Man of straw

So it was Jack Straw who counselled against an early election? Martin Bright reports on a politician

It turns out that Jack Straw was one of the "greybeards" who always advised, sagely, against an autumn election. Gordon Brown must now be kicking himself that he didn't listen earlier to his Justice Secretary's wise words of caution. It could all have been so different.

Hang on a minute. Isn't this the same Jack Straw who indulged in the most shameless piece of electioneering of the whole Labour conference by spinning that the government would legislate to protect "have-a-go heroes"? His interview on Today the day after Brown's "vote red, get blue" speech was part of a calculated shift to draw in Tory floating voters ahead of a snap poll. Apart from the toe-curling examples of Straw's bravery in the face of street violence, it was an egregious act of authoritarian populism from a man who failed to propose any such legislation as home secretary between 1997 and 2001. One thing is certain: if Brown had decided to call a November election that, too, would have turned out to be Straw's idea.

Before the fiasco of the election-that-never-was, Brown was credited with being the most cunning political animal in the Labour pack. But at times like this he looks like a pussycat compared to Straw, the supreme survivor of the new Labour project, who has spent his entire career reinventing himself. I have often wondered why no one has written a biography of Straw, considering how close he has been to the centre of the action for so long. Part of the problem for anyone considering the project is that his politics are so ill-defined.

His record: a young man hired as adviser by Barbara Castle for his "guile and low cunning", he became a fashionably Eurosceptic leftist in the 1980s, but turned into an ardent new Labour cheerleader when the mood shifted. He was respon sible for making the case for an EU constitution, but then bounced Tony Blair into a referendum in April 2004 while his boss was on holiday. When first the French and then the Dutch voted against the proposed treaty, his glee in a call to Blair in June 2005 was such that the then prime minister is said to have put the phone down in disgust with the words, "What a tart."

Straw is the man who invited the Islamist Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) into the heart of government and hung Denis MacShane out to dry when he dared suggest that British Muslims had a responsibility to root out terrorists. He later decided to assert his Enlightenment credentials by objecting to Muslim women covering their faces in his MP's surgeries. He was a fierce opponent of electoral reform, dismissing Lord Jenkins's proposals in 1998 as "ingenious" and "complex". Now that several members of Brown's inner circle are con sidering a move to the Alternative Vote system, Straw says he supported this option all along.

As foreign secretary, Straw was, of necessity, signed up to war in Iraq, but he fashioned for himself an ingenious get-out in case things went wrong. On the eve of war, when there was no realistic chance of turning back, he sent Blair a confidential memo suggesting that, after all, maybe Britain shouldn't join the Americans in invading. This has allowed him to distance himself from a conflict in which he played an intimate role.

This most Janus-like of politicians has an almost uncanny ability to play the liberal and the authoritarian at the same time. He should be given serious credit for introducing the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act. But he has spent much of his time in government undermining the principles of both. As the NS has reported, he has blocked the release of the missing first draft of the allegedly "sexed-up" dossier on weapons of mass destruction. Despite a ruling by the Information Commissioner to release the document, it remains to this day locked in the Foreign Office while mandarins prepare to appeal the decision.

Straw was also foreign secretary when his department developed cosy relations with the MCB at home, and abroad undertook discreet dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist group. Following publication in the NS and elsewhere of these disclosures, a Foreign Office official, Derek Pasquill, was charged under the Official Secrets Act.

Hot-headed youth

The split between the cabinet's "Young Turks" and "greybeards" has been hugely overstated in recent days. The younger generation in cabinet has been bruised by accusations of poor judgement. "We were just providing information to the man who had to make the decision," one told me. The real scandal is not that the likes of Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander became excited at the idea of crushing the Tories when they looked weak, it is that older members, who should have known better, did not have the gumption to make their voices heard long before the Labour conference. Where Margaret Thatcher famously had William Whitelaw (her "Willie") and Blair had a whole range of older, wiser heads, including Brown himself, our new Prime Minister has no one but Alistair Darling, Geoff Hoon and Straw - none of whom has the authority to tell him what he doesn't want to hear. As a former minister said: "If he was so sure he was right, why didn't Jack do anything, or say anything, more publicly?"

Straw effortlessly made the leap from Blair to Brown just when it looked like his career might be on the slide. It is easy to forget that the man who acted as campaign manager for Brown's leadership bid was a campaign manager for Blair 13 years earlier. There is no other senior figure in the Labour Party who would have been able to do both jobs.

There is already talk that Brown's line-up is a mere "interim government" and that a reshuffle is in the offing. One sign of Brown breaking with the past would be to pension off Straw, but I suspect he will be around for some time to come. There is great uncertainty around the Labour Party, but there is one constant: Jack, as the saying goes, will always be alright.

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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:

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