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The police take the hit

Politicians once agreed that policing was not a matter for party advantage. The scandal of recent we

Tony Blair and Jack Straw have a lot to answer for. The job of commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, previously described as perhaps the most difficult in Britain, seems to have become impossible. No Met commissioner had resigned since the 1880s; now two have stepped down in less than two and a half years. Something is seriously wrong.

In the extraordinary events of the past few weeks, the police are undoubtedly emerging as losers. One side in a triangle with politicians and the press, the police have proved unequal in size and influence, and unable to deal with the angles emerging. Amid all the debate about corruption and relationships between police, politicians and journalists, the question that matters most concerns the political oversight of the police. Yet, so far, the coalition government has failed to recognise that its plans to change the arrangements for this oversight have been shown by recent events to be catastrophically wrong.

That the police will lose is inevitable. As Mark Twain said, it is unwise to quarrel with anyone who orders ink by the barrel. But a leader in the Times following Sir Paul Stephenson's resignation on 17 July, and the Murdoch empire's attempt more generally to lay the blame elsewhere, should not go unchallenged.

“Unless a huge amount of what has been alleged these past two weeks is sheer fiction," ran the Times leader, "Britain's police are riven with corruption on an institutional scale. Journalists who bribe policemen are indicative of a flawed industry. Policemen who can be bribed are indicative of a flawed state." The responses to which are: no, the British police are not riven with corruption; yes, journalists who offer bribes are flawed; and yes, a police force whose officers routinely take bribes is indicative of a flawed state - but that isn't the case in Britain.

In 1993, the then commissioner, Paul Condon, described the Met as "the cleanest big-city force in the world". However, he was also among the first in the world to reject the theory that the odd bad apple was infecting the barrel, and to recognise that corruption in the police was not an occasional threat, but a permanent one. Organised crime will always seek to corrupt police officers, a few of whom will fall prey to the temptation. Paul Condon set up the Met's first dedicated anti-corruption unit, different from the complaints units common to all forces. This has been maintained by all his successors, to each of whom, including Sir Paul Stephenson, this unit has reported directly when each was deputy commissioner.

All my senior colleagues and I have been determined to destroy corruption wherever it is found. This is no amateur operation, but one which uses all the techniques that are available to the police to counter organised crime and terrorism against officers who are corrupt and those who would corrupt them. It is realistic rather than complacent to admit that there will always be a very small number of corrupt staff in the Met, but the kind of wide-scale corruption alleged by the Times is simply not true.

On his appointment as commissioner in 1972, Robert Mark remarked that "the basic test of a decent police force is to catch more criminals than it employs, and the Met is failing the test". There is no intelligence - and huge efforts are made to find it - of the kind of networked corruption that Robert Mark cleared out in the 1970s, or of the kind that blighted New York and Sydney in the same period. There are corrupt individual officers, and they get arrested and prosecuted.

The most difficult form of corruption to wipe out will always involve relationships with journalists. How many leak inquiries are ever successful? How many journalists have ever revealed their sources? And yet the News of the World scandal, while uncovering phone-hacking on a vast scale, so far suggests that up to five junior police officers out of the Met's 52,000 staff (and those five may or may not still be serving) may have taken cash from the paper. When they are caught, they will rightly be jailed, just as the journalists who paid or authorised the payments should be. On the matter of corruption, then, keep calm and carry on. British policing is largely clean.

The real problem is the relationship between politics and the police. There can be no question that policing is political. What could be more political than a principal state organisation that is empowered and entrusted to use force on free citizens? However, the great strength of the British policing settlement was that politicians did not interfere for party advantage. That era has now passed, and we should mourn it.

In the 1980s, there was much public concern over a higher-than-normal number of neonatal deaths at Birmingham Children's Hospital. In an acrimonious debate in the House of Commons, the then health secretary was forced to defend his position after being accused of not doing enough to address the problem. A short while later, West Midlands Police accidentally shot a toddler dead during an armed raid. In contrast to the health case, there was no political disagreement over the position adopted by the then home secretary: that this was an operational matter for the local chief constable - a very serious matter indeed, but not one for party politics. The same position would have been adopted by almost all police committees, as police authorities were then called: whatever the persuasion of the majority party on the committees, there was a consensus that party politics should be left at the door of the meeting when it came to policing.

Enter Tony Blair. It was as shadow home secretary in 1993 that he pledged to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". Speaking in the aftermath of the murder of the toddler James Bulger, Blair wanted to steal policing as an issue from the Conservatives. (The Tories believed that policing, like defence, was their natural possession.)

Tough on crime

What followed was a bidding war over toughness between Blair and the home secretary Michael Howard. The part about being "tough on the causes of crime" was lost as antisocial behaviour and violent crime, and how draconian you could be in dealing with them, moved centre stage in British politics for the first time. And there they have stayed ever since. Behind the politicians came the right-wing press, highlighting gruesome crimes, urging "Sarah's law", demonising the hoodie as a successor to the hooligans of the past. No one outdid the red-top end of the Murdoch empire.

By 2007, a MORI poll found that crime was "a bigger source of concern for Britons than the citizens of any equivalent western European nation and even the United States". And yet, on almost any measure, crime had been falling since 1993. Levels of violent crime in England and Wales are very similar to those in other major European countries.

On coming to power in 1997, Blair made Jack Straw home secretary. In 2000, Straw created the role of London mayor as well as the Metropolitan Police Authority. His motives were admirable. Up to that point, the Met's police authority functions had been carried out by the Home Office and that needed to change. However, the politics of London have always been more raw than elsewhere.

The Metropolitan Police Authority was filled with seasoned London politicians who competed for airspace with a master publicist in the then mayor, Ken Livingstone. The most politically important of the mayor's functions was policing, and the only function of the authority was policing, and their meetings were always held in public. After the bombings in London on 7 July 2005, those meetings were broadcast live by a number of national television channels.

Then, in 2008, the law changed so that the mayor was given power either to chair the police authority or to appoint the chair. Already the commissioner answered to the home secretary and, through him or her, to the PM, and to the chair of the police authority: now the mayor was his boss as well. Thus the job of the Met commissioner to lead the policing of London, and to lead his force, became increasingly obstructed by the need to deal with very senior politicians and very serious politics.

Meanwhile, the attitude of the press changed. The days of crime correspondents ended and home affairs editors came to the fore; the press ceased to see the Met as the separate entity it is, treating it as part of Whitehall instead. And the commissioner, whether he wished it or not, began to be treated as a cross between a cabinet minister and a permanent secretary. It is telling, for example, that it was the BBC's chief political correspondent to whom Radio 4 turned when Sir Paul Stephenson resigned. The Met has a very large, reactive press operation, but it does not have the proactive, protective press abilities of a department of state.

I used the press, but rarely socialised with it. This, and some views deemed unsuitable by the red tops, made me the target of very hostile press coverage for most of my tenure at the Met. When Sir Paul Stephenson succeeded me in 2008, he was determined not to be so public. He did not want to be the story, and so one of his strategies as commissioner seems to have been to cultivate the media privately. He is now castigated for that.

Lord Justice Leveson will lead the inquiry into the relationship between the media and the Met, but it seems very likely that he will find that this relationship is only a reflection of the relationship between the media and senior politicians. If so, then it is to the relationship between politics and the Met that attention must be turned. Dealings between the media and the police will follow that. The existing arrangements for the political oversight and governance of the Met have rendered the job of the commissioner apparently undoable and they need to be changed.

The weakest link

Change is about to happen through the proposed abolition of the Metropolitan Police Authority. Unfortunately, policing will be changed for the worse and, even more unfortunately, that change will stretch far beyond the story that is still unfolding in London.

When the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill becomes law next year (as it will, despite attempts by the House of Lords to block it), the Met will be in the hands of two politicians: the Mayor of London and his deputy for policing - a mayor, Boris Johnson, who has already forced the resignation of two commissioners. And the government is determined to replicate the London police system across the country, making every chief constable subject to a similarly capricious oversight by just one elected politician. This is a system modelled on policing in the US - a system that one senior officer there recently described as "the weakest link" in American policing.

In the debate in the Lords that followed Sir Paul Stephenson's resignation, Paul Condon said that this had been perhaps the saddest day in the long history of the Met. He was right. When these events are analysed, in a more dispassionate future, it will be seen that there was no specific reason why Sir Paul Stephenson resigned, other than the overriding one that he could not survive the media firestorm in the absence of political support. This may have been offered to him privately, but was not forthcoming in public because of politicians' own need for survival.

What the police need is a royal commission to sort out what they are for and how they should be governed in the 21st century. Instead, they are going to get elected police commissioners imposed on them. For the police, this isn't a case of Murphy's law. It is a case of O'Leary's law, which says that Murphy is an optimist.

Lord Blair of Boughton was commissioner of the Metropolitan Police from 2005-2008. He was made a cross-bench life peer in 2010

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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