Belfast Telegraph

Why an introvert like Theresa May doesn't fit bill of being a leader in modern-day politics

By Mary Kenny

I felt sorry for Theresa May during the turbulent month of June because she was so widely blamed for having the wrong kind of personality. The Prime Minister had a bad election campaign, seeming arrogant, aloof and unable to connect with people - so unlike her Labour rival, Jeremy Corbyn. She was savaged for not responding more spontaneously to the dreadful Kensington inferno at Grenfell Tower - while Mr Corbyn knew, instinctively, you just go to suffering victims and hug them. It's not Theresa's way. She can't.

I recognised Theresa's type so well: she is a reserved person who cannot easily express (or sometimes read) emotions.

As well as that, she is an only child. There are many advantages to being an only child - the singleton is more intellectually and verbally advanced at an early age, has a strong sense of responsibility and is a high achiever. But there is one noted disadvantage: it is harder for them to learn negotiating skills. Miriam Cosic's study Only Child tells us that the only child needs to be in control - with no siblings with whom to swap, squabble, reconcile and settle on a compromise deal over toys, clothes or personal space.

The only child isn't always shy, because shyness is often an inherited trait. But it's clear that Theresa May is emotionally reserved. When her privacy is threatened, she puts up that basilisk stare. She depends on two or three very close advisers, and does not bond with wider groups. Even her best friend at Oxford said that the young Theresa "never had a gang". She never palled around with a circle of friends. Ever the reserved only child.

It may seem odd that someone who finds it so hard to do the warm kissy-huggy act that is now demanded of public figures should choose a political career, which requires so much glad-handing, cronyism and (sometimes) the uttering of persuasive codswallop. The Irish word plamas covers it, too. But there have been many politicians who were shy people. De Valera was austerely reserved in his personal dealings. Clement Attlee, the great post-war Labour Prime Minister who introduced the welfare state was notoriously taciturn (and nervous of 'pushy' women). Attlee was the first person I ever interviewed as a young journalist. He was by then deaf as well as taciturn, so getting any words out of him at all was a challenge. And yet, it was evident that he was a very decent and kind person.

The great de Gaulle, too, was personally shy, almost to the point of hauteur. He was self-conscious about his great height and flapping ears.

Politicians could be, in the past, reserved personalities. But seldom today, when forwardness, bombast (consider President Trump) and being able to connect with people is what counts. Theresa May's vocation for politics is, for her, about leadership and responsibility, but she is disparaged as a robot, even by her own side 'the Maybot'.

And yet, being an extrovert type myself, I've always thought shyness was attractive. Blushing is so beguiling. Charles Darwin wondered what evolutionary advantage blushing could have had - since it was unknown to animals (for whom shyness is a protection against predators). In humans, shyness and embarrassment have had the evolutionary advantage of producing thoughtful people, poets, philosophers and scientists, and those who seek the solace of the laboratory or the monastic cell to escape the concatenation of the gregarious.

Shyness often strikes me as a form of authenticity. I remember once seeing the renowned Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy on an inane television talk show, where the interviewer was trying to jolly her along with facetious chatter. She is such an authentic person, it was obvious she just couldn't connect with all this jabberwockery. She, too, grew up an only child.

Joe Moran's study of shyness, Shrinking Violets, notes that scientists like Alan Turing were painfully shy. The poet Leigh Hunt coined the phrase "shrinking violets" for shy folk (it's no coincidence, I think, that De Valera was a mathematician, who are often introverts).

Whole nations are deemed to be shy. The British were once famous for it - when David Livingstone encountered William Howard Russell in the African jungle, the war correspondent Russell asked, politely, "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" Swedes and Canadians are shy: they spend so much of their winters walled up indoors.

Shyness in an extreme form is now seen as a mental dysfunction - 'social phobia' - and there's a pharmaceutical drug for it. There's always been another kind of drug used: alcohol.

Some shy people are perfectly articulate - as is Theresa May. They just cannot fake the emotions that are part of our instant-communication world.

Joe Moran, probing the shrinking violet syndrome, observed that TV dramas, films or even novels rarely feature shy people as central characters - because "shy people never drive forward the narrative of a drama". By definition, shy people are less frequently drawn to the public realm because they are, so often, private. They're mortified by showing off.

There is hardly any place in our very public, extrovert, hyper-communicative and media-driven universe for the shrinking violet. Even her supporters think that 'the Maybot' will have to go.

Belfast Telegraph


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