This is a metaphor. Photograph: Getty Images
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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

David Young
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The fall of Labour’s golden generation

Blair and Brown's young advisors were intelligent, metropolitan, and destined for power. What went wrong for the party's best and brightest?

In the summer of 2000 I was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar magazine to write about the young gilded special advisers who were working for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown or orbiting around them, or who were close to Peter Mandelson. Most of them wanted to be MPs. I did not know them personally but I knew a lot about them – about how they lived, worked and socialised. Some of them lived together – indeed, even slept together. They were intelligent: all had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge, and some had known each other from student days. They were well connected, competitive, football-loving metropolitans, liberal, good Europeans. They were fascinated by US politics (some of them had done graduate research at American universities or worked on campaigns for the Democrats). They’d studied closely how Bill Clinton and his advisers had remade the Democrats – through trian­gulation, message discipline, media mastery – as a centrist, optimistic, pro-capitalist, election-winning force.

Older Labour MPs naturally resented these “Young Turks”. More, they envied them. John Prescott called them “teeny boppers”; others called them “faceless wonders” and much worse. They were considered cliquey, superior in manner, even conspiratorial – a bit like the classics students in Donna Tartt’s Secret History, who are punished ultimately for believing in the myth of their own intellectual superiority. Blair and Brown worked them hard but believed in them, just as they believed in themselves.

It was obvious that the newcomers thought that one day they would be running not only the party but the country. They had a sense of purpose and mission as well as self-righteousness. They were the best and the brightest of their political generation and comparisons were made between them and the young policymakers who had worked for John F Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, and whose misjudgements took America into the Vietnam War. A path was being cleared for them – and they were heading in only one direction, to the summit.

Their names are now very familiar: David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, James Purnell, Andy Burnham. There were others among the group who are less familiar, such as Peter Hyman and Liz Lloyd, who both worked in the Downing Street Policy Unit. (Hyman later became a Newsnight pundit and set up a successful free school.)

Balls and David Miliband were considered the best of the group, and Balls, in particular, was admired at the Treasury for his intellectual powers.

“Ed was really exceptional,” a former politician who knew him back then told me. “In terms of managing the Treasury he was the most brilliant sort of aide-de-camp. That’s not a pejorative expression: I mean Gordon needed that sort of intellectual grip and energy and the thuggishness as well – you know, to turn the Treasury into an instrument for Gordon. Probably only Nigel Lawson in our lifetime had a similar mastery of that department. And Ed was absolutely fundamental to that in all kinds of ways. He’s not a great visionary and thinker, but he’s got huge intellectual grip.”

Back in 2000 I called this group Labour’s Golden Generation, and Harper’s, in the photoshopped illustration accompanying my piece, brought them all together in a mock football line-up. We dressed them in the shirts of the Demon Eyes football team, for which some of them played and which was named after the notorious Conservative 1997 election campaign poster. Conceived by M&C Saatchi, the poster depicted a demonic Tony Blair, his burning red eyes staring out from a black background, above the slogan “New Labour, New Danger”.

Although I did not write about them for Harper’s, because they were already MPs, Yvette Cooper and Douglas Alexander were part of the Golden Generation as well. Cooper was only 28 when she won the safe seat of Pontefract and Castleford at the 1997 general election. She married Balls the following year, having met him when they shared an office as young advisers.

Alexander became an MP in November 1997, at a by-election. He was 30. Together with Jim Murphy, Alexander (who before entering parliament had worked for Brown as a speechwriter) ran David Miliband’s leadership campaign in 2010. Neither would ever again be trusted by Ed Miliband, who won that contest, which pitted the Golden Generation against one another. Burnham was also a contender in 2010 and so was Balls.

There were others, in and around the core group, who burned brightly and burned out (Derek Draper), or who peeled off early to work in PR, consulting or television (Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, Tim Allan), or who never sought elected office (Liz Lloyd, Mark Leonard, Spencer Livermore, who was a long-time Brown favourite).

“The emergence of these bright young things is largely down to Tony Blair,” Derek Draper, a former adviser to Mandelson who became a lobbyist and then a psychotherapist, once told me. “He was the first Labour leader to pluck young Oxbridge graduates out of nowhere and put them in charge of his office. This put people’s backs up. It even put my back up, and I was one of the young insiders myself. ‘Where have they been in the party?’ I kept asking.”

Naturally, some in the group were in the orbit of Brown at the Treasury (Balls, Ed Miliband) and some were in Blair’s (David Miliband, Purnell). Blair and Brown both became MPs in 1983 and, in the aftermath of the Labour split two years earlier, they experienced the party’s devastating loss to Margaret Thatcher under the leadership of Michael Foot. So Blair and Brown were formed by these desperate times and they felt that there was no option but to combine tactical ruthlessness with strategic vision as they set about remaking the party, dragging it across the hardest ground to where they believed it had to be. The death of John Smith in May 1994 accelerated the process but it would have happened anyway.

Blair and Brown had different protégés but they shared a sense of mission. “We did it,” they must have thought many times as things did indeed begin to get better: “we created New Labour.”

They picked out people – clever, presentable, driven young people – who they believed would carry on their legacy when the time came. Along the way, older, gifted politicians – such as Alan Milburn, who was a difficult man but had an interesting personal story, or Estelle Morris, who was a good minister but suffered a loss of confidence – were squeezed out or gave up altogether.

We were witnessing the beginnings of a party being hollowed out and of a deepening disconnection between Labour MPs and their core supporters, which, in time, would empower the SNP in Scotland and create an opportunity for Ukip in England.

“I can give you a whole cadre of these people who weren’t the Oxbridge elite, the special advisers and all of the rest of it,” one former MP told me, “but they were politicians and they did have a sense of what voters wanted and they had a way of communicating with voters that these guys [the young MPs and special advisers] never did. Just never did. And as a result, it was a profound misunderstanding of what democratic politics was about. It’s not a seminar.”

Call it vanity, call it hubris, but whatever you call it, the foundations of the mansion built by Blair and Brown were neither deep nor strong. When pressure came, it began to crumble and then, after the 2015 election defeat, it collapsed, and now Jeremy Corbyn and his followers are roaming through the ruins, creating a new party of anti-capitalist renegades.

***

I’m not sure quite what divided the Blairites and Brownites politically, in retrospect. Perhaps the Brownites were more Eurosceptic, more numerate and economically literate, and were always resolute in their opposition to the euro. The Blairites were more internationalist, perhaps (though Brown was a convinced Atlanticist), liberal cosmopolitans who were idealists in matters of foreign policy. Blair’s April 1999 Chicago speech remains one of the defining texts of liberal interventionism. Justifying the Nato intervention against Serbian aggression in Kosovo, he defended Western “values” and made the “moral” case for getting “actively involved in other people’s conflicts”, which meant intervening militarily against despotism where necessary. (When David Miliband ran for the leadership of the party in 2010, he defended the Iraq War. His brother, who was not an MP at the time of the invasion and was at Harvard, claimed to have been against it from the beginning.)

But, in essence, though there was much personal rivalry between the two camps, they were united in believing in the New Labour project. “Fundamentally there wasn’t a big ideological gulf between Blair and Brown,” Ed Balls says now. “There wasn’t even, really, a big policy divide – in 1997, Tony was the Eurosceptic rather than Gordon. Things changed in terms of how he saw himself as a leader, but I don’t think he ever really wanted to join the single currency. He just really wanted to look like he wanted to join the single currency because he thought that that was important for Britain, and [for] his standing as PM at that time.”

When the main opposition party is so weak, as Labour still is today, Balls says, “the prism of politics becomes the succession within the governing party”, hence the obsession with the rivalry between Blairites and Brownites.

Balls and I spoke last Saturday as he made his way to watch Norwich City, where he is chairman of the club.

“When it came to the crunch, Tony so often backed Gordon that it used to drive him mad,” he told me. “There was a not ideological divide on the private sector in the health service, or markets and the health service. But what happened was ‘Gordon is anti-reform’ became a rallying cry for those who were trying to prevent him defeating Tony. So I think it was much more of a political thing, rather than about policy and ideology. And I think, if you go back to those debates in that period, it was the generation before us. So when you pick that ‘Golden Generation’, as you call them – me, Andy, Ed, David – none of us were really having that fight in the early 2000s, and none of us were having that fight between ourselves, certainly. The struggle was [between] the slightly older generation: some combination of Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Charles Clarke, who thought they had an opportunity to succeed Tony rather than Gordon. The Blair-Brown divide was never really a divide among our generation at all.”

Marginal differences, then. Certainly none of the Golden Generation doubted that the left had been vanquished. The parliamentary Bennites in the Socialist Campaign Group – Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Michael Meacher, Dennis Skinner and the rest – were considered cranks. They offered no threat.

Moreover, the Conservatives were in retreat, decisively beaten in 1997, as they would be again under the leadership of William Hague in 2001. Blair and Brown were contemptuous of the Tories, even when David Cameron and George Osborne took control of the party. They simply didn’t take them seriously, because they considered them beneath taking seriously.

The Golden Generation, along with Blair and Brown, believed, too, that devolution would settle the Scottish national question. Devolution would “kill Scottish nationalism stone dead”, boasted the future Labour defence secretary George Robertson in 1995. In the 1997 general election Labour won 56 of the 72 seats in Scotland; the Tories won none. Scotland belonged to Labour. (Today both parties have only one MP each in Scotland; the SNP has 54 of 59.)

Even as late as 2011, on the eve of the Holyrood election that the SNP won in a landslide, Ed Miliband was blithely complacent about what was happening in Scotland. As a quasi-Marxist, he never really understood nationalism or culture; he understood only political economy. By the time of the 2014 independence referendum, he was like a fugitive being hurried in and out of Scotland, never daring to stay for long. Yet it was on his watch that the party finally lost Scotland, even if the death of Labour Scotland was decades in the making.

***

So, in 2000, everything seemed set fair for the Golden Generation. Nothing could stop them from dominating public life for decades to come. Apart from one another, as it turned out.

As we know, they never quite made it, not in the way they would have wished, even if some of them had ministerial careers. The painful truth was that before any one of them reached the age of 50, it was too late, already too late: the best of their political careers was in the past.

Consider where they are today.

 

Ed Balls, who longed to be chancellor and ran for the leadership in 2010, has left politics after losing his seat at the 2015 election and is now cavorting on Strictly Come Dancing. The book he has just published, Speaking Out, is an unexpectedly engaging read, accessible, warm and candid. He writes nostalgically about his early years in the Treasury working closely with Brown. That was his time – and he was not yet 30.

James Purnell is expected to become the next head of BBC Radio, having quit politics in despair in June 2009. On abruptly resigning as work and pensions secretary, he called for Brown “to stand aside to give Labour a fighting chance of winning the next election”. He hoped, perhaps believed, his resignation would lead to a rebellion against Brown and that David Miliband would become prime minister. But no one followed Purnell over the top and he was shot down in no-man’s-land. When I met him in Soho for coffee not long after his resignation, he seemed liberated. “The way we do politics in this country is infantile,” he said.

David Miliband, who resigned from parliament in 2013, is based in New York doing important work as the head of the International Rescue Committee, having had his political career destroyed by his brother. There is some hope on the Labour benches that he might one day return to the Commons. “Had Ed not stood against him, none of this would have happened,” a senior Labour figure said to me, referring to the 2015 defeat, the capture of the party by the radical left and Brexit. It is difficult to see a way back for David, in the present circumstances, should he even wish to return.

Andy Burnham, having twice stood to be leader of the party, is preparing to leave Westminster as he seeks to become the first mayor of Greater Manchester. This is surely recognition that he feels Labour has no chance of returning to government any time soon. Burnham’s second run for the leadership in 2015, when, despite being the early front-runner and favourite, he was defeated by the 100-1 outsider Jeremy Corbyn, was a sad failure. He posed as the anti-Westminster candidate, the People’s Andy, the boy who lived outside the “Westminster bubble”, but he did not seem to know his own mind or what he wanted for the country. By the end of the campaign his pledges and promises were received with derision.

Douglas Alexander, who was shadow foreign secretary under Ed Miliband and Labour’s 2015 election co-ordinator, was perhaps the most obsessive US politics watcher of all that generation. He was credited with bringing David Axelrod, the American political strategist, to work on Labour’s 2015 campaign. Articulate and personable, he humiliatingly lost his Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat to a 20-year-old student, Mhairi Black of the Scottish National Party, who has since become something of a social media star. Alexander has said very little about Labour’s defeat and its collapse in Scotland, and now advises Bono of U2.

Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper, who ran for the leadership in 2015, are still MPs, of course, but each in a different way is struggling to recover from defeat and to find purposeful self-definition. Miliband is now deeply resented in the party. Not only did he lead Labour to an abject election defeat in propitious circumstances, he introduced the new rules by which the party elects its leader, opening the way for the Corbyn insurgency. Many of those who served in the Blair and Brown cabinets resent Miliband’s reluctance to defend the record of those governments. “I thought there had been enough of an opening up of debate under Ed [Miliband] that if Jeremy was on the ballot paper we would do quite well,” Jon Lansman, a close adviser of the Labour leader and chair of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group, told the New Statesman recently. The left has mocked Miliband’s recent demand that Corbyn resign.

***

I put it to Ed Balls that his generation failed. How else to account for the rise of Corbyn and the collapse in support for moderate social democracy among Labour members and activists?

“It might be that every generation has their time, and as it happened for our generation, it has happened to Cameron and Osborne,” he said by way of a reply. “And it may be that politics has become more – well, your shelf life goes down. It’s harder to regenerate politically, when you think of how long people like [Harold] Wilson or Denis Healey managed to be around. Maybe that’s harder these days. It may be that we made a mistake, and we should talk about that. It may be that, because we were people who succeeded early, and therefore became identified with the mainstream, we became casualties – on both sides of politics – when the centre ground gets rejected for the extremes . . . I don’t think we ever got complacent. I think once we lost in 2010 there was no sense of complacency.”

He found the 2010 defeat especially difficult: after all, he had known only success. “We’d been in government for 13 years . . . But when you go out of government in those circumstances, it feels like something that’s not going to be short-lived or temporary. There are some people who wait all their lives to get to a senior position in the civil service, or in government, or get into the cabinet, and they get it in their sixties. But because it happened for me on my 30th birthday, and the cabinet in my early forties, maybe you have a sense that your time may have been at an earlier stage. I definitely felt that in 2010.”

One recent morning I had coffee with Eddie Morgan, who has worked for the BBC and ITV as an editor and producer. He was close to Cooper and Purnell in the late 1980s when he read philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford (where they overlapped with Boris Johnson) and he worked alongside the Golden Generation in the early 2000s when he was Labour assistant general secretary. “How foolish that now all looks,” he said, reflecting on the Blair-Brown conflict – the so-called TBGBs. “Talk about the narcissism of small differences! They really were a golden generation, weren’t they? Yet even back then I was struck by how uncollegiate it was. Everyone had their baronial fiefdoms. There was not a lot of glue between them.”

This might explain why no one emerged as the leader of the pack, as David Cameron did among the Tory modernisers, and four of them – Balls, Burnham and the two Milibands – took each other on in the 2010 leadership contest.

For Morgan and his friends, working for the Labour Party offered thrilling possibilities. “After the ERM debacle [Britain was humiliatingly forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992], the Tories were on the way out. They’d been in power too long. The feeling was that they were weak and wicked. The future was ours. If you’d become an MP, like Blair and Brown, in 1983, you wouldn’t have felt you’d be in government any time soon. It was different for my generation. It was much easier. They became spads. They were given safe seats. I remember when Yvette got the safe seat of Pontefract, thinking, ‘Wow, she’s all set now.’ It felt like a great career choice. Now who would think becoming a Labour MP was a great career choice?”

He pauses to order a second coffee. Morgan has a Lancashire accent – he is from Preston – and speaks quickly, and his eyes shine. He is troubled by how unreflective the Golden Generation seemed to him. “They had complete self-belief. They believed that they would be the leadership of the Labour Party. They didn’t hope it. They totally believed it. I wished they’d been more modest, more questioning, more curious.”

In the early 1960s JFK’s young policymakers played squash to keep fit, a departure from their predecessors under Dwight D Eisenhower, who preferred golf. The Golden Generation were similarly obsessed with vigour and competition. Their favoured sport was football, which they played with competence and aggression.

“I remember our team from ITV played Demon Eyes at football,” Morgan said. “We thought they might be this effete bunch. But they were brilliant. They were fitter, faster, stronger. We were out-thought and out-fought. David Miliband, Jamie Purnell –
they were really good footballers. Yes, they were arrogant – but, in a way, they had a right to be.”

***

 

In his great book The Best and the Brightest, which is about the causes of the Vietnam War and the failures of the young, brilliant and idealistic but flawed policymakers who gathered around Kennedy and Johnson, David Halberstam made a distinction between intelligence and wisdom. That is, between “the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience. Wisdom for a few of them came after [his italics] Vietnam.”

The basic question that prompted the book, Halberstam wrote, “was why men who were said to be the ablest to serve in government in this century had been the architects of what struck me as likely to be the worst tragedy since the Civil War”.

For some of those who once worked with them, Blair and Brown – so able, so determined, so clearly the best and brightest – are culpable not only for policy disasters such as Iraq and for allowing the Labour Party to be hollowed out, but for the failures of the Golden Generation, whom they nurtured and wanted to succeed them. If political parties are machines for capturing power, it was said to me, they allowed the machine to malfunction.

Blair, unlike Brown, never suffered a general election defeat, and, to the last, he will defend his decision to invade Iraq – the single greatest foreign policy catastrophe since Suez – even if he now concedes mistakes were made in the post-invasion planning. For his part, Brown feels profoundly wronged and misunderstood, and still cannot understand how he lost to Cameron and Osborne, of whom he remains scornful.

“Both Gordon and Tony in their separate ways must shoulder a huge amount of the blame for what has happened to the Labour Party because it was obvious to me ten years ago that we were hollowing out,” a former MP told me. “It was absolutely clear . . . [but] no one was interested. I can’t tell you the degree of apathy, indifference, because every single one of them thought it was going to go on for ever.”

And into these hollow spaces flowed the radical left, activists and members who were disgusted by Blair and by the Iraq War. These activists had never stopped believing their opportunity would one day come again. They continued to organise diligently or cluster in fringe groups or other parties: the Greens, Respect. They wanted change, they believed that moderate social democracy had failed, social media offered them new ways to communicate and connect, and then, presented with it, they seized their chance when events forced Miliband to revise the rules by which the party elects its leader. The party is theirs now. Jeremy Corbyn is their leader.

***

Ed Miliband and I have not spoken since he lost the 2015 election, but it’s clear to me that defeat has changed and humbled David Miliband and Ed Balls. In the process, they seem to have acquired not just greater humility, but wisdom. The Golden Generation were intelligent enough but were they wise enough? Did they really understand the burden and responsibility of elected office, or the struggles and aspirations of the people they wanted to represent? They wanted to lead and they wanted power, but, unlike Blair and Brown, did they know what to do with it? As it turned out, early success was no preparation for winning and holding on to power.

Gordon Brown once told me how his generation had to fight, and fight again, to win the right to control the party. They had to debate and take on the left in smoke-filled meeting rooms, in crowded conference halls, in the public prints, and at rallies. The Golden Generation never had to fight. “They were bright, decent, public-spirited – but they weren’t street fighters,” said Eddie Morgan of his former colleagues. “They were not venal or corrupt but, yes, they lacked fight. But maybe they’re acquiring the fight now – Burnham is going off to Manchester, Yvette and the refugees [she intervened on behalf of Syrian refugees during last year’s leadership contest], Jamie Purnell at the BBC.”

Another former friend who knew the group well said: “Parties in the end are machines for capturing power and there is a sort of life cycle, and you’ve got to be absolutely vigilant about renewing it. Blair and Brown thought they could renew the machine with very clever people, but with one or two exceptions they were – what is the word I’m searching for? – they were servants, they weren’t masters, they didn’t really have a vision of where they wanted to go.” 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation