Tell me, how did you get so rich?

As chancellor, Gordon Brown put his trust in tycoons and city chiefs. But as wealth disparities grow

The austere Calvinism of the manse and the multi millionaire lifestyle of the nation's corporate princelings are not obvious bedfellows. Yet among Gordon Brown's first actions on taking over as Prime Minister was to anoint, for the first time, a grand-sounding Business Council for Britain.

This was not all. The old Department of Trade and Industry, with its smokestack heritage, was swept into the sea to be replaced by the freshly minted Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the former boss of the CBI, the effervescent Sir Digby Jones, was elevated to the Lords as trade minister (despite his flirtations with the Tories and venomous criticism of Brown's pensions and tax policies).

Brown's critics would argue that all of this cosying up to the business and City elites is no more than window dressing as he seeks to shake the socialist tag and demonstrate a willingness to listen to all, even the private equity bigwigs so despised by the unions and the political classes.

The new Prime Minister is more complex than that. As chancellor, Brown made a fetish of abandoning the traditions of white and black tie for the Mansion House dinner, one of the great set pieces of the financial calendar. Yet he assiduously courted many of the same people, passing the "Loving Cup" up and down the lengthy silver-laden tables, for advice on economic and business problems.

Many of Brown's modern Labour predecessors as prime minister, including Tony Blair, had a penchant for self-made businessmen with less than distinguished reputations and a weakness for cutting corners. Harold Wilson formed a close relationship with the flawed raincoat tycoon Joseph Kagan, James Callaghan with the fringe Welsh banker Sir Julian Hodge and Blair with any number of troublesome money men, from Grand Prix magnate Bernie Ecclestone to the governance-lite steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal. Blair's relationships were too often built around the need for large tranches of cash to fund his election coffers and an unhealthy fascination with great wealth and celebrity.

The current PM's business associates are largely drawn from the elite of thinking financiers and industrialists on both sides of the Atlantic. He sees businessmen as leaders who know how to get things done, not just as cash points, although on occasion that helps. It is no accident he counts among his gurus the most respected banker in the world, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Bill Gates of Microsoft and, at home, Sir John Rose of Rolls- Royce, whose outspoken views on the nation's lagging engineering skills proved a wake-up call for Brown. The new PM views these bigwigs both as inspirations and a source of great ideas.

It is no secret that in 2001, when Brown sharply lifted resources for the NHS, he searched desperately for a chief executive able to run a vast organisation and transform the culture.

He turned to Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, a lad from the modest council estates of Liverpool who had turned Tesco into Britain's most successful retailer and took a special interest in health because his wife was a medic. Leahy still had much to do on the international front for his employer at that time. But Brown never lost faith in his ability to co-opt Leahy and has added him to his new Business Council.

If the former chancellor wants a job done he automatically turns to the commercial world. His Budget speeches were laced with references to people such as Paul Myners, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer, Sandy Leitch, formerly of Zurich, and his close pal Sir Ronald Cohen, the godfather of private equity in Britain - all of whom have carried out projects on his behalf. Businessmen, with few exceptions such as Lord Young under Margaret Thatcher, rarely make the transition from the boardroom to the cabinet room, with aplomb. So Brown has come up with alternate ways of harnessing their enthusiasm and tapping into their talent pool.

His Business Council for Britain may be something new for a prime minister, but at the Treasury it was part of the furniture. Brown regularly played host to a high-level business advisory group and latterly, as Britain's financial sector picked up momentum - accounting for up to one third of the nation's output - he and his closest associate Ed Balls (now in the cabinet) did the same thing for the City. Balls was so impressed by what he heard that he became almost hyper-active bringing forward new legislation, for instance, to strengthen and protect the UK's City regulator, the Financial Services Authority, in case of an overseas takeover of the London Stock Exchange.

I found myself among those invited along to Brown's high-level business sessions held under strict Chatham House rules. Somehow the chieftains from almost every FTSE-100 company, from bankers to industrialists, found time to respond to the chancellor's embossed invitations and to take part. Brown would lay on all the trappings: a rehearsed order of debate led by himself and fellow cabinet minister Alistair Darling, a cameo appearance from the American treasury secretary Hank Paulson and suffice it to say handsome outside catering with fine wines. Curiously, some of the most powerful figures in business, controlling payrolls encompassing hundreds of thousands of people and corporations that stretched to the far corners of the globe, appeared at times to be reduced to stuttering schoolchildren in the hallowed halls of the Treasury.

The aches and pains of business were laid bare by his guests, from the lack of skills to fears of an implosion at the Doha round of trade talks. Among the serious and enduring issues raised was how the riches of the City were creating a divided nation where the best mathematical brains were drained off to the towers of the Square Mile and Canary Wharf direct from university and how the sheer quantity of wealth created in the City - 4,200 sterling-bonus millionaires in 2006 alone - contributed to a housing market which froze out those working in vital public services.

There is a bravery if not foolhardiness about Brown's adoption of certain business associates. Sir Ronald Cohen may not be in any official post, but he has been the PM's man for all seasons. Founder of Apax - the British private equity powerhouse - he has helped fund Brown's favoured think tank, the Smith Institute, as well as the Portland Trust, the group which paid for much of the work down by Brown advisers Ed Balls and Jon Cunliffe, now at No 10, on using economic muscle to lift the West Bank and Gaza out of poverty.

At home, Brown has asked Cohen to find ways of repatriating the "orphan assets" held by many banks and insurers, money left behind over the generations, and putting them to work on social projects in the inner-city.

The new PM has never wanted to acknowledge that using a tycoon who has accumulated at least £250m of personal wealth and is reported to be non-domiciled for tax purposes, may not play well on the council estates or in the Plc boardroom, where there is huge jealously of such tax privileges.

Perhaps most strange of all was his decision to include Damon Buffini, managing partner of Permira, among his new business advisers. Admittedly, Buffini's personal story is inspirational. A mixed-race child from a single-parent family, he rose to one of the most powerful jobs in the City as head of the private equity arm of the blue-blooded investment bank Schroders.

Pass the parcel

Buffini and Permira have been demonised for their management of the AA, where staff and membership services, including night patrols, were slashed in the name of efficiency.

In the past fortnight, the pass-the-parcel with the AA's assets continued after a merger with Saga in which Buffini and his pals extracted up to £2bn of cash on which they will pay a lower tax rate than the cleaners and gardeners at No 10. He is a choice that looks like political madness.

Certainly, it cocks a snook at the GMB and others who have declared Buffini and his private equity chums public enemy number one, not just for their greed, but for defenestration of pension systems and ruthless job-cutting. Brown's motivations and his slowness in closing down the tax loopholes that have made Mayfair the get-rich capital of the world are hard to fathom. It would be too cynical to think he refuses to confront the tax lacuna for fear of losing party donations.

His reasons are very different. Brown recognises that the greatest force behind Britain's long ten-year run without recession has been the sheer excellence, innovation and openness of British finance. Having created a more liberal tax regime for the super-rich he is unwilling to change it under political pressure and destroy wealth creation. He genuinely believes that there is something to be learned not just from the science of J P Garnier at GlaxoSmithKline but also from the genius of financial innovation. If he can put this to good use in government then so be it.

Brown's value system is so deeply lodged that, unlike some of his Labour predecessors, he has not personally been seduced into thinking he deserves what the captains of industry have, from the private jets to the villas in the Caribbean. But in his embrace of the greed of private equity and mercurial tycoons such as Apprentice star Sir Alan Sugar, he risks undermining his reputation for rectitude.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail. Read his new weekly column on business and economics, entitled "Money", starting next week

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge