The end of risk

Swaths of regulation and an industry of "fear entrepreneurs" have fuelled a climate of timidity abou

This island was once populated by an upbeat, outgoing sort of race - the kind who rallied together in adversity, bailed out each other's houses in times of flood, and popped round to neighbours with a casserole if someone sprained an ankle and couldn't cook. Nowadays, it is more than likely that people would be too busy investigating which authority to sue for the unexpected rainfall, and the victim of an injured ankle would be too absorbed with putting together a personal injury claim to eat a donated dinner.

Since the mid-1990s we have created an entire industry of "fear entrepreneurs" - lobby groups, campaigners, regulators and inspectors - whose livelihoods depend on fuelling concern about the dangers of everyday life.

We probably would not want to return to the days when we were so cavalier about risk that we thought nothing of trying out a smallpox vaccine on unsuspecting milkmaids. However, this collective timidity is now so serious that it is posing a threat to our willingness to take on almost any sort of challenge. We are bound up in a risk-reducing bureaucracy that threatens our commercial competitiveness in world markets.

A growing anxiety about what one might call the dangers of fearfulness has led Gordon Brown to ask the government's Better Regulation Commission (BRC) to produce a document presenting a "fully and more rounded presentation of public risk" as soon as possible.

It is not clear whether anyone has dared to ask him exactly what he means, but the raw material he wants built on is a BRC report called Risk, Responsibility and Regulation: Whose Risk Is It Anyway?, produced last autumn.

The report warned that concern about risk in all aspects of life, and the ensuing plethora of bureaucratic regulation, were endangering Britain's economic performance. It is not a redundant concern. The US is the only country in the world that shares our risk paranoia, and last year another report, com missioned by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, warned that the city's pre-eminence as a financial centre was under threat from too many directives and risk "regs".

It remains to be seen if the BRC - which moved in June from the Cabinet Office to the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, will get something done about whose risk belongs where. Last year, there were 33 acts of parliament and more than 1,000 new regulations aimed at reducing various forms of risk. The BRC announced a target for government departments and agencies alone to cut 500 regulations that would reduce administrative costs by £2bn.

The commission's report called for Whitehall training schemes for the management and communication of risk, warning that fear of being blamed haunts ministers and civil servants, driving them to legislate even when an obvious practical solution is staring them in the face.

At the time, the BRC chairman, Rick Haythornthwaite, declared that our national resilience, self-reliance and spirit of adventure were being destroyed by a pervasive cultural demand for the elimination of all risk. He announced that the BRC was to produce red-tape reduction proposals for private industry, which could save further billions.

Haythornthwaite, who is also a managing director of the investment management company Star Capital Partners, says that Gordon Brown's new injunction will mean the existing BRC work plan will have to be put on hold.

Others are doubtful that anything much will happen at all. "There have been loads of these reports in recent years," says Paul Sanderson, a senior fellow at the University of Cambridge Centre for Business Research. "The government message is: 'Learn to love risk - we can't protect you from everything for ever,' but there is not much evidence so far of any change in practice." Nonetheless, he himself is organising an academic conference in September, optimistically entitled "The End of Zero Risk Regulation". The intention is to propagate the message that elimination of risk is not only undesirable, but unattainable.

Elsewhere, the aspiration to zero risk is being positively encouraged. The laudable intentions of the BRC are already being undermined by a proposal from the erstwhile Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA, now the Ministry of Justice), which says it would be better if more people could get compensation for personal injury claims. Consultation ended on 13 July on "streamlining" new arrangements for such insurance claims, removing, in many cases, the need for legal representation. It is predicted that under the new rules the number of compensation payouts will increase by 40 per cent.

Critics argue that the proposals will mean that the concept of an accident will finally vanish from our collective consciousness. If you fall over on a pavement made slippery by dead leaves, then someone should have swept it. If you fall off a cliff, someone should have checked you by putting up a notice warning that it is too far to jump.

The damaging knock-on effect of this mindset will inev itably be a reluctance to take on life's big risks and challenges. Andrew Caplan is on a Law Society working party discussing the implications of the DCA proposal, which is being pursued by the new Ministry of Justice. "A huge number of personal injury claims put through by trade unions never see the light of day because they are filtered out as invalid," he said. "Most of them would only be worth a few thousand anyway, so it will be cheaper for insurance companies to pay rather than contest them. But it is sending totally the wrong message."

Caplan has reason to be bitter about personal injury claims. He has seen at first hand the results of the compensation culture in his role as legal adviser to the Scout Association. He says there is a steady year-on-year increase in claims and a fall-off in adult volunteer helpers because of the extraordinary attitude of parents. His most memorable recent battles include a couple who sued because their nine-year-old was not allowed to ring home at 3am when he was homesick during a one-night camping expedition. The boy continued to attend Cub Scouts meetings even as his parents continued their legal action.

Others such as Martin Bare, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, say the compensation culture is an inevitable consequence of the abolition of legal aid and the passing of the burden to insurance companies, with claims-management companies constantly touting for potential litigants and a slice of the payout. "The intention is to give more people access to justice, but I'm not convinced this change will really make the system any more workable," Bare says.

There is undoubtedly real anxiety about the consequences of the prevailing social attitude to risk. A parliamentary group on adventure and recreation has been established, as has a campaign for adventure training, and there are many other efforts to promote the benefits of challenge. A national kite mark system called Go4It, promoted by the Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI) organisation, is being launched in schools nationwide next term; the aim is to reward those seen as most willing to offer pupils physical and psychological challenges. "We want to tackle the change from a can-do society into a can't-do one," says Anne Evans, the HTI chief executive, who is herself a former comprehensive school head teacher.

She faces an uphill struggle. Risk aversion is a recent social phenomenon, but it is now all-pervasive. The rot set in seriously only as recently as 1993, following the drowning of four teenagers on a badly organised canoeing expedition in Lyme Bay, Dorset, in March that year. The tragedy led to the creation of a sweeping new law and a licensing system for activity centres. About half of the 1,500 similar organisations operating in the early 1990s disappeared because they were unable to meet the stringent requirements. There is now a shortage of such facilities for eager children, arguably contributing to our spiralling childhood obesity rates.

Meanwhile, opinion polls consistently show that people who want risk regulated out of their lives as far as possible are equally balanced against those who kick against such regulation. Others manage to hold both opinions simultaneously.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and a leading commentator on the nature of attitudes to risk, says widespread concern about subjects such as climate change and fears about the future of mankind feed into a general pessimism. No senior politician will take the risk of publicly allying him or herself with the pro-risk campaigners, for fear of being blamed for the next disaster.

He ascribes the creation of phantom risk to the absence of real danger or adversity in our lives. "Safety has become a commodity which has a value of its own," he says. "It is not something you discover through trial and error: it is something you hold on to and do not change. I think that attitude will change only when there is a genuine external threat, like a war or a really serious disaster."

And that is something really worth worrying about.

Risk cases that have entertained us

An injured commuter called Brian Piccolo could win up to £1.5m in compensation after he slipped on a stray petal outside a florist’s shop at Marylebone Station. A high court judge ruled on 17 July that staff should have cleaned up outside the shop.

In April, a primary school teacher was awarded £12,958 out of court after falling off

a toilet seat. The woman dislocated her hip after toppling off the bowl, intended for use only by children under the age of 11.

In 1999, a family in Upper Mayfield, Derbyshire, sued the people who had sold them a 250-year-old cottage because, they said, the sellers failed to disclose that it was haunted. A county court judge threw out the claim.

A man won a £200 claim against a doctor he said had given him a cold. Trevor Perry, who got the sniffles after seeing Helen Young for a check-up, said she must have made him ill, as he’d not been in contact with anyone else. A judge reversed the verdict in 2002.

A deputy head teacher in Bristol sued her former school for £1m after it failed to replace a chair that made flatulent noises whenever she moved. Sue Storer, 48, claimed it was a “regular joke”, part of a catalogue of sexist behaviour that had undermined her position. She lost her case in 2006.

A binman made a claim against his local council after being “startled” by a dead badger that fell out of a rubbish bag . . .

Research by Marika Mathieu

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

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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