When Tony Blair selected Mo Mowlam as his Northern Ireland secretary following New Labour’s 1997 election victory, he thought the tumour the size of a small orange in her frontal lobe was benign. The notoriously ballsy MP, who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement, had deliberately withheld the severity of her condition from her party’s leader because she feared it would damage her chances of a position in the cabinet.
She was aware of the stigma so frequently attached to those with issues affecting the brain. Like many mental illnesses, the symptoms of malignant frontal lobe tumours are often sporadic and incalculable. Neither depression nor a brain tumour will necessarily cause behavioural disturbance, for example, but both pose a danger to a politician’s career because of a society’s preconception that they will.
Which raises the question: if Mo Mowlam was able to do a good job with her potentially inhibiting condition, is it worth considering that mental illness shouldn’t preclude someone from high office?
On diagnosing her brain tumour, Mowlam’s doctor, Mark Glaser, is said to have faced a dilemma. “A frontal lobe tumour”, he has said, “can cause disinhibition, behavioural disturbance, and poor judgment. And there she was taking up a job in what was effectively a war zone.” Apparently, he seriously considered advising Blair about the severity of Mowlam’s condition – but in the end his duty of confidentiality prevailed.
Mowlam biographer Julia Langdon has even suggested that the tumour’s potentially disinhibiting effect could have been politically advantageous: “It meant that she could be vulgar and inappropriate sometimes, but this worked to her advantage in politics – particularly in the cauldron of Northern Ireland.” Others have argued that Mowlam’s role in tackling one of the most intractable disputes in British political history was more about character than anything else.
Like with mental illness, the extent to which a brain tumour can affect decision-making is unknown. But the fact remains that Mowlam was able to oversee the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement despite suffering from a condition many would have considered made her unfit for the job.
The stigmas attached to brain cancer and mental illness are similar. Mowlam’s experience may have been anomalous, but it certainly challenges some of our more automatically-held views about politics, illness, and what makes someone a good decision-maker.