Has Brown found the vision thing?

Fresh from being likened to Stalin, Gordon Brown sought to establish his credentials as a new and li

As part of his preparations for this year's Budget, Gordon Brown decided to spend more time with his family to keep himself in touch with the new priorities in his life. So it was in the past few weeks that his two young sons, John and Fraser, were allowed to come and play at their father's feet in the Treasury while he finalised the figures. Not quite the actions of an ordinary working man, but being Chancellor of the Exchequer is no ordinary job. All the same, this was quite something for a man proud of his Stakhanovite capacity for hard work (Soviet pun intended).

Brown's confidants have argued for some time that the Chancellor is a changed man, that his attitude to life and work has been transformed by fatherhood. This is why Lord Turnbull's comments about his Stalinist-Macavity tendencies hit such a raw nerve. Turnbull was calling him a bully and a coward, a particularly unattractive combination. Whatever the truth, the former head of the civil service was describing the old Gordon. Turnbull left the Treasury before John Brown was born. Yet the timing of the comments could not have been worse.

This was always going to be a big Budget for Brown and not just in the way economists use the term (a significant fiscal intervention). This is not just Brown's last Budget as Chancellor. It is the first he will have to work within as a prime minister. Whether, when the dust settles, it is interpreted as a tax-cutting Budget, a Budget for the poor, his green Budget, his education Budget, a Budget for business or all of the above, it is, more than anything else, his legacy to himself.

For this reason, it should be perused as the first statement of intent as leader of the country.

Brown was determined to leave No 11 with a bang rather than a whimper. His spectacular flourish at the end of his budget speech - a cut of 2p in the basic rate of income tax - certainly achieved that. The surprise element was reinforced by the abolition of the 10p rate in order to target tax credits at pensioners, as well as at the poorest children and families. This may turn out to be genuinely redistributive. The deal with major retailers to create 100,000 extra jobs is a more typical Brown touch. In an appeal to business that had appeared to be cooling on him, the Chancellor announced a cut in corporation tax of 2 per cent, which, he was keen to note, left Britain with a rate below that of his beloved, entrepreneurial US.

And yet, in some ways, Budget 2007 bears a resemblance to Budget 2006. A hike in road tax on gas guzzlers and an increase in tax credits for the poorest families were also fixtures last year. The commitment to raising spending in state schools to match levels in the independent sector were also announced last March. The mood music, too, is eerily familiar. A resurgent Conservative Party, the cash-for-honours inquiry, doubts over the Brown premiership: these were themes of last year's coverage, too.

There are, however, three significant differences. Last year, Cameron's Tories were already media darlings, but had no traction in the polls. Now they are 10 points ahead, or 15 when Brown is factored in as Labour leader. Secondly, a surprise rise in inflation to 4.6 per cent, according to some indicators, has raised questions about the long-term health of the economy. Thirdly, the unprecedented attack from Turnbull. There has been a tendency in Brown's circle to be dismissive of criticism, but in this case they cannot afford to ignore it. There is now a growing number of people who have worked with Brown willing to criticise his style in government. The Chancellor is a man who famously doesn't suffer fools gladly. But when cabinet ministers and top civil servants think they've been treated as fools, then powerful enemies lie in wait.

Willing participant

It is no coincidence that the first report from the government's six-month policy review was published in the same week as the Budget, and these two announcements should be seen as interwoven. If Blair's policy review was ever intended to lock Brown into the Prime Minister's legacy, then he has been a willing participant in this process.

Education is at the heart of the Budget, but it is a vision of schools, colleges and universities entirely consistent with the new Labour vision of the future forged by the Blair-Brown alliance. The very financing of the rise in education spending (£76bn to £90bn by 2011) is partly dependent on selling off a slice of the £6bn student debt. This would simply not have been possible on such a scale without reforms to higher education funding and a huge rise in student numbers that have happened under Labour.

It is a sign of Brown's determination to prioritise education that he has been prepared to announce the cash pledge to schools earlier than the long-term settlements for other government departments. They will have to wait for the Comprehensive Spending Review. The boost to city academies is consistent with this approach. It is fanciful to believe the Chancellor was ever opposed to private sector involvement in education or to giving schools greater autonomy. But it is noticeable that there is no mention of the new independent "trust schools", whose introduction caused a major backbench rebellion last year. The silence in this area suggests this particular addition to educational diversity is unlikely to see the light of day under a Brown government.

Vision thing

So does Brown's last Budget give an inkling of what "Brownism" might turn out to be? Has he finally discovered the "vision thing"?

On green issues, he is a late convert and yet to prove his credentials. As he showed in recent jousts with the Tories over a tax on air travel, Brown is not convinced that taxation is the best way of changing behaviour. His decision to hit the most polluting gas guzzlers with a hike in road tax rising to £400 shows he is shamelessly prepared to raise green taxes from people unlikely to ever vote Labour. Such is the Chancellor's dim view of humanity that he believes wealthy people will be perfectly prepared to pay for the privilege of behaving badly. Instead, he believes good behaviour should be rewarded, which is why he has brought in tax breaks for people who generate their own electricity through wind turbines or solar panels.

In his final outing before he plays the starring role, Gordon Brown gave a studied demonstration in the arts of political charm. His last lines, in which he delivered his income tax cut, wrong- footed his many opponents, particularly David Cameron. They were also designed to reassure those on Labour's benches that he can lead the party from the front, with a mix of radicalism, guile and personality.

This was the essence of Brown, for whom the demolition of his adversaries has been the driving force of his political life. With this Budget, he will hope he has given himself a new platform for the tougher mission ahead.

He has only rarely disappointed at these set-piece occasions, and this time in particular he rose to the occasion. But as prime minister, the challenges will be of a different order, relentless and day to day - and the lines will be altogether harder to rehearse.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood