Luck and The Thing

As he bows out, Tony Blair may reflect that, helped by good fortune, he has left his country a more

Leaders are never easy to judge. Part of their job is to dazzle, disguise and deflect attention. Some who, close up, appear to command all around them, defining the age, come, in retrospect, to appear more like minnows, carried along by the currents of history. Others, more modest, in retrospect turn out to have laid the foundations for the future.

Tony Blair, more than most leaders, will confound the judges and juries for a long time to come. Few will doubt that he became an extraordinarily skilled politician. His was a bravura exposition of the craft. He effortlessly found the dead centre of public opinion. He articulated it with ease and showed again and again that the most important quality in any leader is resilience - the ability to weather shocks and disasters with a smile.

That resilience was helped by the fact that he achieved so many of his stated goals. He rebuilt the Labour Party as a winning machine. This was not something he cared about much for its own sake, but it was quite an achievement all the same (even if the tools that helped him succeed later left the party somewhat hollowed out, just as the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher and the Saatchis hollowed out the Conservatives). He then made Labour a successful party of government, and the envy of others around the world. He turned around the long demoralisation and underinvestment in public services, and, incidentally, left public servants better paid than those in the private sector in every region of Britain bar one. He did much to alleviate the ugly poverty that was such a disastrous legacy of the 1980s. Although much poverty remains, most British cities have quite a different feel from the sullen fatalism of 20 years ago, while mass unemployment is now a dim memory. And he carried through bolder constitutional reform than any other prime minister of the modern era.

All these achievements were shared by his colleagues, especially Gordon Brown; future historians may bracket their administrations together. They are the achievements of a sane and decent social democratic administration, and they have left Britain, for most of its citizens, a more pleasant place to live.

Yet the achievements come with caveats. My guess is that many future critics could say that Blair's skills as a politician may have diminished his longer-term impact. The truly great leaders bring with them a grit, anger and a willingness to go against the grain that often make their careers turbulent roller-coasters. They become associated with a body of ideas that begins on the margins of their society but, at a certain point, through struggle, becomes the common sense. Just think of Churchill or Gladstone, de Gaulle or Gandhi. Blair was certainly not lacking in bravery. But his boldest risks were not taken in the name of a new idea: instead, most of them were guaranteed to have the centre ground of opinion on his side.

Two centuries ago, William Cobbett described the establishment in Britain as "The Thing": utterly convinced of its own rightness and utterly resistant to change. Today's establishment may appear more reasonable, but it is every bit as powerful. Its strength explains much about the virtues and vices of new Labour's time in government. Two centuries ago the centre of gravity of "The Thing" lay in the aristocracy and the leading factions of the main parties. Today, the aristocracy (and monarchy) are at its edge. Its centre of gravity lies in the media and business. It includes swaths of the senior civil service (though most are somewhat to its left), some of parliament, and the "international class" in every profession. It is firmly committed to market capitalism. It is internationalist, more pro-American than pro-European, and divided on questions of social order.

Labour's ability to court "The Thing", to convince it that the new government would not be a threat and might actually do some good, was the precursor to victory. It meant that Labour ruled from the centre in more senses than one, co- opting, flattering and recruiting an extraordinary army of business leaders, artists, writers and consultants to its cause. All of this was made easier because Blair embodied the liberal end of "The Thing". Unlike his predecessors, he didn't have to pretend to care about the views of business leaders and newspaper editors: much of the time, the respect was genuine.

Embracing the establishment

This alliance helped Labour to marginalise the Conservatives and appear, against all odds, as a natural party of government. Yet this alliance also explains Labour's most visible scandals - all of which blew up when the effort to embrace the new establishment overshot. From Bernie Ecclestone's £1m donation, through the twists and turns of David Blunkett's personal relationships, to the unfolding of the cash-for-peerages scandal, this has been the consistent leitmotif of the Blair years. It also explains much about the contours of new Labour's radicalism. Revising Clause Four or upping the ante on public service reform were bold gambits, but they were ones in which Blair could be confident that the vocal centre ground (or rather centre right) would be cheering from the sidelines. Even the gamble on Iraq fits the same pattern. By contrast, the gambles he eschewed - such as an earlier and bolder stance on climate change, or fuller constitutional reform, or joining the euro - were issues on which that conventional wisdom was either opposed or divided.

This highlights the other ambiguity of his legacy. More than any other prime minister in recent history, Blair has been lucky in domestic affairs: lucky in that he inherited an economy well placed for growth; lucky in that he didn't preside over a world recession; and lucky in that he came to power at a time when Britain was relatively free from titanic social struggles such as the miners' strike or the riots of the 1980s. He brilliantly made the most of this luck - and his record in domestic affairs will be seen as overwhelmingly positive, particularly for the many in society whose interests had almost disappeared from the radar of the elite during the 1980s and 1990s. This achievement is less visible to the opinion-forming middle class in London (few of whose friends have benefited from policies such as tax credits). But it is the main expla n ation for the continued strength of Labour's electoral support.

There have, of course, been mistakes. Management of the hefty investment in health was often flawed - but overpaid doctors are preferable to the collapsing services that we'd be seeing if there hadn't been such a huge infusion of funds. The encouragement of gambling and 24-hour drinking, and the failure to rein in an often malign media - the aristocrats of contemporary Britain - have left British culture harsher and nastier than it need be. But the big judgements in domestic affairs were broadly right.

Blair's skill, and luck, in domestic affairs contrast strikingly with a different position in foreign affairs, where he combined great energy with extraordinary bad luck. The man who wanted to make Britain a leader in Europe, and at ease in this new role, coincided in office with several of the weakest leaders the European Commission has ever had, and a period of unprecedented public disappointment in the European project. He was unlucky when it came to his fellow leaders. Some, such as Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi, were dire examples of the corrupt and incompetent (I suspect that future historians will marvel at Blair's poor taste when it came to holidays with the man with the bandanna).

He has been even more unlucky with America. A strong relationship with Bill Clinton gave way to an equally strong relationship with George W Bush. But where Clinton was cautious and measured, Bush and his neoconservative allies have turned out to be wild risk-takers, inspired by an extraordinarily unrealistic view of how the world works, and largely careless of their allies.

I'm one of those who think that there were good grounds for intervention in an Iraq that wanted the world to believe it had WMDs. But a narrow alliance with a flawed US leadership never looked like a wise bet, and the Iraq débâcle has inevitably overshadowed Blair's domestic successes. He is particularly unlucky in this regard because in the longer run his arguments for international intervention may come to be seen as prescient. In the late 1990s, he was the first major leader to understand that a new era of interdependence would spell the end of 19th-century ideas of national sovereignty.

The world's responsibility to protect citizens from their own states will be one of the defining ideas of the 21st century, as will the world's responsibility to look after its common resources. A more active and interventionist global community remains the only alternative to an ugly future in which deadly weapons circulate more freely and the world's common resources are plundered and run down. Blair's cheerleading, browbeating and coalition-building over Africa and climate change may not have achieved all he wanted, and many of his efforts were undermined by Bush's unwillingness to collaborate. But they look like heroic partial successes, in a different league from the paltry attempts of his peers.

For progressives, disappointment is tempered by the fact that Blair leaves behind a Britain that is no longer a Conser vative nation. Margaret Thatcher thought she had changed the country irreversibly, but she and her chorus line over estimated her success. They failed to see that "The Thing" saw little of the social costs that accompanied her rule and cared little about her most cherished goals, such as recreating Victorian values and the family.

The Britain of today is a fairly social-democratic country, in which ideas that once languished on the far left are mainstream, and in which David Cameron has no choice but to dress himself in liberal clothes. Even the policies that so many liberals dislike - the coercive activism on asylum and criminal justice - reflected a government that was in touch with public opinion and determined to block a Conservative revival.

An impressive balance

Blair made many compromises with "The Thing". But he also left it changed, slightly more decent, more responsible, less ashamed to care. Where some leaders become more brittle, he matured in office, becoming ever more interested in finding the right answers rather than the easy ones. It is a great paradox that a man accused of being all spin regularly upbraided civil servants and advisers for giving him expedient, incremental options rather than choices based on first principles.

This is where the historians will find it hard to decide. Was he a supremely competent pragmatist, brilliant at adapting to circumstance? Or was he a man of conviction, repeatedly willing to risk his own skin? Comments he made on Pontius Pilate in the mid-1990s are telling. "The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate's advisers telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion." Blair then cites the Munich agreement of 1938, the Reform Act 1832 and the Corn Laws. "It is not always clear, even in retrospect, what is, in truth, right. Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient? Christianity is optimistic about the human condition, but not naive. It can identify what is good, but knows the capacity to do evil. I believe that the endless striving to do the one and avoid the other is the purpose of human existence. Through that comes progress."

It is far too soon to judge whether Tony Blair was on the side of progress, whether he struck the right balance between doing what is right and doing what is expedient. His most visible mistake - Iraq - arose from doing what he thought was right, not what was expedient. His greatest successes came about when a steady moral compass was combined with tactical agility and pragmatism. As always with history, how Blair is judged will depend on what happens next: whether Britain remains a centrist society; whether it continues what now looks like a sustained bounce back from its long decline in the 20th century; whether the Middle East descends further into chaos. My guess is that, in most things, he will be seen to have struck an impressive balance. But we should be wary of instant judgements. Only the future will make sense of the present and determine who looks wise and who looks foolish.

Geoff Mulgan, former head of policy in Downing Street, is director of the Young Foundation

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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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