IDS and the skivers from Mars

Why cutting money from benefits might not save anything in the long run.

It might not be a bad idea to send Iain Duncan Smith to Mars. We’d soon see what turns a striver into a skiver. Last month, scientists released the results of a study into what happens when people are kept indolent for more than a year. They sleep more, play more video games and lose all normal motivation. Being stripped of normal routines makes it hard to revert to being a striver. The study wasn’t intended to be a critique of social policy; it was about space exploration.

The pioneering Dutch organisation Mars One has more than 1,000 volunteers lined up to take its one-way trips to the Red Planet starting in 2023. Be careful what you wish for, though: if you commit to any of the missions, you will be cooped up with your fellow astronauts in tightly fitting accommodation for nearly 18 months. The study makes it clear that, unless you’re careful, some of you may lose your mind.

The Mars500 project, which took place just outside Moscow, replicated the conditions of a trip to Mars. A multinational mix of engineers, astronaut trainers and doctors spent 520 days in a mock-up of a spaceship composed of narrow tunnels and rooms. Cut off from the rest of the world, crew members were monitored by video cameras and activity monitors worn like wristwatches, enabling scientists to record their behaviour. The mock astronauts were given various things to do but it was what they didn’t do that was most telling.

They didn’t bother with physical activity in the way they might have done when going about their normal existence. As their lethargy grew, they largely avoided the better-lit parts of their accommodation. By the time the mission drew to a close, half of them were sleeping an hour more per night than at the start. For some, playing video games became a coping strategy to deal with the endless tedium.

Nasa and the European Space Agency will be using the data to inform future astronaut training but there is a lesson for lesser mortals, too. If you strip people of normal human purpose, even those who have had the drive to become doctors and engineers struggle to get it back.

In more mundane contexts, long-term poverty leads to some very dark situations. A study published just after Christmas reported on interviews with low-income urban women. They described themselves as living with high stress, long-term exposure to violence, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and intense isolation and loneliness. The researchers who carried out the study noted that no one knows how to get the women out of this place.

Such situations lead to increased health-care burdens, too. A study of 200 breast cancer survivors, also published in December, has shown that loneliness and social isolation lead to pain, depression, fatigue and illness. It’s not all in their heads: blood samples showed that the women’s ability to fight disease and deal with pain were altered. As the researchers put it, “Loneliness enhances [the] risk for immune dysregulation.”

The message is clear, whether the news comes from space agencies, social policy researchers or cancer survivors: if you cut people off from the norms of society, they will collapse in on themselves. Unless you’re superhuman, failing to find work for an extended period will end with you giving up on everything, including staying healthy. So, the money saved from benefit cuts may end up being spent on health-care interventions for the terminally disadvantaged – unless you send them with IDS on that one-way trip to Mars.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Mars: Iain Duncan Smith's new home? Photograph: NASA

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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The Brexiteers' response to John Major shows their dangerous complacency

Leave's leaders are determined to pretend that there are no risks to their approach.

Christmas is some way off, but Theresa May could be forgiven for feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge. Another Ghost of Prime Ministers Past in the shape of John Major is back in the headlines with a major speech on Brexit.

He struck most of the same notes that Tony Blair did in his speech a fortnight ago. Brexit is a blunder, a "historic mistake" in Major's view. The union between England and Scotland is under threat as is the peace in Northern Ireland. It's not unpatriotic for the defeated side in an electoral contest to continue to hold to those beliefs after a loss. And our present trajectory is a hard Brexit that will leave many of us poorer and wreck the British social model.

But, as with Blair, he rules out any question that the referendum outcome should not be honoured, though, unlike Blair, he has yet to firmly state that pro-Europeans should continue to advocate for a return to the EU if we change our minds. He had a note of warning for the PM: that the Brexit talks need "a little more charm and a lot less cheap rhetoric" and that the expectations she is setting are "unreal and over-optimistic".

On that last point in particular, he makes a point that many politicians make privately but few have aired in public. It may be that we will, as Theresa May says, have the best Brexit. France may in fact pay for it. But what if they don't? What if we get a good deal but immigration doesn't fall? Who'll be blamed for that? Certainly we are less likely to get a good deal while the government passes up pain-free opportunities to secure goodwill from our European partners.

As with Blair, the reaction says more about British politics after Brexit than the speech itself. Jacob Rees-Mogg described it as "a craven and defeated speech of a bitter man". Iain Duncan Smith, too, thinks that it was "strangely bitter".

There is much to worry about as Britain leaves the European Union but the most corrosive and dangerous trend of all is that section of the Leave elite which requires not only that we implement Brexit but that we all pretend that there are no risks, no doubts and that none of us voted to Remain on 23 June. That Blair and Major's speeches - "You voted for it, so we'll do it, but it's a mistake" - are seen as brave and controversial rather than banal and commonplace statements of political practice in a democracy are more worrying than anything that might happen to the value of the pound.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.