Interview: David Miliband

The foreign secretary explains he has identified four great progressive causes for the world.

The timing is awkward. David Miliband has been urged by his top mandarins to cancel our interview. They don't want us in the building, after their case against our whistleblower Derek Pasquill collapsed so ignominiously at the Old Bailey. Miliband, to his credit, politely declined their advice. We had agreed a long time beforehand to talk about his new world order, which he was preparing to set out in a speech to the Fabian Society's annual conference.

By way of an opener, we ask the Foreign Secretary to assess the state of play in British politics. He launches into a soliloquy: "The Arsène Wenger school of management says that you focus on your own team . . . and let the oppos ition take care of themselves. We've got a con viction leader who is determined to ensure that ideas as well as competence are at the heart of government. There is a genuine crisis of Conservatism and the fulcrum of it is how you reconcile a belief in markets with a belief in social order. It's unreconciled at a philosophical level and an intellectual level, and that's why you see it unreconciled at a political level."

Miliband has invented a catchphrase - the "civ il ian surge". He develops this theme: "There are 200 million Chinese learning English; there are more bloggers in Iran than any other country in the world per capita; Buddhist monks march for democracy in Burma. I got the idea of a civilian surge when I was talking to David Petraeus [the US military commander] in Iraq because, he says, 'You can't kill your way out of this problem - you need politics as well as security.'"

There are four great causes in current foreign policy, Miliband says. He lists them: tackle terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, "and that's what we're trying to do in Afghanistan"; try to reduce conflict, "and that's what we're trying to do in the Middle East, Kosovo and Sudan"; tackle inequality through low-carbon, high-growth economic aid and development policies, "and that's what we're trying to do in Bali and elsewhere"; and build durable international institutions that recognise international inter dependence, "and that's what we're trying to do with the EU and the UN". These, he says, "are all great progressive causes".

Democracy or security?

Miliband is seeking to reconcile what he calls "the old Westphalian settlement, which says we have no business being concerned with what goes on in other countries", with the mistakes of Iraq. He suggests that the present Tory position of David Cameron and William Hague is not unlike that of John Major and Douglas Hurd when the west stood back and allowed the massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda to take place.

We talk in detail about Tony Blair's criteria for "humanitarian intervention", and how it foun dered in Iraq. "People say, and I say myself, there are no military solutions. There are military victories, but then you've got to win the peace. That means building the institutions of civic society, and that's true in all the places where our military are deployed," he says. "It's the old argument of: 'Do you want democracy first or security first?' Actually, it's the wrong question because sequencing doesn't work. You can't have democracy without security, and as we're seeing in places like Pakistan, if you want true security you need democracy as well."

And was Iraq a great cause? Perhaps for fear of antagonising a US administration wary of the new incumbent in Downing Street, he is strange ly robust. "The idea that Iraqi citizens should be able to determine their own futures, in a democratic system that respects human rights - that's a progressive thing to want to do." So was it a progressive war? "The aim, which was to free the Iraqi people from a tyranny, is of course a progressive thing. Twelve million Iraqis went out to vote. Now, there's all sorts of things we could talk about - there are lessons, there are things that haven't gone right . . ." We put it again. Is he really proud that Britain went to war?

At this point he draws back. "A lot of our people have died. A much larger number of Iraqis have died. You have to have a lot of humility about what happened. I believe this was done for the right reasons - I don't believe the conspiracy theories. I believe it was done after a lot of hard thought and a lot of hard searching.

"The fifth anniversary invites us not to put a glib label on it, but to make sure Britain and the international community are more united about the next five years. There is a real opportunity, without pre judice to any of the deeply held views of New Statesman readers and others about the wisdom of the original decision, to say: 'Where we are now, what does Iraq need?' It needs political reconciliation, it needs economic reconstruction and it needs continued commitment to the security of the people there."

We press him on Iran. Miliband supports the US, but puts his own gloss on the issue. "Iran is a sponsor of terrorism. It is a potential source of conflict." He elaborates. "It's a country that should be contributing all its riches and all its people to a stable international community. That doesn't require a change of regime in Iran, it requires a change of behaviour on the part of the regime.

"The challenge is to make clear that the international community is serious about the stability we say is important, but also show that we're serious about the offer we're making [to Iran] to engage with the international community."

Whatever happened, we wonder, to the neoconservative dream that Blair seized on with such alacrity? "What do they say is the definition of a neocon? A liberal who's been mugged. People who came out of the 1960s, but who had lost their faith in progressive policy because they said we weren't hard-headed enough," he replies. "Now the PM says our foreign policy is going to be defined by hard-headed internationalism. The military can't bring you the solution alone, but sometimes you need the military. In Darfur, we need an African Union/UN force. It's the progressive position to say economics and politics and social intervention where possible, military intervention where necessary." He adds: "We shouldn't cede the ground of universal values to the neocons."

Miliband develops his challenge to the left, saying it should do more to reappraise the relationship between state and individual. "On its own, social democracy is not adequate for this changing world. It's necessary but not sufficient. On the other hand, you've got a progressive tradition of radical liberalism . . . whose defining belief is the idea of individual freedom in the market economy. But it's not enough, because it's got no answer for distributional questions that are thrown up - the inequality questions. The politics that will address the 21st century is the fus ion of the social democratic commitment to social justice through collective action, not just through the state."

He talks of combining a greater emphasis on civil liberties with the need, post the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, for security. He produces a curious approach to pre-trial detention. Once you have agreed on the need for any length of time you have established a principle, he says. "There's no magic in any number. What there should be is robustness and integrity in the processes. In dividual liberties depend on strong checks and balances." The longer anyone is held, the greater should be the scrutiny, Miliband says, but there need be no limit.

We turn to the issue that has caused such discomfort: the collapse at the Old Bailey of the prosecution of a Foreign Office official, Derek Pasquill, under the Official Secrets Act. It is our contention that this was a malicious prosecution pushed by the Foreign Office, even in the know ledge that the case would not stand up. This is now the second instance of an OSA trial foun dering, and we ask Miliband if the act should be reformed. "You always have to be open-minded about this. Have I been persuaded of the case for change? No. Do I rule out that it might need to be changed? No."

Does he not recall that Labour advocated such a reform when in opposition, particularly the inclusion of a public-interest defence? Miliband appears not to be aware of this. "I need to go and do some further research before I get drawn into that." And what of the principles of the case? "In principle, I think the confidentiality of government discussions is absolutely essential to effective government and I think we need a very effective regime to police that."

Religion and terror

We press him on our demand for an inquiry. He bridles. "I'm not going to get into any individual case. There are internal disciplinary issues relat ed to the leaks and I'm not going to say anything about it." What if someone at the Foreign Office had misled the courts? "Any suggestion of that is a matter for investigation by the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] on the back of a complaint.

"We are a department that always seeks to make sure it upholds the highest standards of government, and we always look at our own procedures and processes to make sure that happens." He concludes: "I've seen nothing to suggest that there weren't appropriate and high standards followed all the way through. But you're not going to tempt me into discussion on this."

We move to the broader issue of engaging with Islam. Miliband describes this as a two-strand approach involving security and "hearts and minds". He has been persuaded by studies that suggest "you don't confuse degree of religiosity with propensity to terrorism". He adds: "We're much further ahead than we were three or four years ago in understanding what we're dealing with and how it feeds off grievance, both real and alleged. What we're clear about is that we're trying to counter insurgency, not counter people's religious freedoms. We're trying to avoid a clash of civilisations, rather than prosecute one."

Amid reports of the odd disagreement with Downing Street, and with a new baby on the home front, we ask him if he is enjoying his job. "It's a fantastic job. Great job. All these jobs are very demanding, but it's a great job to do. It's a huge privilege to do this." Miliband is curious to know why we called it the "Edward Stourton question". Because, we advise him, that was the question on the Today programme that stumped the Prime Minister. He winces.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism

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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