Britain's own C-word

The big question in coming months is how far the new leader will transform the machinery of state. D

Having at last entered into his inheritance, Gordon Brown has a chance to open a new chapter in the story of Britain's slow march towards democracy. His campaign hints about radical constitutional change were titillating, but inconclusive. He committed himself to reform of the Commons, a more accountable executive and parliamentary control over decisions of war and peace. He promised more vigilance over civil liberty and talked of more public involvement in policymaking.

But, as he said himself, these moves are not enough. They would nudge Britain a little further along the road to 21st-century democracy, but there would still be an enormous distance to cover. The great questions are how far Brown is willing to travel, and what comes next.

It is not difficult to envisage a constitution fit for the 21st century. It would state that sovereignty belongs to the people, instead of to the crown-in-parliament. The royal prerogative would be abolished (not just trimmed). Ministers and civil servants would be servants of parliament or the people, not of the crown. The House of Lords would be consigned to the dustbin of history. The second chamber would be elected on a national-cum-regional basis, with Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the English regions as the electoral districts. Subsidiarity would be a fundamental principle. The remorseless growth of central power, which has been a leitmotif of British government since the 1940s, would be halted and in some fields reversed.

Substantial, legally entrenched devolution from the central to the local and regional level would create new sites for civic engagement and provide a check against the inevitable self- aggrandisement of government at the centre. Human rights would be extended and more firmly guaranteed. Electoral reform would make the Commons democratically legitimate for the first time in its history. And, like virtually all other democracies, Britain would have a written constitution, based on clear and explicit principles expressed in accessible language.

For the moment, though, constitution-mongering is beside the point. At this stage process matters as much as outcomes. What is crucial is to ensure that constitutional reform is not the property of any party or group of parties, or even of the political class as a whole. The single most obvious feature of present-day British politics is the deep, almost visceral, distrust that the public feels for politicians and political institutions: that is one of the main reasons radical constitutional reform is needed. Certainly, political leaders will have a crucial part to play, but they will have to play it with deftness and modesty.

If the project is to succeed, it must be the property of civil society as a whole, in all its rich diversity. This would, in itself, be a breathtaking innovation, but that is no reason to hold back. The Brown government's first big test is whether it will do for the United Kingdom what Scottish devolutionists did when they set up the constitutional convention that paved the way for the Edinburgh parliament.

The English question

Public alienation from the system is now at an all-time high. Brown's prime ministership will stand or fall on his ability to translate negative alienation into a positive consensus for change. The emotional and institutional obstacles are redoubtable. One of them is the banalisation of public discourse epitomised in the mantra, "It's the economy, stupid". Today, the real stupidity is to give the economy primacy over the polity. The British economy is now one of the most productive in the world, but rising prosperity has gone hand in hand with a deepening political malaise. Falling levels of trust in politics and politicians, miserable general election turnouts, the recent SNP victory in Scotland, disaffection among a small but ominous minority of British-born Muslims and the belated emergence of a potentially explosive "English Question" now haunt the British state like so many ghosts of Banquo. But the spectres are political, not economic. They have to do with the fundamentals of identity, legitimacy and political allegiance. They can be laid to rest only by and through political debate and institutional change.

Another obstacle is the constitutional conservatism that lurks deep in the Labour Party's DNA. Ever since it became a serious challenger for power, Labour has taken Britain's time- encrusted constitution for granted and ignored the tension between social-democratic values and British constitutional orthodoxy. In the days of interwar unemployment and crisis-ridden postwar reconstruction, this was understandable. But over the past 30 years two things have become obvious.

The first is that, although the powers once exercised by the crown have been taken over by the government of the day, the British version of democracy is essentially monarchical. The second is that this negates the social-democratic values of equal citizenship, popular sovereignty and government by dialogue and discussion.

True, the reforms of Tony Blair's first term were more far-reaching than anything seen since 1832. But they did not spring from a coherent vision of pluralist democracy. All too often, the government clung to the monarchical habits of the past. Devolution to Scotland and Wales went hand in hand with increasing centralisation in England; the Human Rights Act with illiberal statutes restricting civil liberty and strengthening the state's already excessive capacity to intrude into the lives of its citizens.

The consequences were doubly malign. The "old" constitution - centred on the absolute sovereignty of the crown-in-parliament - has gone for ever. But it has been replaced by an ad hoc miscellany of measures and executive actions, pulling in different directions. The result is a constitutional wasteland, which is rapidly becoming a breeding ground for confusion, conflict and illegality. The law lords say one thing, ministers another. The consensus among international lawyers was that the Iraq war was illegal. The Attorney General pronounced it legal.

But the biggest obstacle to further democratisation is the crabbed mindset engendered by British constitutional doctrine. For those imprisoned in it, the constitution (any constitution, not just ours) is an uncodifiable melange of practices, precedents, conventions and occasional enactments that govern the operation of the political system until new practices miraculously emerge from the womb of time.

Herbert Morrison's famous dictum was that socialism is what the Labour government does. On the traditional British view, the constitution is what the political actors of the day can get away with. The constitution simply is. Constitutional discourse has no room for ought.

Yet, in reality, constitutions - whether written or not - are more than assortments of institutional nuts and bolts. They embody (and sometimes express) a moral vision: a vision of the good political community, of the good citizen and even of the good society. The US constitution (to take the most famous example) defines a set of institutional arrangements and legal principles designed to reconcile republican liberty and popular sovereignty in a polity of continental scope. Its opening words - "we, the people of the United States" - summarise the governing principle with beautiful economy: the state is the property of the people, not of the rulers temporarily in charge of it.

The state and the monarch

Ironically, even the "old" British constitution embodied a vision of the good political community. The trouble was that the vision was pre- democratic. It was a vision of responsive, but autonomous executive power, in which the people had only walk-on parts in a drama scripted by government at the centre. The state did not belong to the people. It belonged to the monarch, and later to the monarch's ministers. Under the pressure of social, cultural and institutional change, that vision has faded. But it has not been replaced. The result is a vacuum of understanding and principle, which goes a long way to explain the disaffection and cynicism that now poison the wells of political debate and undermine the whole progressive tradition.

Not only was the old constitution pre-democratic, it was monocultural and mononational. It presupposed a culturally homogeneous society and a single, overarching "British" identity, replacing the various national identities of the UK. Manifestly, neither of these assumptions hold good today. Fundamental political questions - Who belongs to the political community? What holds it together? How do the nations of Britain relate to each other and to the whole? How does England relate to the non-English nations? Where do ethnic minority cultures and communities fit in? - are now on the agenda, in a way that has never been true before.

But the British constitutional tradition lacks the moral resources to supply convincing answers. British nationhood can be only civic, like those of France or the United States, not ethnic, like those of Israel and much of eastern Europe. Apart from any other reasons, there is no British ethnicity. Britain is and always has been a multinational state. But civic nationhood presupposes a civic culture, and in so far as present-day Britain has a civic culture at all, it is feeble to the point of anaemia. There is no British equivalent to the valeurs républicaines of France, or the "civic religion" of the US. Rightly, there is now a broad consensus that "Britishness" should be about values, not genes.

But British values are nowhere defined. Faced with alienated young Muslims or separatist Scots asking why they should be British, we have no iconic national utterance to point to - no equivalent of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen or the American Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Mumblings about Magna Carta are not adequate substitutes.

This has been true a long time, but two developments have added urgency to the question. The first is the historic Commons vote for an elected second chamber. It would be outrageous to sweep this under the carpet and only one degree less outrageous to erect an unstable halfway house between democracy and appointment. But the vote to elect the second chamber was only the beginning. A host of other questions crowd behind. On what basis should elections take place? What electoral districts should be represented? What powers should the chamber have? Above all, what will it be for? These questions can't be answered by more piecemeal tinkering. The creation of an elected second chamber will be a revolutionary change with ramifying effects across the political system. It would be absurd, even dangerous, to look at it in isolation.

Formidable agenda

The second new development is the "English Question" I mentioned earlier. Sometimes this is confused with the notorious "West Lothian Question", but it goes deeper than that. English nationalism (or patriotism, for those who feel squeamish about nationalism) has always been with us, but for most of the time since the Act of Union it has masqueraded as British nationalism. English nationhood was subsumed by British nationhood; the cross of St George by the Union Jack. The Scots and the Welsh were understandably offended by the English habit of talking of "Britain" and "England" as though they were the same thing, but to most English people it was second nature.

Now this is changing. St George crosses on flags at football matches, the recent Social Attitudes Survey finding that there has been a significant fall in the percentage of English people who identify themselves as British and Conservative talk of confining votes on English legislation to English MPs are all straws in the wind.

It is not a high wind - yet. Perhaps it never will be. But it would be dangerous to count on that. Devolution has fostered a remarkable and fundamentally healthy growth in the self-confidence and sense of nationhood of the Scots and Welsh. Scotland and Wales are now distinct political communities, with real capital cities and real parliamentary assemblies, in a sense that has not been true of Scotland for 300 years and has never been true of Wales before.

The revival of England's sense of nationhood is a natural response to these transformations. Though the metropolitan liberal intelligentsia has never been comfortable with the idea, the English are a people, too. If the peoples of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are entitled to autonomy over a wide range of policy areas, how can it be right to deny it to the English?

The agenda is formidable, but so is Brown. He has been the strongest Chancellor since Cripps and the most successful since Gladstone. He has a chance to build a consensus for democratic change of a kind we have not seen since 1945. If he succeeds, he will go down as one of the greatest reforming prime ministers of modern times.

Gordon Brown's in-tray

Health Give public greater access to GPs on weekends and evenings; resolve NHS pay crisis and flawed application procedure for junior doctors

Poverty Put government back on track to meet target of halving child poverty by 2010

Terrorism Develop cross-departmental approach to tackling Islamic extremism

Housing Build eco-towns; meet targets for new housing; make it easier for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder; deal with home information pack problems

Schools Increase funding of state schools; set up National Council for Educational Excellence to tie industry, higher education and the voluntary sector more closely to schools; increase the number of school-leavers entering university

Europe Deal with fallout from the EU treaty and calls for a referendum

Iraq Set date for troop withdrawal; answer calls for an inquiry into the Iraq war

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge