A good month to bury bad news

John Reid is planning to use the Blair-Brown interregnum to shovel out all the overdue business of a

In the world of Westminster spin there are all sorts of good days to bury bad news. As the government adviser Jo Moore found to her cost on 11 September 2001, when she suggested putting out a story on councillors' expenses, this can come across as plain distasteful. But most of the time ministers and officials get away with it, and no one is any the wiser.

The death of a significant figure such as a pope or a former prime minister, or a major sporting occasion, provides good cover. The last day of parliament before recess can be an excellent opportunity to slip out an unfortunate statistic or embarrassing report. Then there's the "late on Fridays" trick, when political journalists are desperate to get home. It doesn't always work, as Gordon Brown discovered last month when the Treasury released details of his 1997 decision to launch a £5bn-a-year raid on pension funds on a Friday evening. But who knows how many times it has worked? The public certainly doesn't.

So imagine what ministers could do if they had a whole month or more in which to bury bad news. This is just the opportunity presented by the Labour leadership transition, which will last a whole seven weeks. After the local elections all eyes will be on the succession and ministers are already preparing to clear the decks. Nowhere is this more the case than at the Home Office, a department with more to hide from public scrutiny than most.

I am told that John Reid is planning to use the Blair-Brown interregnum to shovel out all the overdue business of a famously dysfunctional department in an attempt to bury a veritable landfill of bad news. The new Justice Department, which will add responsibility for prisons and probation to the present work of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, will come into existence on 9 May, in the week Tony Blair is expected to announce his departure. A rush of embarrassing releases will follow, each of which would have provided a major news story on its own in more normal times.

Offender research

Children's charities have already been informed that the much-delayed research into a British version of Megan's Law will be published on the very day the new department is created. If Reid's friends at the News of the World had hoped for a new approach to the naming and shaming of paedophiles they will be disappointed. Insiders say the report will be deeply critical of the way the law works in the US and will pour scorn on the idea that it could be introduced in Britain.

A further flurry of potentially embarrassing research into systems for the supervision of the most dangerous sex offenders is also planned for publication later in the month. A second considerably delayed report, into the costs of the government's ID card scheme, will also be published during this period. The report was originally due out on 30 March, but has been conveniently shelved until after Blair announces he is going. The costs are thought to be so astronomical that the plans would be called into deep question in normal circumstances.

The strategy is at its most cynical when it comes to the prisons crisis. There are now more than 80,000 inmates in our overcrowded prisons and the figure is forecast to rise to 82,000 during the year. When Reid took over he created a "war room" of civil servants to present him with schemes to cut prison numbers; the only condition was that they should not rebound on the Home Secretary himself. None worked because they all involved the early release of prisoners - that is, until someone came up with the wheeze of splitting up the Home Office, with responsibility for prisoner releases passing to a new department.

I have it on good authority from within Downing Street that Lord Falconer, who is likely to head the Justice Department in the short term, has already presented a paper to Blair proposing such an early-release scheme. The joy of the arrangement is that Falconer knows he is unlikely to survive a Brown reshuffle and therefore has nothing to lose by fielding the flak that will inevitably follow.

But resistance to Reid and Falconer's stitch-up may yet come from an unexpected quarter. I am told the Prime Minister himself is furious at the proposals. No 10 has always said there should be no cap on prison places and that numbers should be allowed to rise according to the level of convictions.

The decision to split the Home Office has been seen as an attempt by Reid to fireproof himself from the sack under the new regime. Indeed, he loses no opportunity to extol the virtues of the change. As in his latest speech of 25 April, he uses it to further his "tough man" image. Some within Blair's bunker, however, are already joking that Brown should indeed be advised to keep Reid in the cabinet but reshuffle him to the Justice Department, where he would be forced to clear up the prisons mess he was so desperate to avoid.

Show Hide image

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