Downing Street Blues: A History of Depression and Other Mental Afflictions in British Prime Ministers
David Owen
Downing Street Blues: A History of Depression and Other Mental Afflictions in British Prime Ministers By Jonathan Davidson. McFarland. 2011. US$45.00 (pb). 228pp. ISBN: 9780786448463

Starting with Walpole in 1721, Downing Street Blues finishes with Blair in 2007. It is directed at specialist and general readers and its plain language, remarkably free of jargon, means it should have wide appeal. It is also appropriate that its author, Jonathan Davidson, trained as a psychiatrist in the UK before moving to the USA. Also that he, with two colleagues at Duke University, was the author of a widely respected study of psychiatric disorders and their effects on all US presidents up to Richard Nixon. Among British prime ministers, 72% had psychiatric problems at some time in their lives.

Davidson asserts he had access to more extensive biographical detail on which he based his assessment in the UK. The most fascinating of the prime ministers written about is Gladstone and, understandably for the Grand Old Man of British politics, it is also the longest entry. Gladstone experienced 15 depressive episodes and while there was mania, the author writes, ‘it is unlikely that he succumbed to the greater extremes of bipolar disorder, but milder manic (i.e. hypomanic) forms of illness are distinctly possible, and his temperament is quite in keeping with this notion’. Self-flagellation and his religious zeal to ‘save’ women led to numerous encounters with prostitutes. In 1851, he set up 12 meetings with one particular woman in a 3-week period and spent two ‘strange, questionable hours with her after which he flogged himself’. In 1852–1853 he had 120 encounters. When a man tried to blackmail him, he ‘brazenly marched the man to a police station’. His extraordinary relationship with the ‘courtesan’ Mrs Thystlethwaite which lasted from 1864 till 1870 meant he ‘pushed the concept of platonic love to the extreme’ and they explored spiritualism together.

There are many other captivating pictures of politicians working through their mental illness and in some cases being strengthened in their role as prime minister. This book is important in convincing the general public that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of or hushed up. Rather, it is common and affects people in all walks of life, and can be managed and even controlled.