Illustration: Jackson Rees
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At 30,000 feet, there is no privacy. The seat-back screen is a window into the soul of the person in front

 “One rerun – it was one rerun of Friends! You can’t prove I’m thinking about it all the time!”

I never watch movies or TV or play video games on planes. Why? Because those fag-packet-sized screens that they implant in the back of the seats are actually displaying the thoughts of the person sitting in front of you. It isn’t seemly to intrude on another’s thoughts – we’ve all read our Freud and we know that beneath the thin, smooth veneer of socially sanctioned self-awareness (I am an upright, decent, sincere, moral person . . .), there seethes a fetid-fiery pit of the libidinal imagination into which barrels of death instinct are regularly poured. How else can we explain what is plainly in view – a heaving morass of tortured and ecstatic and self-regarding flesh which is hardly ethically minimised by appearing in miniature?

I realise that some of you may find the notion far-fetched: surely even if the technology existed, it would be impossible to implant the necessary sensors in our brains while we were blissfully unaware. But the evidence is compelling. In the past, I often used to while away 155 minutes observing, say, Gladiator, and when I asked the people in front of me whether they’d been thinking about sweaty men hacking each other to death they replied they most certainly had.

But it was only some years after the fag-packet-sized screens began to be installed on planes that I tumbled to exactly what was going on. Heading for the lavatory on a transatlantic flight, I turned back to see that the serried ranks of passengers were absolutely fixated on their fellows’ mental content. Moreover, that mental content was almost invariably the same: in this case, footage of a desert full of burning oil refineries. I stood there, stunned not by the evidence of groupthink (for this was readily explained by the cascade effect of each person’s thoughts being transmitted to the one behind) but by the insouciance they all displayed, munching away on their poached salmon with green beans and dauphinoise potatoes without any shame.

It was then that I cracked a little and began going from seat to seat, challenging their inhabitants: “How does it feel to know you’re being psychically violated even as you rifle another’s brainbox?” And I would have continued, had the woman in the seat behind me not sprung up, crying, “Get back here – I was halfway through an episode of Friends you once saw and were thinking about!” This made me feel, in turn, ambivalent: on the one hand I was pleased not to have been cogitating about the burning oil refineries in common with the herd, but on the other I was depressed to realise that my subconscious seethed with little else but perma-tanned American comedy actors fired up by a high-octane laughter track. I couldn’t deny that I had seen this particular episode of Friends; after all, quite a few others on the plane had, too, and the evidence was directly before us.

So now I never look at anything displayed on those screens – I have no need to know that the inoffensive woman sitting in front of me is sexually fixated on Zeinab Badawi. When I fly accompanied by my wife or one of my children, they labour to convince me that the control unit you can detach from its housing beside the screen enables you to “change channels” and this disproves my belief. Even if I were to accept something so unlikely, it wouldn’t make me feel any better, because if I am in control of what’s appearing on the screen, it could well be that I’m also controlling my hapless travel companions’ thoughts, rapidly spooling them through a frightening series of visions – sweaty men hacking each other to death, burning oil refineries, perma-tanned hilarity addicts – until they collapse into catatonic psychosis.

Since I discovered this alarming instance of technologically mediated mass privacy invasion, I’ve happened on more and more. Apparently millions upon millions of ordinary people spend considerable amounts of time every day exposing intimate aspects of themselves to whoever’s interested – spiritual beliefs, sexual preferences, bank balance. Nothing seems sacred any more. Why, the other day, I ordered a triple-shot skinny macchiato in Costa and the barista, without so much as a by-your-leave, asked me what my name was! Slobbering with indignation, I told this fellow it was a free country and I wouldn’t even be under any legal obligation to supply him with such information if he were an officer of the law. He replied that that was all very well, but it’d make it a hell of a lot easier to ensure he made me the right coffee if I could at least give him a capital letter to felt-tip on the cup.

I gave him an “M” – a teasing come-on to GCHQ and the NSA, should they be watching – but when he handed me my beverage, the barista laughed dryly and remarked, “I don’t know why you make such a big deal about your privacy. Everyone knows your innermost thoughts consist of little else but endless reruns of Friends.” I shouted at him: “One rerun – it was one rerun of Friends! You can’t prove I’m thinking about it all the time!” But he didn’t pay me any heed. He was bantering with the next customer about their thoughts; or, still more sinisterly, telling them what to think.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide