Stephen Tall wrote an impassioned piece yesterday on Lib Dem Voice arguing that Andrew Marr was "wrong, wrong, wrong" to ask Gordon Brown whether or not he was taking pills yesterday on his morning TV show.
Stephen does make some good points, for example he suggests that if this was a Tory Prime Minister then the reaction of the right-wing blogosphere would likely be very different and the"scarcely contained glee" of some of the blogs at the question having been asked is certainly not edifying. He also asks what Marr's sources are for asking the question in the first place suggesting that unless he has substantial evidence then the question should not be asked.
But whilst Stephen puts a good argument forward I am afraid that ultimately I do not agree with his conclusion. He concludes:
..the only people qualified to make the decision to quit, or not to quit, are Mr Brown and his closest family, friends and advisors. If his feelings of depression were linked to his job as Prime Minister, and the only way he could break the link would be to resign his office, then so be it. I imagine we would all respond with sympathy and understanding to such a decision. However, if his depression were nothing to do with the job – perhaps linked to frustrations with his failing eyesight, or the tragic death of his first child – then resigning would make no difference to his depression, indeed may just make it worse.There are any number of reasons why the Prime Minister should quit, and just as many again why he deserves to lose the next general election. None of them are related to his health. And in making it an issue on the basis of no evidence, Andrew Marr and the BBC have done a real disservice to serious political reporting.
I probably need to tread carefully here as it is a delicate issue so let me first outline a couple of caveats.
Firstly I have nothing but sympathy for people who have mental health issues. There can be few people in this country whose lives have not been touched by problems of this nature either personally or through friends or family. They absolutely deserve sympathy and support.
Secondly I am very unhappy about the stigma that mental health problems still have attached to them in this country. Just because somebody is suffering with issues of this nature does not mean that they are incapable of contributing to society and prejudice in this respect is thoroughly unhelpful.
However, just because I have sympathy for somebody in adverse circumstances and I do not wish to see that person unneccessarily discriminated against does not mean that I agree with the conclusion that in the case of the Prime Minister it is nobody else's business but his own. Let me explain why.
The Prime Minister of the UK is in a very special position. He/she is in theory "First amongst equals" but in practise that is no longer how it works. What has happened over the last few decades is that power has become more and more centralised in the hands of the Prime Minister. The cabinet and parliament are supposed to act as checking and balancing bodies but in practise all too often they do not work like that. There is also the question of the "Royal prerogative" powers which although nominally vested in the head of state, in practise are executed at the whim of the Prime Minister. There are also huge powers of patronage.
What has effectively happened is that we have moved much closer to a sort of presidential style of government but without a codified constitution to underpin this.
Given all of this, I think the public has a right to know about the health of the person holding this office.
It is instructive at this point I think to look at what happens in the USA regarding their Presidents. They have an annual health check and the results are made public. They obviously feel that the health of their primary political leader should be in the public domain. I think this is right for a situation where one person has so much power vested in them.
This is not to say that I think the way this was broached is correct. To have the Prime Minister of our country asked a question like this out of left field was not the way I would have liked to have seen this happen. However I can't imagine that Gordon Brown or any future Prime Minister would volunteer this information. Indeed it seems that the way Tony Blair played down his heart problems a few years ago was not entirely straight and it was a bit more serious than his office made out at the time. Therefore it was probably always going to take a journalist asking this question to provoke the debate as it has done.
I would just conclude by saying that if we had a less top-down style of government with much of the prerogatives and patronage removed from the hands of one person then I would not see the need so much for us to know about the health of any one individual. Unfortunately we are not in that position and I therefore reluctantly conclude that this is one of the those situations where although it to an extent goes against my liberal instincts I think we should know.
UPDATE: After some vigorous discussion in the comments below and also on Jennie's blog here I am inclined to have a bit of a rethink of my comments here. Andrew Hickey (below) has come up with some good points about flaws in my reasoning and has made the point that disclosure could actually be counter productive. As I say in the comments in both posts my aim was to try and overcome constitutional problems with so much power being concentrated with one person who is ultimately his/her own arbiter of suitability to continue in office.
I still think we should do something to make it easier for a PM to be removed from office if they become incapable, perhaps along the lines of the US 25th amendment but accept that my comments about making health information public may not be the best way to achieve this.