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Simon Heffer: Could the general election lead to constitutional crisis?

Another hung parliament and the ill-conceived Fixed Term Parliaments Act could compromise the country's constitution.

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Although it has become a commonplace that the outcome of the general election on 7 May is less predictable than almost any in living memory, the consequences of a result that does not provide a majority government are only now beginning to be grasped. General elections are the agents of our democracy. They are supposed to ensure some relationship – however imperfect – between the will of the people and the composition of the executive that governs the United Kingdom. However, this was not strictly the case after the election in May 2010. No party won it. Once the Conservatives decided not to try to govern as a minority administration – it was never an option for Labour, with almost 50 fewer seats than their rivals – the outcome was a coalition for which, as with all coalitions formed after an election, nobody had explicitly voted. That coalition government has since then implemented a programme for which the electorate supplied no mandate, for the obvious reason that that specific programme had not been put before it at the general election.

Now it is quite feasible that what we call our democracy could be even more compromised in May. If there is a clear winner of the election, we can all continue smugly to congratulate and delude ourselves that our constitution is a model for the rest of the free world. But if there is not – as most opinion polls now suggest – the full consequences of the cocktail of constitutional changes made by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats since 2010, and by Labour after 1997, will suddenly become apparent. And it is far from impossible that they could provoke the greatest constitutional crisis in Britain since before the Great War.

Suppose no party wins outright, and the one with the largest number of seats is asked to form the government. Suppose also, for the sake of argument, that that is the Conservative Party. David Cameron, as the incumbent Prime Minister, meets parliament and offers a Queen’s Speech. His parliamentary party has made it clear it prefers minority government to more compromises with the Lib Dems; yet there may well be too few Lib Dems to give the two parties an overall majority. Even with support for him from the Democratic Unionists and Ukip MPs, he cannot carry the vote.

Labour, in this scenario, may have fewer seats than the Conservatives – thanks, perhaps, to the slump in the party’s standing in Scotland, and Ukip eating into its vote in English constituencies it hoped to win from the Tories – but with the help of the surviving Lib Dems, a much-expanded parliamentary SNP and Plaid Cymru, it can, and does, vote down a Queen’s Speech promising stringent further cuts. Cameron then resigns: and the leader of the Labour Party, for whom even fewer people voted than for the Tories, becomes prime minister. This is because the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 allows for no dissolution when a prime minister has been defeated in the Commons on his legislative programme. If, after 14 days, Labour were to find that it could not get a Queen’s Speech through, either, there would be another election. More probably, either a rainbow coalition of the same left-leaning parties which voted down the Tory Queen’s Speech would then become the government of the United Kingdom, or Labour would run a minority government, having negotiated a confidence-and-supply arrangement with those minor parties.

However, given what has been promised to Scotland in the shape of tax-raising powers, even a confidence-and-supply arrangement could prove controversial: and this is where another constitutional change, that of devolution, could start to have profound constitutional consequences in the United Kingdom parliament and in England. Passing a Budget would almost certainly entail Scottish MPs, whether SNP, Labour or Liberal, voting for some tax-raising powers that would not affect their own constituents. And when Labour began to seek to pass measures that affected only England – say on health or education – it would, as things stand, be perfectly within its rights to do so using the votes of Scottish MPs. It would, however, remain to be seen whether the English electorate would be any happier about that than their Scottish equivalents would be for English MPs to renew their control over domestic Scottish matters. There are 533 seats for English MPs, so Labour would need to have at least 267 of them to be sure to pass any measure that affected only England using English votes alone. As it currently has 190, and even the most optimistic polls suggest Labour would pick up at most 50 to 60 English seats if the election in May goes well for it, a majority of English seats may still elude it.

Early this month William Hague set out a strange plan to deal with the democratic deficit suffered by England after devolution. It specified that the committee and report stages of any legislation that affected England alone, or England and Wales alone, would be dealt with solely by English, or English and Welsh, MPs. However, in order not to do something called “compromising the integrity of parliament”, Scottish members would be allowed to vote on the third reading.

Hague seems not to have understood that this would mean the routine vetoing of legislation proposed by a Labour government, because by third reading the shape that the legislation would be in would most likely be offensive to that government. Such bills would have been butchered by an English grand committee that would most likely be dominated by English MPs, to a point where they would have had any Labour policy hacked out of them, thereby defeating the government’s original purpose for the legislation. For example, it is quite likely that a bill on the NHS proposing to undo the Lansley reforms could have the attempt to overturn those reforms completely removed from it, making it almost pointless to pass it on third reading. However, such a ludicrous system will not be put in place before the next election because the Lib Dems would not vote for it; and whatever the outcome in May, it is unlikely to happen at all, such is the widespread dissatisfaction with it.

The SNP, which could well find itself with more than 40 seats after 7 May and therefore with the sort of clout the Irish Nationalists had while keeping Asquith in power after 1910, currently does not vote on solely English matters at Westminster. It has tried to argue that it could vote on the English National Health Service, giving the argument that funding shortages in England could drive people over the border to seek treatment in Scotland. But that is too far-fetched for many English MPs and, more to the point, for many English voters. For English MPs now to demand a say in the running of the Scottish NHS would be regarded as an outrageous and reactionary act of effrontery; it is surprising that some Scots do not see that this argument cuts both ways.

The SNP’s own credibility would be at stake if it suddenly started to vote on matters that for Scots are settled at Holyrood and in which the English have no say. The widespread assumption among Tory MPs is, however, that it would start to vote on solely English measures, however hypocritical that was. Otherwise, Labour could use its own, probably diminished, numbers of Scottish and Welsh MPs to pass measures that do not affect Scotland and Wales; but that would sit oddly with the party’s supercharged commitment to devolution and the removal of English influence from Welsh and Scottish affairs. And if the SNP realises the impropriety, given its principles, of voting on solely English issues, it would confine itself to helping Labour win votes of confidence and passing measures affecting defence, foreign affairs and the National Lottery; nonetheless a Labour administration might prove unable, without SNP support, or the support of non-English Labour MPs, to pass measures essential to the government of England.

Tory MPs are preparing to make an outcry if English laws are passed with Scottish votes, and it would be unwise to underestimate the effect such a campaign might have on the government’s standing. Since last September’s referendum, attitudes to this in England have changed. It might seem to be a quick fix for Labour in enabling it to gain power, but the resentment it could well create among an English electorate that is not stupid, and certainly smart enough to notice what the Tory press would daily call the interference of Scots in important matters that do not concern them, could cause Labour profound long-term damage. Some Labour MPs are aware of the democratically contradictory nature of this possible strategy, and deeply uneasy about it.

With Labour perhaps divided on other matters – such as the extent of the implementation of spending cuts, as recently suggested by Lord Liddle, and the general continuing criticism of the party leadership by Blairites – the government might quickly lose support during such a controversy. The SNP might also not enjoy the negative publicity, conscious of the great damage done to the Lib Dems by their participation in government. The Labour government might then find itself unable to get important measures through that would affect 85 per cent of the population of the UK, and feel it has no option but to resign. And that might in turn propel into office another minority Conservative government, quite possibly under a leader other than David Cameron, again because of the difficulty under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of securing a dissolution. As before, if the Conservatives cannot form a government after 14 days, then there can be an election; or it would require a vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons, something unlikely to happen because it would entail large numbers of turkeys voting for Christmas. It would be much better for the country just to have another election, as was the practice previously, but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act forbids such a simple solution. And while such a crisis plays out Britain would be at the mercy of financial speculators, and contempt among the electorate for the political process, which is already at an unhealthy level, would balloon.

Even before the ill-considered Fixed-Term Act, which senior politicians of all parties now wish to repeal, and the focus on democracy in England in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, our electoral arrangements were far from ideal or equitable. Sometimes the party with the largest popular vote comes second in terms of numbers of seats: Labour did in 1951 and the Tories in February 1974. What has been called a “postcode lottery” means that a single vote carries far more weight in some constituencies than it does in others, in terms of the ease with which one party or another can be elected. The first-past-the-post system has long enabled the Tories and Labour to win most of the seats, while the Lib Dems, with over half the number of the main parties’ votes, have nothing like half their number of MPs. Now, it is quite possible that at the May election Ukip could register many more votes than the Lib Dems, yet end up with a small fraction of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary seats. Only the introduction of a system of proportional representation, such as is used in the European parliamentary elections, could obviate this injustice.

Yet in 2011, when at the insistence of the Lib Dems a plebiscite was held on introducing the Alternative Vote, it was roundly defeated by 68 to 32 per cent. Therefore we must assume that the public, or at least the 42 per cent who cared enough about the future of our electoral system to vote, are quite happy for the present system to continue.

What we cannot assume is public support for the Fixed-Term Act. The Lib Dems had a commitment to fixed terms in their 2010 manifesto; but the dominant partner in the eventual coalition, the Conservatives, did not. Fixed terms may work in presidential systems such as the US or France, where the head of government is elected separately from the representative assembly, and where therefore the political culture is fundamentally different. Here, the act limits the democratic option, as previously existed, of a failed government going to the country as soon as it has lost the confidence of parliament – as with the Callaghan administration in 1979; or of a government so weakened by events that it decides to seek a new mandate from the electorate, as Edward Heath unsuccessfully did in February 1974. It also prevents a government calling an election at a time of its choosing, although, as John Major found in 1997 and Gordon Brown in 2010, prime ministers do not always call correctly.

When Nick Clegg introduced the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill in the Commons on 13 September 2010, the government front bench – as a Labour MP pointed out – was devoid of any Conservative ministers to support him. He claimed the measure was designed “to remove the right of a prime minister to seek the dissolution of parliament for pure political gain”. That was not quite true. Removing that right was indeed one of the reasons for the Lib Dems’ devotion to the idea of fixed terms. But the real reason why the promise was made immediately upon the conclusion of the coalition talks the previous May was an intervention by Sir Gus O’Donnell, the then cabinet secretary.

There are two categories of senior civil servant: those who act as true mandarins in tendering advice and implementing ministerial decisions with strict objectivity, whether they conform with that advice or not, and those who take a robust interest and keen delight in politics and the political process itself. Anyone who has come across Lord O’Donnell – as he has since become – will be aware that he belongs more to the second than to the first category. He was especially effective in Whitehall in dealing with ministers who were either inexperienced or not very bright. Cameron, whose first office of state was that of prime minister, and Clegg, whom few would expect to win Mastermind, were putty in his hands. O’Donnell correctly identified that the international markets were waiting to see how serious the new government was likely to be in tackling the economic difficulties of the time, notably a deficit excessive both historically and by comparison with those of economies in the eurozone. He argued that announcing in the summer of 2010 that the next general election would not be held until 7 May 2015, barring exceptional circumstances, would constitute a promise of stability that the markets would love.

Whatever Cameron’s doubts about this – and in that way that he seems to lack conviction about almost everything, it is hard to discern whether he had strong feelings either way – he could see this might be a deal-breaker with the Lib Dems: and so, despite what he must have known would be deep hostility from many in his party, he signed up to the idea. So when Clegg, in his vapid and shallow speech on the second reading, said that the result of passing the bill would be “no more feverish speculation”, once a parliament entered its latter phase, “distracting politicians from getting on with running the country”, he told less than half the story. And those who should be running the country seem to have found plenty of distraction elsewhere to compensate for not having the date of a general election to speculate about.

One of the many points Nick Clegg seemed incapable of grasping, in choosing largely to ignore or not being able to notice that there might be other consequences of this measure, was that some displacement would occur. “The political parties end up in perpetual campaign mode,” he told MPs, “making it very difficult for parliament to function effectively.” Parliament is scarcely functioning effectively now, more than three months before an election. MPs of all parties are mostly in their constituencies, attempting to secure their re-election. Fixed term or not, that was always going to happen. The arguments to which Clegg devoted his speech in September 2010 in supporting his case for this fundamental change to the constitution have turned out mostly to be hollow.

But then he gave himself away on the day in response to an intervention by Sir Peter Tapsell, the Father of the House and widely respected on both sides of it, who first sat in the Commons in 1959, nearly eight years before Clegg was born. “Why,” asked Sir Peter, questioning the change, “do the Rt Hon Gentleman and our Prime Minister think that they are wiser than their 40 predecessors?” In a response sublimely fatuous even by the Deputy Prime Minister’s standards, he replied: “It is not a question of wisdom; it is a question of the weight of history.”

Bernard Jenkin, another Tory MP, accused the government of “gerrymandering the constitution in favour of a particular coalition” and of making up the constitution “on the hoof”. He called for a constitutional convention to weigh up the pros and cons properly. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and historian of parliament, took issue with the five-year fixed term, pointing out that since the Reform Act 1832 parliaments, on average, had lasted three years and eight months. This was a more remarkable statistic than Bryant disclosed, because until the Parliament Act 1911 an act of 1716 required general elections to be held only every seven years. Jack Straw took up Jenkin’s point and accused the government of rushing through the bill without proper pre-legislative scrutiny. His colleague George Howarth came more directly to the point, describing the measure as “squalid in intent”.

The bill passed, but it is important to recall the extent of the doubts and fears expressed at the time by both Labour and Tory MPs, for it means that if we have a constitutional crisis caused by the act nobody can claim to have been unwarned. That 1911 act that established five-year parliaments as a maximum, and whose purpose was principally to end the veto of the House of Lords, was the result of precisely the extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation that Jenkin and Straw (and many others) called for in 2010, but which in an act of scandalous dereliction, given the gravity of the measure, was entirely absent. The consequences of removing the peers’ veto – a necessary step in a country close to achieving full manhood suffrage, and which within 20 years would have extended the vote to all men and women over the age of 21 – were so completely discussed in the Commons, in the Lords, on public platforms, in the press and (most significantly) at two general elections within 11 months that very few were unaware of what they would be. And the widespread acceptance of this change to centuries of constitutional practice, as well as the absence of unpleasant surprises afterwards, were a tribute to the effectiveness of an exhaustive debate before it occurred.

The possible constitutional crisis of 2015 could be the gravest since that of 1909-11, which was occasioned by the peers’ rejection of Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and, once the fight over their right to throw out money bills was lost, their persistent refusal to contemplate surrendering their veto on all other measures. It was only when A J Balfour, the Unionist leader, was told in July 1911 that George V had promised Asquith, his prime minister, that he would create hundreds of Liberal peers to force the Parliament Bill through that the Unionists gave in and let the bill pass. The Lords were persuaded to surrender their veto on money bills by the Unionists’ defeat in the general election of January 1910, which forced them to pass the People’s Budget. When the peers would not agree to surrender their other veto powers Asquith requested another dissolution, and in an election in December 1910 the Unionists lost again.

Most MPs realised the game was up: many peers didn’t, hence the need for Asquith to extract the promise from the king to agree to use his prerogative to create enough peers to defeat the forces of conservatism in the upper house. But in the two years while this conflict continued, the matter was, at least, robustly discussed and extensively dissected.

Because such a debate did not precede the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, and the coalition was able to drive the measure through parliament without needing to pay attention to points of serious dissent, we stand at risk of a profoundly anti-democratic outcome from the forthcoming electoral process. This is recognised across parliament. Senior politicians from both the Conservative and Labour Parties, including Alan Duncan, Peter Tapsell, Jack Straw, Gerald Kaufman and Kenneth Clarke, have all called in recent weeks for the act to be repealed. Given that the present parliament has so little to do, it is a wonder that the Conservative Party – which has never liked the act – does not make common cause with the substantial number of Labour objectors and seek to repeal the bill now, before the election. It would hardly matter if that broke the coalition, which has but a few weeks to live in any case.

If that should mean that 2015 was a year of two elections, so be it. At least the second election would give the public the opportunity to reflect upon the indecisive outcome of the first, and to choose whether they wished to cast their votes differently. This is important not least because of the position with Scotland, and the growing controversy over the exercise of votes on English issues by Scottish MPs. If that question, raised by Tam Dalyell 40 years ago, is to be settled in a way that inspires the confidence of all concerned, it has to be settled by a government with proper democratic legitimacy. But if the British are to have a democracy in which they can properly believe, they cannot tolerate governments that come about contrary to the will of the people, and then are allowed to rule indefinitely because the mechanism to remove them has been abolished. The one lesson that should, above all, have been learned from the past 20 years or so, is that if a government decides to unpick parts of the British constitution, it should not begin to do so until all the consequences have been exhaustively considered, and – in keeping with the best ideas of a democracy – until the public has signalled its approval at a general election.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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