The Sutherland Trust Spring Lecture, given by Candida Yates.

Wed May 08 2024 at 07:00 pm to 10:00 pm

EH1 1EL | Edinburgh

Sutherland Trust
Publisher/HostSutherland Trust
About this Event

Disavowal, Lying and the Manic Defence in Political Culture: The case of Boris Johnson and ‘Partygate’

Candida Yates, Professor of Culture and Communication, Bournemouth University, UK.

A constant refrain of the late modern world is the difficulty of focusing, of taking time to process one’s thoughts and feelings. Beset by intersecting crises nationally and internationally, there is a defensive wish to look away as a means of overcoming feelings of helplessness that consciously and unconsciously threaten to overwhelm, both at individual and collective levels of experience. In a post-truth era, this pattern of denial and disavowal is present more widely in our engagement with the processes of mediatised political culture, where the boundary between knowing and not knowing is variously echoed in the behaviour, style and rhetoric of politicians such as Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.

I am interested to explore the defensive mechanisms that lie behind our identification with populist political leaders and the emotions that are stirred up in relation to them and their performances on the political stage. Alongside the public cynicism about politicians, there is also a desire to believe the fictions they are spun, regarding, for example, the “sunny uplands” of Brexit, or the ‘Big steal’ following Joe Biden’s successful election in 2021 as President in the US. Why do people invest affectively in those political narratives that at some level they know not to be true? Such ambiguities around knowing and not knowing are a central concern of psychoanalysis and its discussions about the nature of psychic reality and the fantasies that shape experience and perceptions of truth.

In this talk I will draw on object relations psychoanalysis to discuss the affective relationship between the culture of lying in politics and the psychosocial processes associated with the manic defence, addressed in different ways by Freud (1900) Melanie Klein (1940), Donald Winnicott (1938) and more recently, Lynne Layton (2010). I explore the links between the manic defence, lying and the engagement with political culture by focusing on the public response to the ex-UK PM Boris Johnson’s handling of the Pandemic and the fiasco of what came to be known as ‘Partygate’, when evidence emerged that Johnson and his staff broke his own rules by hosting regular parties and drunken soirees at Downing Street. The significance of this scandal is that while large sections of the public were able to forgive Johnson for his continual misdemeanours and had even factored in his habit of telling lies when voting for him, the discovery of Johnson’s parties during lockdown through an extensively circulated, leaked online video of Allegra Stratton laughing about the parties, acted as a catalyst and tipping point, breaking the cycle of denial, precipitating a collective sense that such behaviour was beyond the pale.

At a time when lying has become common place in Western democracies, it is useful to examine when and why the public collude with the duplicity of their leaders and what needs to happen for a healthy sense of scepticism and doubt to emerge to enable change.


Candida Yates, Professor of Culture and Communication, Bournemouth University.

Candida Yates is an interdisciplinary scholar and applies a psychosocial approach to culture, politics and society and has published widely in that field. She works with academics, clinicians, and cultural organisations to create new understandings of emotion and affect in the public sphere. She teaches on the Political Masters Programmes at BU and supervises students; she is a Co-Director of the BU Centre for the Study of Conflict, Emotion and Social Justice. She sits on the Executive Board of the UK Association for Psychosocial Studies and is a Founding Scholar of the British Psychoanalytic Council and is an Academic Associate of the Freud Museum, London. She is Joint-Editor of the Routledge book series: Psychoanalysis and Popular Culture, and is a Contributing Editor on the journals Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, and The Journal of Psychosocial Studies.


Event Venue & Nearby Stays

EH1 1EL, Augustine United Church, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, United Kingdom


GBP 10.00 to GBP 15.00

Sharing is Caring: