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The Boris audit: the man who would be king

From the Bullingdon Club to City Hall, Boris Johnson has left his mark. But does he have what it takes to be the next Tory leader? We ask five experts to appraise his life, career and talent

Boris at Oxford

By Mark Field

The Boris phenomenon is nothing new. Three decades ago, when we were both undergraduates at Oxford, he cut an unmistakable dash. There was that ever-present shock of blond hair, of course. And although photographs of the time show a rather slimmer model (I fear that applies to us all . . .) he always seemed sturdily well built.

Boris Johnson’s cheerful charisma has meant that he has always been able to attract camp-followers. Although questions were raised even then about his bumbling buffoonery, his path to the presidency of the Oxford Union was assisted by a coterie of able allies, as was the road to the editorship of the Spectator (“like entrusting a Ming vase to an orang-utan”, as one wag described
it) and to the mayoralty of London. Somehow, buzzing around Boris, there always seem to be many talented men and women, strong at the organisation and administration where he is so weak, just clamouring to be a member of his gang.

At Oxford they were “my stooges”, as he christened them, not unkindly. Whatever scrape he seemed set to be undone by, there always seemed to be help at hand. From Darius Guppy to Toby Young, among countless others, mutual favours have been done and returned over the years – all part of a pattern that began in earnest during those halcyon university days.

He has always been a humorous and engaging orator. Close your eyes listening to Boris today and you could easily be transported back 30 years. That said, if you read a transcript . . . well, it’s pure gibberish.

I am sure it was no great loss to him (nor, in truth, to me) that Boris Johnson and I spent most of our university days in different social circles. His social life in term time revolved around the Oxford party scene – but the bright lights of London were never far away, especially during the vacation. He frequented the Gridiron and, more notoriously, the Bullingdon, clubs that were the mainstays of all-male eating and drinking activity. “The Grid” (chaired in a later undergraduate generation by David Cameron) was a small set of rooms at first-floor level in the centre of Oxford and it ran a little like Pratt’s or the Beefsteak in London’s clubland. It was an invitation-only establishment, predominantly the haunt of former pupils of the major public schools. It also had a legendary (and probably erroneous) reputation in the Oxford Union as possessing a huge block vote, which Boris naturally was well placed to exploit.

Our paths, perhaps predictably, crossed in the world of student politics. Boris won the presidency of the Union, but only at the second time of asking. His first attempt was beset by shambolic disorganisation; he learned to be more organised and on his second run won the prize by one of the largest margins on record. He rarely makes the same mistake twice.

I guess Boris might easily have followed the same path as other similarly well-connected Oxford undergraduates of our generation, into the City of London. Many leading figures in today’s investment banking and hedge-fund world were at Oxford in the mid-1980s – although few might have imagined how lucrative a career this would become. For Boris, however, fame was always the spur. It was clear to us all then that in some way he was heading for a prominent, high-profile role in public life.

Not that it was immediately obvious that he was going to be an MP . . . or a Conser­vative one, at least. Although that era was (with hindsight) the zenith of Thatcherism, a strong attachment to the Conservative Party was rarely a great vote-winner at the Oxford Union. This was compounded by the fact that Boris was at Balliol College, which has long had a left-of-centre reputation. While all leading Union candidates grubbed around for votes within factions of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), whose supporters were invariably also Oxford Union members, the clear impression many of us had of Boris was that his politics were centre-left with a tinge of environmentalism. I cannot imagine how such a reputation was cultivated . . .

It was only in the early 1990s, when reading his robust Eurosceptic polemics from Brussels in the Daily Telegraph, that I realised where his party political allegiances truly lay. There was always something of the contrarian about him – and even now I wonder whether this may have been a rather deliberate attempt to stand out from the run-of-the-mill Brussels correspondents faithfully reporting the goings-on at the European Commission and Parliament. 

Mark Field is the MP (Conservative) for the Cities of London and Westminster


Boris the man

By Sonia Purnell

So, Boris Johnson has broken a solemn promise yet again – only this time not to his long-suffering wife, Marina. He has ratted instead on eight million Londoners, breaking his pledge not to stand as an MP at next May’s general election while continuing to draw a salary as their mayor.

Barring great upsets, the good burghers of Uxbridge and South Ruislip will have to make do from next May with whatever time Johnson has left over after running London, writing a weekly Telegraph column, promo­ting books and hosting radio shows.

It is arguable whether any of Johnson’s many and various paymasters will be awarded a “fair squeeze of the sauce bottle”, as the mayor himself has been known to put it. (Although there will no doubt be plenty of time found in the week for his inexhaustible campaign to become prime minister.)

Johnson has form on part-timing in full-time jobs. Back in 2001 when he first became an MP he allowed voters in Henley to believe that he would give up his then editorship of the Spectator. He told the owners of the Spectator he would not stand as an MP. He swiftly reneged on both undertakings, leaving both parties feeling cheated and short-changed. (A livid Conrad Black, then the Spectator’s owner, called Johnson “ineffably duplicitous”.)

Uxbridge Tories, take note: very few in his old constituency would want him back. Johnson was selected for the plum seat in 2000 after an anonymous smear campaign mortally damaged his two principal opponents. His general flippancy – and flip-flopping on such grave questions as the invasion of Iraq – led to several local party members leaving the Conservative Party altogether, and others spoiling their ballot papers in protest. Many more tired of his growing indifference to constituency issues such as the closure of a hospital.

The president of the Henley Conservative association, the late Maggie Pullen, said she was “devastated” at his selection, and although she found a way to work with him she never truly changed her opinion. As another long-suffering colleague once put it: “The closer you get to Boris Johnson, the less you like him.” Even his one-time local fans were angered by his decision to run for Mayor of London in 2008 without consulting them, while trying also to keep his parliamentary seat. Sound familiar?

In the heady “Sextator” days of Ruinart champagne and chesterfield sofas, Johnson was also busy breaking his marital vows. The reputation he won as a permanently priapic politician was nevertheless popular at the time with the young, the apolitical and the envious. Pictures of him slipping out of the Chelsea flat of the education journalist Anna Fazackerley – his trademark mop poorly disguised under a black beanie – made it all look like something out of a French farce. Only, as we know, the women in these escapades often end up hurt and hounded, and sometimes pregnant.

Even the extraordinary indulgence of voters, let alone Marina, has limits, as has been forcefully pointed out to Johnson by no less a figure than the Tories’ abrasive election guru Lynton Crosby. Any further revelations in that area, Johnson has been instructed, would result in his “f***ing knees” being “cut off”.

Now that he sees Downing Street as finally within his grasp, his lust for power appears to have overcome his lust for impressionable young women with swishy hair and plunging necklines. It is four years since he was last caught in the arms of another woman. It is even longer since that he notoriously tried to deny rumours of his philandering with Petronella Wyatt – whom he twice made pregnant – as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. But what he said then should still trouble us now. It is acceptable, even desirable, he informed his party leader Michael Howard in 2004, to lie to the press.

More recently, in May 2013, Johnson’s “fitness for public office” was called into question by no less an authority than the Court of Appeal. Ruling that the public had a right to know about his lovechild by an art consultant, the judges decried the “reckless behaviour” he had shown in allowing at least two children to be conceived through various infidelities. Few can recall the “private and professional” character of any serving senior politician being excoriated so openly in a court of law, which ruled that his disregard for the feelings of others was so deep
that it constituted a matter of public interest.

It is this recklessness that frightens the establishment horses – and should frighten us. A John Major-era Conservative minister sums up a view common among his generation as “Johnson must just be stopped”. There are even rumours of a “bottom drawer” of material on Johnson for release by party elders, should he edge even closer to the big black door with “10” on it.

As editor of the Telegraph, Sir Max Hastings did much to further Johnson’s career. He in effect overlooked how Johnson had apparently agreed to help his friend Darius Guppy beat up an inquisitive journalist by supplying his address. He rescued Johnson after he was fired by the Times for making up quotations. He gave him the opportunity to make his name – and ultimately his fortune – by sending him in 1989 to report on the European Union in Brussels.

Johnson’s virulently Eurosceptic reports delighted Margaret Thatcher and spawned a whole style of creative journalism. But their growing detachment from the truth left his credibility shot among his peers (and, eventually, his bosses back in London). James Landale, now the BBC’s deputy political editor, wrote a spoof Hilaire Belloc poem beginning:

Boris told such dreadful lies

It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes . . .

Since then his unworthy conduct – including trying to weasel his way out of paying up on a lost bet on the outcome of the 2010 election – has convinced Hastings that his trust in his one-time protégé was misplaced. He has since written that if Johnson makes it as prime minister, he will board the first plane out of the country.

Nor is Hastings the only one who has learned to distrust Johnson. In March 2011, the mayor was rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority, the official watchdog, for “damaging public trust” after releasing inaccurate public transport crime statistics. He was also criticised for numbers that “do not appear to stand up to public scrutiny” after repeatedly using questionable figures to support lavish claims of success for an initiative aimed at a youth offenders (which later failed so spectacularly that it was closed down).

In 2012, our prospective prime minister also claimed that most cycling accidents were caused by cyclists’ own law-breaking – an equally false pronouncement that was, eventually, grudgingly withdrawn. Other figures he has released on subjects as diverse as housebuilding and police numbers have proved just as spurious.

Trust in politicians – or the lack of it – has become one of the burning issues of our times. Voters, feeling lied to and let down, yearn to be able to believe in their politicians again. But Johnson, for all his claims to be an authentic alternative, is more the problem than the answer. 

Sonia Purnell is the author of “Just Boris: a Tale of Blond Ambition” (Aurum Press, £8.99). Her new biography of Clementine Churchill will be published next year


Boris the Tory

By Andrew Gimson

What kind of a Tory is Boris Johnson? No one has yet provided a satisfactory answer. His enemies veer between dismissing him as a clown and denouncing him as an evil right-winger. Neither has the merit of being true, and taken together they have the drawback of cancelling each other out. Bertie Wooster can’t also be Norman Tebbit.

Part of the trouble is that the question invites an ideological answer, and once you start searching for one of those, you become increasingly lost, and find yourself wandering through a forest of murky concepts, some of which may fit some Tories, but none of which applies to Johnson. None of the think tanks that have exercised such a strong influence on Tory thinking over the past 50 years has left the faintest mark on Johnson. He is not an ideological politician: does not crave the support of some theory that explains everything and can guide him as he devises policy. Nor is he a postmodern figure. It would be more accurate to describe him as premodern.

His imagination was captured as a boy by ancient Greece and still disports itself there, before the dawn of Christian guilt. While I was researching my biography of him, one of his oldest friends assured me that he lives in a world of gods and heroes. These gods watch over him, set him trials, test his courage and resourcefulness, establish whether he, too, has the makings of a hero.

Johnson’s own account of his love affair with the Greek world is more democratic than this. It was given on 4 September in his speech about Pericles to the Legatum Institute in London, which can be seen on YouTube. I have only just watched it, and can report that it is a tour de force. What a brilliant schoolmaster Johnson would have made: conveying his love of his subject in language so lucid and joky that it holds the dimmest listener, but so learned and penetrating that it stimulates the cleverest. He ended: “Let us keep . . . alive . . . that spirit of freedom that Pericles exalted – a spirit of democracy and tolerance and cultural effervescence and mass political participation. That is what we believe in. That is what makes London great. In the Thucydidean phrase, let us keep it as a possession for ever.”

These noble sentiments have the practical advantage of translating into a simple mayoral programme. London, he has been telling us since 2007, when he first decided to run against Ken Livingstone, is the greatest city in the world, and our task is to make it greater. A Labour or Lib Dem voter might be just as tempted as a Tory to endorse that line. Nor is there much that is specifically Tory about Johnson’s more detailed positions: his love of freedom might just as well be termed Liberal, and is certainly shared by many on the left. Johnson has called (like Pericles) for a tolerant immigration policy, and in 2008 he precipitated the resignation of a Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, whose response to the killing by a police officer of an unarmed Brazilian had been grotesquely inadequate. The mayor has also called for tolerance of bankers, because they contribute to the prosperity of London. He wishes for the same reason to build an enormous new airport (Pericles completed an enormous new harbour).

The answer to the question of what kind of Tory he is perhaps turns out to be that he is not a Tory at all: that he transcends party boundaries. Towards the end of October, Johnson will bring out a book, The Churchill Factor, about another Tory who never allowed party loyalties to confine his view of the national interest. Winston Churchill spent 20 years as a Liberal before rejoining the Conservative Party, and was happiest leading a wartime coalition that included Labour ministers, as well as various individuals to whom one cannot attach party labels. He expressed his hostility to mere party organisation at the end of his biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, whose career had ended in failure:

There is an England which stretches far beyond the well-drilled masses who are assembled by party machinery . . . an England of wise men who gaze without self-deception at the failings and follies of both political parties . . . It was to that England that Lord Randolph Churchill appealed.

And yet Johnson is quite clearly a Tory. However happy he would be leading a coalition, he is also loyal to his own tribe, and each year at the party conference he manages with a burst of cheerful, pugnacious, magnanimous, disrespectful, scene-stealing oratory to make his audience feel good about being Tory. Many of the rank and file love him.

So the question still arises: what kind of Tory? The best answer I have been able to obtain is from Lord Lexden, the official historian of the Conservative Party: “The Tories always need brilliant adventurers to provide excitement and charm in what has traditionally been a thoroughly dull party created in the image of Sir Robert Peel. Disraeli complained that none of his colleagues knew how to give a decent dinner; he enlivened the consumption of their dreadful fare with his coruscating wit and, until the sniggers became too great, with his outlandish clothes and jewelled fingers. He derived much inspiration from the originator of this vital strain in the Tory tradition: Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke – drunken rake, womaniser, inspired writer and riveting speaker – who worked tirelessly exactly 300 years ago to control events on the death of Queen Anne but lost out completely to his equally unscrupulous Whig opponents when the Hanoverians arrived.”

Lexden adds: “There are times when the Tories like to be led by their adventurers – Disraeli himself in the 19th century; Macmillan in the 20th. On the other hand, Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, having mesmerised the party for six years in the 1880s, came to regard himself as indispensable, blundered and was ruthlessly marginalised by the dullards. The long line of Tory adventurers has produced almost without exception clever men equipped for leadership but without any certain prospect of actually attaining it.”

Lexden is right: this is the tradition to which Johnson belongs. He a Tory adventurer. No wonder serious-minded people on both sides of politics cannot bear him and are desperate to find ways of discrediting him. He sometimes attempts, by long periods of sober behaviour, to allay their fears and prove how steady he is. But his attraction is that he is a cavalier, a freebooter, a man ready to fling himself with a cry of “All for one, one for all” into any fight that suddenly seems worth fighting. He may, like Bolingbroke or Lord Randolph Churchill, risk everything and fail. He may, like Disraeli or Winston Churchill, come through being dismissed as ridiculous and climb at last to the top of the greasy pole. We have no idea what will happen next, and that is one reason why he is so watchable. 

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson” (Simon & Schuster, £8.99) and is a contributing editor of ConservativeHome


Boris the mayor

By Sadiq Khan

In the end, history judges politicians by their record rather than their words. And in the case of Boris Johnson, we won’t be needing the benefit of hindsight. Boris is a fantastic performer, whether on Have I Got News for You or hanging from a zip wire. His sense of humour and “unique” turn of phrase did much to make the 2012 Olympics the huge success the Games were. But when it comes to his record on London, too little progress has been made in tackling the challenges we face today, let alone preparing for those of the coming decades.

The list of Boris’s failures as mayor is long. He has done nothing to tackle the city’s increasingly desperate housing crisis. During his mayoralty, not a single major transport or infrastructure project has been started to help deal with our ever-burgeoning population. Our air has become significantly more polluted, with no plans to reverse this. He leaves London a city that is more unequal and divided, and in a worse position to meet the challenges of the future than when he found it.

Perhaps the single most notable record of Boris’s six years as mayor has been the huge rise in inequality in the capital. London is home to more millionaires and billionaires than any other city in the world. The number of millionaires has increased by almost 60 per cent since 2008. This is not in itself a bad thing – but, at the same time, poverty has rocketed. An unbelievable one-third of Londoners now live in poverty – and two-thirds of them are in work. On Boris’s watch, London has become a city in which the wealthy have got even wealthier, enjoying the best food, culture and arts in the world, while most Londoners have been left behind, squeezed between falling real wages and fast-rising costs.

An important cause of the rise in inequality is London’s housing crisis. It’s not merely that home ownership is now out of reach for the vast majority of Londoners but, increasingly, so is renting. Housebuilding has fallen to the lowest level since the 1920s. The supply is well short of what we need to keep up with population growth, let alone meet the backlog. The mayor has given developers a free pass on building affordable homes as part of new property schemes – and local authorities are getting a worse deal as a result. He has increased the definition of “affordable” rent to 80 per cent of the market rate: not really affordable at all.

It’s not just the cost of housing that has risen. The cost of a Travelcard for zones one to six has increased by £440 since Boris became mayor. Tube fares have gone up by way above inflation every year. If the increased revenues were being used to build new infrastructure, that would be justifiable, but not a single important infrastructure project has been started. This has been particularly damaging for the poorest Londoners, who have had to move further and further out, due to rising house prices.

London’s population is growing faster than ever; it is poised to increase by the same number as the combined populations of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in just over a decade. With our Tube and bus network already operating at capacity, we need new infrastructure to cope. Yet nothing has happened under Boris. Ken Livingstone delivered Crossrail, due to open in 2016, but in six years no progress has been made on Crossrail 2. Plans to build much-needed river crossings in east London have been cancelled, restricting economic development in the poorest part of London and reducing transport capacity across the city. Instead, millions of pounds and six years has been wasted on a series of vanity projects that have done nothing for Londoners: a cable car that no one uses, a new fleet of buses that take fewer passengers but are more expensive, and a garden bridge that isn’t needed.

In many ways, Boris Johnson’s time as mayor shows the limits of a laissez-faire approach to government in the modern world. If you don’t do anything, then simply nothing happens. 

Sadiq Khan MP is the shadow minister for London


Boris the writer

By Leo Robson

Taken at face value, Boris Johnson’s prose suggests a fool. Closer inspection reveals a cynic. His journalism, mostly written between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, was designed to make him appear honest and serious about such topics as the racism of the EU, the London housing market, the virtues of tolerance, Bill Clinton, the Balkans. But there came a point, around the turn of the millennium, when honest and serious became the things Johnson least wanted to be, or wanted to appear to be, the distinction getting hazier as time went on. Changes in his prose formed part of a broader programme of manicured buffoonery, “Boris” being an invention of the page as much as the screen.

Before long, he was a specialist in writing sentences such as this: “I know that there will be some who read this page – high, sacerdotal intellects – who feel that the hot seat of Have I Got News For You is not the place for an homme sérieux.” Johnson’s ploy, here as elsewhere, is to hide his own seriousness by mocking other people’s (their “sacerdotal intellects”), while maintaining a pretence of ironically adopting habits – in this case, the use of foreign phrases – to which he is genuinely inclined.

A fear, not exactly of the serious, but of intellectualism, underpins the feigned vagueness behind: “It is, I believe, what Jung would call an archetype . . .” It is phrased in such a way as to suggest that, while we might be able to paraphrase with unabashed confidence the thinking of Plato or Edmund Burke, you never can tell what these modern Continental thinkers are on about. This is a man afraid and ashamed of his own intelligence, desperate to make it something friendlier.

It’s a complicated conflict or con trick, as Johnson is aware, even if awareness is as far as it goes. In his dexterous though hardly inspired satirical novel Seventy-Two Virgins (2004), the American assistant to an MP notes how her boss will give “an intelligent answer” and then “throw it all away with some flip aside”. Her accusation is one of “moral evasiveness . . . she couldn’t help wondering about his IDEALS. His VALUES. His CORE BELIEFS.” Baffled, she wonders: “Just what kind of a Conservative was this guy, anyhow?” Later in the novel, a French diplomat trained in “the ancient art of . . . arguing for whatever side of the case he happened to be on” finds his voice suddenly “taking on the choky timbre of absolute sincerity”. (Typically, the case sincerely made is pro-American.) That Johnson himself never chokes, preferring a weightless fluency, is partly acknowledged in a note appended to his jaunty 1999 interview with the war criminal Željko Ražnatovic, reprinted in Johnson’s anthology Have I Got Views For You: “I feel embarrassed about the tone.” The Boris tone isn’t exactly a product of his political ambition but
it is a product of the same root cause as his political ambition, a need to be loved. If he is at all capable of being embarrassed by the failures of sense and taste committed in this quest, then he is surely a man in great pain.

It’s not often that Johnson experiences the need to apologise for not taking things seriously enough. Most of the time, he gets the balance just as he wants it. He cannot expunge seriousness altogether – a celebrity politician is still a politician – but nor can he let seriousness become so dominant that it squeezes out fun. An interest in the classical world, however geared towards the useful lessons it offers the present day, is something he tries to dilute. It is easily done. You simply drop into the lower register, as in the opening sentence of his schizoid book The Dream of Rome: “No one knows the exact moment when Publius Quinctilius Varus realised what a colossal idiot he had been, but when the barbarians on either side of him started uttering their war cry we must assume that the penny finally dropped.” (The war cry resembles “a roaring noise like a chorus of Rolf Harris didgeridoos”: a Times review described his style as “bright, breezy, populist and pacy”.)

The Rome book, first published in 2006, relies to an extreme degree on casual English, an approach that might be mistaken for a Reith-like educative populism but is really catering to the reader’s presumed view of the past as something in need of thawing. As an exponent of classical values, Johnson, in contrast to, say, T S Eliot, proceeds by putting a little-known fact in close proximity to phrases such as “get cracking”, “a popular fellow”, “What a shindig it was”, “imperial good-time girls”, “jolly cascade of bosoms”, “So-rree, Marcus!”, “letting the side down”, “he blubs because he is not yet a praetor”, “far too fly”. These mannerisms tail off after a hundred pages. Job done.

But colloquial language doesn’t just sweeten the pill. It also disguises it. The Dream of Rome isn’t coddling us into knowledge of the Roman empire, as it might seem, but into understanding why the modern EU, of which Johnson is a devoted enemy, could never achieve such unity. His Life of London, reissued as The Spirit of London after the Olympics, offers a Whiggish account of the sort of London enterprise and innovation that culminated in the happy city – Otto­lenghi provides the bread, Lord Coe the circuses – of which, at the time of publication, Johnson was incumbent mayor, with an election looming. In other words, Boris books are just the sort of campaign manifestos a politician might produce after he has forfeited the right to be taken at face value. They have become the most reliable means of assessing the focus, and size, of his ambitions. The next one’s on Churchill. 

Leo Robson is the NS lead fiction reviewer

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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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