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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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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?

***

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