In a week in which the news cycle has been dominated by the horrific events and subsequent fallout of the attacks in Paris last Friday you could be forgiven for thinking that this would be a week free of scandal in British politics. Step forward Ken Livingstone.
Livingstone, a strong opponent of the Trident nuclear weapons programme, was this week tasked alongside the pro-Trident Maria Eagle to convene Labour’s defence review. Criticism of his appointment from Labour MP Kevan Jones, resulted in Livingstone saying:
“I think he [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed…He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.”
Jones, praised for his open approach to discussing mental health problems in Parliament in 2012, described the comments as ‘grossly offensive’ and called for Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to “seriously consider whether Ken Livingstone is fit to represent the party if he’s prepared to insult tens of thousands of the electorate who suffer from mental illness.”
It is at this point that I must break the fourth wall. When I set out to write this blog it was with the intention of highlighting the extent to which attitudes to mental health had changed. I had assumed that Livingstone had apologised in a hurry in an act of damage limitation. I sought a historical precedent through which to show how things had progressed and I was obliged by Conservative backbencher Phillip Davies, the current MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire. In 2011 Davies stated that the minimum wage was “more of a hindrance than a help” to those suffering from mental health problems. Representatives from disability charity Scope and mental health charity Mind spoke out against Davies’ comments attributing negativity surrounding the comments to “left wing hysteria”.
Representatives from disability charity Scope and mental health charity Mind spoke out against Davies’ comments who in turn attributed negativity surrounding the comments to “left wing hysteria”.
Left wing hysteria now dictates that you can't even repeat what people with learning disabilities tell you if it questions their shibboleths
— Philip Davies MP (@PhilipDaviesMP) June 17, 2011
Any expectations that attitudes to mental health had changed between these two incidents, and that this change had prompted Livingstone’s apology, were quickly dismissed by the nature of the apology, and by trend data on public attitudes.
1/2 I unreservedly apologise to Kevan Jones for my comments. They should not have been made at all, let alone in this context.
— Ken Livingstone (@ken4london) November 18, 2015
2/2 I also make this apology because Jeremy is right to insist on a more civil politics and as a party we should take this seriously
— Ken Livingstone (@ken4london) November 18, 2015
Livingstone’s reluctant but eventual apology reflects the progress in public attitudes to mental ill health – definite progress has been made, but over the last 20 years this progress has perhaps been slower than would be ideal.
The data – found in the Attitudes to Mental Illness 2012 Research Report published by Time to change in September 2013 – does not bring us right up to date, but we can see important trends both in the way attitudes to mental illness have changed and in the way they have stayed the same.
Overall there has been a clear improvements in attitudes to mental health in the United Kingdom, with decreased levels of fear and desired exclusion of those with mental health.
There is however, evidence that whilst we have come a long way in our bid to become more accepting of mental health issues, there is still a long way to go. In 1994 8% of those surveyed agreed with the statement “I would not want to live next door to someone who has been mentally ill”, and whilst this figure has risen and fallen in the intervening years, we were more likely to agree with that statement in 2012 than in 1994. Ironically, given Livingstone’s comments, the greatest improvements in our acceptance of mental illness come in our willingness to grant those with mental health issues responsibility or roles in public office. In 1995, 21% of those surveyed felt that “people with mental illness should not be given any responsibility, a figure which had fallen to 10% in the 17 years to 2012 and in 1997, 33% surveyed felt that “anyone with a history of mental health should be excluded from taking public office”, falling to 18% in 2011 and 2012.
Ultimately there has been slow, but unmistakable, progress toward greater acceptance of issues surrounding mental health, and the likelihood is that as time goes by and society becomes increasingly accepting of mental health problems, the outcry in response to these gaffes will become harder and harder to ignore. The instantaneous and immortal nature of a Tweet – they can be deleted but they can also be screenshotted, copied and disseminated – means that public figures will continue to be held immediately responsible for their statements from the moment they leave their lips and fingertips.