faceless.

I could not countenance sending my own children into battle. The decision to send them would have to be for someone else to take. I wouldn't have the moral courage. I am not a pacifist. I understand that there may be justifications for going to war. But whoever were to take that brave decision on my behalf should have the capacity for empathy. I'd want it to hurt. It is not moral courage otherwise.

If his public image is to be believed, empathy is Tony Blair's forte. He is a political device constructed almost entirely from the fibres of trust and integrity-emotionally intelligent and insatiably empathic. That's the deal written in the contract of his body language. The body is versatile enough, morphing fluidly from chino'd weekender to shirt-sleeved troubleshooter to dark-suited world statesman. But the face, the siphon of empathic exchange, is a cybertronic marvel. Structurally-the shape of the head, the definition of cheekbones and jaw line, the size and separation of eyes, nose and mouth-it is a masterpiece of pragmatic compromise. Good looking, but not disconcertingly so. Masculine, but with a hint of femininity. Mature but not haggard or sagging. Establishment but not aristocratic. In action, it is impressive to behold: the precision of the facial musculature, pressing the lips, knitting the brows, the gaze now penetrating, now absorbed.

According to Schopenhauer, "a man's face says more of interest than does his tongue... it is the monogram of all his thoughts and aspirations." The Blair face radiates a desire for bonding and affiliation. His plea for trust has dug its way into the contours. In this, he is quite different from his predecessors. Margaret Thatcher's physiognomy might have been sculpted out of ice. She didn't want to be loved. It wasn't even respect she was after. It was obedience. You rarely saw true signs of empathy. The expressive range of her public face didn't go much beyond anger and contempt. As a neuropsychologist naturally inclined to biologise, I imagine that her amygdaloid and caudate brain circuitries, which drive those emotions, must have been close to meltdown. Even stabs at humour were delivered in a tone of admonishment. At last the Iron Lady cracked and we saw tears, but only with the knives in her back.

John Major didn't want to be loved either. He would have settled for respect. That would have been agreeable. His facial displays were low-key and stiff. With his archaic linguistic constructions and dry-bone monotone he strove for quiet authority. Instead he came across as bloodless. Behind the grey fa?ade there was, as everyone knew, a character beyond fiction: the boy who left the circus to join a bank, the innumerate bus conductor who tried his hand at being chancellor of the exchequer and (we now know) the crafty philanderer. But as a national figure, Major attracted neither love nor loathing. If Thatcher's pathology was subcortical-a dysfunction of those deep brain regions concerned with territoriality, and a narrow repertoire of atavistic emotions (the so-called "reptilian brain")-one might caricature Major as someone showing signs of frontal lobe disorder: the emotional flatness, the loss of initiative and spontaneity, the pathological indecision.

So what's Blair's pathology? Some of my colleagues (and some of his) diagnose narcissism. Others see delusions of grandeur. But there are other possibilities. Early days, but suppose it turns out that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Suppose that the prime minister was, indeed, party to the ramping-up of what flimsy evidence there might have been for such weapons in order to keep us on a pre-set course for war. Imagine, in other words, that he has been lying through his smiling teeth. Set this against his affiliative personal style and the profile that begins to emerge is that of the plausible psychopath-charming, intelligent, emotionally manipulative, ruthlessly ambitious and self-serving. Plausible psychopaths are skilled in the tricks of cognitive empathy (the cool, calculating mind-reading sort) but deficient in the affective variety-owing, one theory has it, to underactive emotional centres in the temporal lobes.

I don't believe any of this neurobabble. I think Blair is an honourable man. That's part of the reason I voted for him, and I don't expect to be betrayed. It would feel like a personal let-down. For the sake of that faceless dead boy, I hope they find those weapons.