Now, boys, that's not very nice

The left believes in altruism, equality, community and all-round cuddliness. Caroline Danielfinds ne

When John Major departed from 10 Downing Street he left behind more than just memories of snatched sandwiches over his desk and morning tea in the kitchen with Norma. He also left a bottle of champagne for Tony Blair with a note saying that he'd had seven great years in the old place, and that he was sure that Blair would have a great time there, too.

Now that seems like a nice thing to do. But then Major always came across as the sort of man your granny would knit a cardigan for. Honest John. Nice John. A good man, sadly fallen among Eurosceptics.

More surprising, at least to those on the left, has been the discovery that (say it quietly) Michael Portillo is also actually rather nice. So nice that many of his civil servants cried when he left office. Portillo's attempt to slip out discreetly from the Ministry of Defence was rumbled when a voice over the public address system said he was about to leave the building and hundreds of staff members turned up to say farewell.

Several Tory ministers were not so nice by all accounts (Michael Howard, for example, was not popular with his civil servants) and there are plenty of nice people on the left. Lord (Alf) Dubs of Battersea, a Labour minister in the Northern Ireland Office, is "the most indisputably nice person that I have ever met", according to Matthew Parris, the Times columnist and former Tory MP. "He's so nice I found him crying in the Lords because he had won the constituency raffle and he worried that people would think he had fixed it."

So Parris has proposed a "Dubs scale" of niceness. And he is clear that ideologues would score low. Indeed, both Arthur Scargill and Alfred Sherman, the former director of the Centre for Policy Studies, would probably score negative points. "The reason ideology goes with nastiness," argues Parris, "is that they look at the world through a theoretical structure. They don't like people very much so they need a structure."

Certainly, one would not usually want to go on a date with an ideologue. But more generally, is it people on the left or on the right who should scoop up more "Dubs" points?

I tried asking a cross-section of politicians. Teresa Gorman replied with a scrawled fax bearing the words: "Why ask me, you must be MAD!"

Most people on the left, I found, are noisily confident that they are nicest. And you would expect the left to be nicer. After all, the left has a more optimistic and flattering view of human nature, believing that people can change and be made less selfish, less greedy, cuddlier and generally more communally minded. The left is supposed to believe in equality, that people should be respected for what they are and what they have the potential to become. And the left is supposed to believe in collective action, rather than in every man for himself. Even the right sometimes acknowledges, implicitly, the left's greater niceness, when it says that the left has too rosy a view of human nature.

But in practice the left, particularly in power, doesn't always behave as nicely as its own rhetoric suggests it should. Take just a few examples from recent months. David Clark, widely regarded as one of the nicest cabinet ministers, was booted out. (As Parris says, "one of the problems with being a nice person is you don't realise how nasty everyone else is.") Gordon Brown has been accused of having "psychological problems" by a Blair aide. Last week, anonymous Treasury sources dismissed Peter Mandelson's plans for Post Office reform as "garbage" and "rubbish". Not very nice, and certainly not what you would call community-minded.

Members of Tory governments rubbished each other, too. Under Margaret Thatcher, John Biffen was famously described by Bernard Ingham as a "semi-detached" member of the government. Even nice John Major was caught out saying that some members of his cabinet were "bastards". But the poisonous atmosphere at the top of the Labour Party is widely regarded as worse than under the previous government.

It wasn't especially nice, either, that Robin Cook had 45 minutes to decide between his wife and his mistress, or that he publicly blamed his civil servants for the Sierra Leone affair.

Then there are all those special advisers. Some of them seem unable to meet government detractors with sophisticated point-by-point rebuttal. Instead, they adopt a style of brusque bullying to compensate for their youthful inadequacies in the fields of policy and personal relations. There is a naive view that your political influence is directly proportional to your ability to bully rather than persuade. A deep-seated political insecurity has bred this strutting self-importance in some of the advising classes.

The Blairites in particular can come across as a touch too self-savouring. Some remain scarred by the bunker mentality of opposition and have resorted to a kind of introverted tribalism. They are bonded together by a meritocratic cliquishness fused from the years together in opposition, and the knowledge that they got to the top of the political tree by dint of their own hard work. They are terribly nice to their own, and loyal to each other, but they can adopt an off-handedness towards people whom they don't think are "on side". They may write speeches about the "giving age" and about building a "decent society", but that decency doesn't always start at home.

These people inherit from Thatcherism a certain kind of meritocratic sniffiness. Meritocracy militates against niceness. It's hard to empathise with those who failed, if you believe they failed because they didn't make the best use of their opportunities. As John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, puts it, "the circumstances which make people nasty is a feeling of unchallengeable power", and the Blairites have it, for now.

But there's something else about people on the left which earns them negative Dubs points. Because they believe that society can change, they dash about trying to tweak the status quo by dreaming up clever improving schemes, rather like a photographer changing the backdrop in the hope of showing off his clients in their best light. They believe in a "project". Until that "project" is over, they can't relax and lighten up.

This attitude of mind is caught in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, called "To Those Who Come After", in which he wrote: "We, who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness, could not ourselves be friendly."

Sitting next to a prominent young (but getting older) new Labourite at a round-table discussion on Europe, I rose to leave early to celebrate my birthday. The sober (occasionally) man pulled my sleeve and whispered earnestly, with no trace of a smile: "I bet Margaret Thatcher never got on in the world by leaving political functions early to celebrate her birthday."

Yet according to Ian Christie, deputy director of Demos: "One purpose of socialism ought to be to allow more people to sit around in cafes having fun with each other. Instead, the left often has a sense that they are doing more important things than the right, that they shouldn't hang around being funny but need to be earnest and active. Yet social cohesion can be promoted by laughter and companionship."

It is not just companionship that gets lost in the mix. A sense of courtesy can, too.This in part is a remnant of class warriordom. "The left still retains the idea that manners and ritual conventions are a badge of servitude," thinks Laurie Taylor, NS columnist.

"There's a feeling on the left that you're in a tremendous hurry and don't have the time for these little courtesies," observes Rick Nye, the nice director of the Social Market Foundation.

In contrast, as the philosopher Roger Scruton points out, "in the British context manners have always been part of being a Conservative".

None of this means that the right as a whole deserves more Dubs points. Right-wingers may be more civil but, as Andrew Puddephatt, the director of Charter 88, claims, they "have an ease and grace which comes with the assurance of power. You realise that the charm and politeness is often a kind of condescension and is a superficial kind of niceness."

John Gray also thinks it wrong to be romantic about the old patrician Tories. "They could be tolerant and open-minded but this was founded on a view of hierarchy and inequality, and emerged from a feeling of unchallengeable social power."

And the right is certainly not very nice to foreigners. "A lot of Tory ministers seemed to think it was funny to be rude to foreigners," says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. "At an Ecofin council meeting the German delegate arrived late and Norman Lamont looked at his watch and quipped, 'I thought the Germans were supposed to be punctual'. He thought it was very funny to be rude."

So both the left and the right are not as nice as they should be. But is niceness really such a political asset anyway?

In the 1987 party political broadcast on ITV for the Liberal/ Social Democrat Alliance, Sir David Steel lamented that "to listen to some people in politics you'd think that 'nice' was a four-letter word". And look what happened to him. Back in the 1920s, something similar happened to Sir Austen Chamberlain, a Tory leader of whom it was said that "he always played the game and always lost it".

George Walden, the former Tory MP, thinks "it's often niceness that causes all the trouble. Niceness is a killer really. Niceness settles for mediocrity. Michael Foot was a grossly self-indulgent politician but he was a nice bloke."

And Steven Lukes, a twin-hatted professor of moral philosophy at Sienna, Italy, and of sociology at New York University, thinks that "the left is supposed to be critical of the existing order of things. An essential tool in their armoury has to be satire. Too much niceness blunts the edge of satire, so the left had better not be very nice. It's not necessarily a political virtue, being nice."

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

Show Hide image

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