Miles Cole for New Statesman.
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The pugilist: Sadiq Khan’s quest to become mayor of London

Can the Tooting MP complete the journey from council home to City Hall? 

One recent morning, Sadiq Khan entered the ring at Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club in Wandsworth, south London. He ­began sparring with one of the regulars: ducking, weaving, throwing jabs. Khan learned to box as a boy, partly for self-defence; two of his brothers are coaches at the volunteer-run academy near Tooting, the constituency he has represented since 2005. Among those pictured on the wall is Frank Bruno, the club’s most famous son.

Khan had invited me to join him, and soon after I arrive at 10am, Pop, the youngest of his seven siblings, inducts me in the ring and we begin 90 minutes of training. “Boxing isn’t fighting,” Khan told me when I interviewed him two days earlier. “It’s a classic mistake people make – boxing is a sport. The skills you learn are life skills: being magnanimous, what to eat, how to keep fit, how to look out for each other. The first thing you learn in boxing is defence – you’ve got to defend yourself . . . We all boxed [in my family] and that gives you confidence if you get into bother on the street.”

The only one of his brothers not to compete at amateur level, Khan preferred football and cricket (he had trials for Surrey). But he moves with an agility seldom associated with MPs – many of whom are more likely to be found in the Palace of Westminster’s bars than its gym. As a devout Muslim, Khan does not drink, and in 2014 he ran the London Marathon.

During our warm-down we pass a road on which his father drove the number 44 bus. A few minutes away is the council estate where Khan grew up. He doubts that bus drivers today could afford to live in the area, and speaks with sadness at how gentrification has frayed the bonds of community. It was the fear that working-class Londoners were being denied the opportunities ­afforded to his family that partly inspired his candidacy for mayor of London.


In eight weeks, on 5 May, Sadiq Khan will compete in the UK’s biggest bout of all. With the exception of the French president, no European politician has a larger personal mandate than the mayor of London. The city's leader controls a £16bn budget and housing, planning and transport policy. If the government lives up to its devolutionary rhetoric, the next incumbent will acquire still greater powers.

For the past eight years, London has been led by Boris Johnson, who twice defeated his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone. But Khan is predicted to win back City Hall for Labour. Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park, whose billionaire father founded the Eurosceptic Referendum Party, was the candidate that many in Labour feared: telegenic, green (he edited the Ecologist magazine) and socially liberal. The Tories’ hope was that, like Johnson, Goldsmith would attract non-Conservative voters. Yet in a city that leans ever more towards Labour – the party won 45 of its 73 seats in last year’s general election – few believe he can emulate his predecessor. Fellow Tories have criticised his campaign as “low-energy”. The most recent poll, published by Opinium on 8 March, gave Khan a 10-point lead in the final round.

“I’m the least complacent person you’ll find but I’m quietly confident,” he told me.

Khan, colleagues often say, is “a winner”. At the 2010 general election, he defended his Tooting seat from an aggressive and well-funded Conservative challenge. In the same year, he managed Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, masterminding the defeat of Miliband’s elder brother, David. In the 2014 local elections, after Miliband rewarded him with the post of shadow minister for London, Khan achieved Labour’s best result in the capital since 1971. At last year’s general election, on an otherwise morose night, the party gained seven seats in London, its strongest performance since 2001.

When Khan announced in May last year that he would stand to be Labour’s mayoral candidate, many expected him to be defeated by Tessa Jowell, the popular former Olympics minister. It was not an assessment that Khan ever shared. As David Lammy, who finished fourth in the selection contest, told me: “I remember Sadiq sitting in his office – it would have been six months before the campaign got going. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know, I am going to do this.’ He was steely about it and very clear in his own mind.”

Khan’s team emphasised an ­elementary but overlooked truth: it was Labour Party members and supporters who would choose the candidate. The party’s leftwards trajectory gave him the advantage. Unlike Jowell, an unashamed Blairite, Khan opposed the Iraq War, a totemic issue for activists. He worked hard to win the endorsements of Ken Livingstone, the Unite, GMB and CWU trade unions and his fellow London MPs. Khan’s nomination – if not support – of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership and his opposition to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill gave him further credibility among the party’s selectorate. His policies included a London Living Rent (based on a third of average local income) and a four-year freeze on Tube and bus fares.

While Jowell and other candidates attempted to appeal to existing party members, Khan recruited new ones. Over the four-month campaign, he made more than 200 visits to workplaces, community centres, churches, temples, mosques and shopping malls. “The thing that should never be underestimated with Sadiq is his ability to campaign,” Lammy told me. “He’s a bit like a terrier; when he gets his teeth into something he’s not going to let it go.” Jowell simply told me that Khan was a “formidable campaigner” and that “all the signs are that he’s going to win”.

When the selection result was announced on 11 September 2015, with Khan beating Jowell 59-41 in the final round of voting, many were stunned by his landslide victory. But not him. “I never thought it was going to be a close race,” he told me just after the result was announced at the Royal Festival Hall. “I always knew – irrespective of what respectable London newspapers may write and who they’re going to endorse – when it comes to voters seeing what the candidates stand for and what their vision is, I’d win.”

No one I spoke to doubted Khan’s political skill, but some questioned his integrity. “He has got a tendency to want it so much that he slightly overeggs it,” a senior Labour MP told me. “Some of that mud will get thrown at him: that he changes his position, that he is politically expedient – and that then goes to trust. What does he really stand for?”

Having nominated Corbyn for the leadership, Khan was derided for sharply rebuking the new Labour leader in a Mail on Sunday interview on 20 September. He warned that Corbyn’s meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah reinforced Labour’s “anti-Jewish” image, criticised him for failing to sing the national anthem (“He was very unwise. You are trying to be the British prime minister”) and vowed to “work closely with a Tory government if it is in London’s interest”.

Such comments, opponents suggested, would never have been made during the selection contest for the mayoral candidacy – when he needed the Corbynites. But he insists there was no inconsistency. “I was quite clear when I nominated Jeremy that I wasn’t going to vote for him [Khan endorsed Andy Burnham]. Look on my Twitter timeline. And, George, in the selection process I was asked whether I would serve in his shadow cabinet, if I wasn’t successful, and I said no – because we come from different parts of the party. We believe in different things.”

Without the help of Khan and other non-supporters, Corbyn would not have made the ballot. Khan insisted that he had no regrets. “Jeremy Corbyn, to give him some credit, won among Labour Party members, among Labour Party supporters and among trade union supporters . . . You can have an analysis of why the other candidates failed to inspire, enthuse and engage with the membership, whereas Jeremy did, and that’s a conversation for them to have.”

He rejected the suggestion that his victory was a by-product of Corbynism. Were that the case, he said, one would have expected Diane Abbott or Christian Wolmar (both of whom voted for the eventual leader) to win. “The reason why that didn’t happen was because in my campaign I managed to enthuse, inspire and engage the selectorate. My mandate is similar to Jeremy’s, almost 60 per cent ... We were fizzing with energy, we had ideas and we won.”

His attempts to distance himself from the Labour leader have led the Tories to label him “Corbyn’s man”. At a Goldsmith rally on 26 January, David Cameron warned voters that they would be “lab rats in the first Corbyn economic experiment in public life” if Khan won.

However, in tacit acknowledgement of the risk posed by Corbyn’s unpopularity, Khan does not plan to appear in public with him in the lead-up to May (to the consternation of Corbyn’s allies). The leader’s role will be limited to voter mobilisation: leafleting, fundraising and phone banking. Yet Corbyn has more cause than most to hope that Khan is successful. Labour is forecast to become the first opposition since 1982 to lose council seats in a non-general-election year; retaking the mayoralty would provide crucial consolation.

Khan is also avoiding campaign appearances with Livingstone and has ruled out giving him a job if he wins. “If you’re running for mayor, your job is to represent London – you’ve got to stand up for London,” Livingstone said of Khan. “You often have to disagree with a Labour government, as I had to. It’s a campaign between Zac and Sadiq; it’s not a rerun of me and Boris. We should keep out of it.”


The day after Corbyn made the Labour leadership ballot on 15 June last year, Khan was again accused of expediency when he announced that he opposed a third runway at  Heathrow Airport in favour of Gatwick. “Sadiq was for Heathrow expansion in 2008; he was for it when he was transport minister in 2009. Zac Goldsmith has announced he is running [the Tory candidate is a long-standing opponent], and suddenly he’s against it,” Lammy told a mayoral hustings. But Khan denied that his stance was born of opportunism. “It was born out of the facts. Unlike Zac Goldsmith, I accept the case for an increase in flight capacity in this part of the country. I think the case has been made for jobs and growth.

“But in the last full year for which there’s data almost 10,000 Londoners died because of air pollution. There are children in parts of London whose lungs are underdeveloped. The UK Supreme Court last April held that the air-quality directive had been breached. So air is a killer – it makes you sick and it’s illegal. In those circumstances, you can’t say yes to a new runway at Heathrow.”

At Gatwick, he added, far fewer people were affected by air and noise pollution.

The Tories have recently levelled a far graver charge than that of Corbynism or opportunism: that Khan is a friend of Islamist extremists. On 7 February the Sunday Times reported that Khan had attended four meetings of the group Stop Political Terror (while campaigning against the US-UK extradition treaty), which had the support of Anwar al-Awlaki, the late al-Qaeda cleric. On 12 February, across two pages, the London Evening Standard noted that Khan’s former brother-in-law, Makbool Javaid, had attended events organised by the extremist group al-Muhajiroun in the 1990s (the pair have not spoken for a decade). Four days later, MailOnline reported that Khan had given a speech at the 2008 Global Peace and Unity festival while the “black flag of jihad” was flying.

Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, told me: “Khan wants to be the mayor for millions of Londoners at a time when the terror threat is very real. An attack could happen at any time and he would have to respond and unite the city in those circumstances – he will be responsible for policing and community relations. He’s campaigned against the role of the police and allowed himself to share platforms with people who very definitely have the wrong kind of views. It’s not very good judgement if he wants to be the mayor of a city like London.”

Such comments frustrate Khan. “People who understand politics understand what happens at these things,” he said. “What happened was very simple.

“Many MPs from all parties, including Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith himself, had objections to the US-UK extradition treaty . . . Now, often when there are meetings happening about a cause, what happens is you’re very busy; the meeting may have been taking place for two, three, four hours; you’re doing other stuff. You go along, you take the stage, you do your spiel, you speak and more often than not just leave to do your next event.

“Often you’ve got no idea who was speaking before you, who’s speaking after you. Nobody could honestly, hand on heart, think I agree with the sort of views spouted by other people who spoke at the same meetings: that’s not the way it worked.

“I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to extremism and radicalisation. I’ve been quite clear in my views in relation to people who claim to follow the same faith as me but have views that are abhorrent.”

He added: “So, what are you implying by your nudge-nudge and your wink-wink? What are you saying either about me or about the one million Londoners of Islamic faith? I get people approaching me all the time who are Muslim who say, ‘If they’re doing this to you, what chance have I got?’ or, ‘You’re encouraging us to get ­involved in mainstream politics yet this is how you’re treated’ or, ‘If they’re digging around, as they’ve been for months, about your extended family – about who used to be related to you, or whatever – what chance have we got?’”

He spoke of his dismay that Goldsmith, who some believed would shun such tactics, had pursued this path. “Those advising Zac to do this sort of stuff, it’s foolish advice. I thought Zac was bigger than this.”

Khan has received death threats from extremists for his involvement in democratic politics and, more recently, for supporting equal marriage. Friends say that despite the political and physical risks posed by taking this stance, he never hesitated. As a former human rights lawyer and champion of civil liberties (he chaired Liberty for three years), it was an automatic choice.

In a speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in November, a week after the Paris terror attacks, Khan spoke of how “successive governments had tolerated segregation in British society” and had allowed “the conditions that permit extremism to continue unchecked”.

He warned: “We’ve protected people’s right to live their cultural life at the expense of creating a common life. Too many British Muslims grow up without really knowing anyone from a different background, without understanding or empathising with the lives and beliefs of others.”

None of this has prevented his rivals making the claim that he is a friend of extremists and, by implication, one himself. But unlike Livingstone, who responded vociferously to accusations of anti-Semitism, Khan has maintained his composure.

“I’ve watched him go through this extremism row two or three times quite closely,” an MP told me. “He’s extraordinarily calm under that level of pressure. He draws on a well of inner stability that is really impressive. Tony Blair could obviously do it in spades but there are not that many senior politicians who can do it.”


Sadiq Aman Khan was born on 8 October 1970 at St George’s Hospital in Tooting. His grandparents emigrated from India to Pakistan following Partition; his parents emigrated from Pakistan to London shortly before his birth. Khan was the fifth of eight children (he has six brothers and one sister). His late father, Amanullah, was a bus driver for more than 25 years; his mother, Sehrun, was a seamstress.

Khan attributes his work ethic to his upbringing. “My dad worked all the hours that God sent as a bus driver. If he got overtime he’d take it. My mum not only raised eight children but was sewing clothes in the house while raising us, while cooking.

“I was surrounded by my mum and dad working all the time, so as soon as I could get a job, I got a job. I got a paper round, a Saturday job – some summers I laboured on a building site.”

He was taught to support those in need. “My mum and dad would send money to their relatives back in Pakistan. My mum still does, because we’re blessed being in this  country.”

The family grew up on the Henry Prince council estate in Earlsfield, where Khan and his seven siblings squeezed into a three-bedroom home. He did not travel abroad until he was 23 and slept in a bunkbed until he was 24. He attended the Ernest Bevin comprehensive school (named after the former Labour foreign secretary), which Independent editor Amol Rajan described as “the dreaded second choice ... the staple of local news reports about drugs, gangs and local hoodlums.” I asked Khan if this Tarantino-esque description was accurate.

“Listen, I’m very careful of speaking about certain things because it gives the impression ... Look, it’s still a school and children still go there, you don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the school. It was a great school, it fulfilled my potential. I’m not one of these people who moans that I could have been this if I’d gone to this school. It was a great school, the teachers worked their socks off.” He added: “It was a tough school, though, you had to be streetwise, you had to look after yourself.”

Racism was a feature of the family’s life. Bus passengers referred to his bearded father as “Paki Santa” and assaulted him. Such insults sometimes prompted Khan to use his boxing skills. “We went down on the floor hitting each other,” he told the Mail on Sunday of one fight. “He didn’t call me the ‘P-word’ again.”

Khan and his brothers also encountered racism on the football terraces. “I experienced Wimbledon, my brothers experienced Chelsea,” he told me. “At Stamford Bridge there’s a place called ‘the shed’. The NF [National Front] would sell newspapers and wear boots and the green bomber jackets and chase people like my brothers away, call them names.

“I didn’t support Chelsea because I didn’t want to support a club that had racist fans. Plough Lane was down the road ... I remember going to watch Wimbledon vs Spurs, it was an FA Cup game. Although I was a Wimbledon fan, at the Wimbledon end, after the game I was racially abused by fans using the Y-word and the P-word.

"I didn’t go back to Plough Lane.”

He then spoke movingly of the extent to which London had progressed. “My daughters [Anisah and Ammarah] are 16 and 14 and they’ve basically grown up in the same area that I grew up in and my wife grew up in. They’ve never been called the P-word – they’ve never been the victim of overt racial abuse. That shows the progress we’ve made.”

At school, a teacher told Khan, who studied biology, chemistry and maths at A-level, “You’re always arguing. Why don’t you be a lawyer, rather than a dentist?” It was this, as well as LA Law on television, that inspired him to join the Bar. He studied at the University of North London (now London Metropolitan), where he became a visiting lecturer, and took his finals at the Guildford College of Law. Having joined Labour at the age of 15, he was elected as a councillor in Wandsworth in 1994. That same year, he married Saadiya Ahmed, a fellow solicitor.

Khan told me he made a conscious decision to specialise in human rights law (“acting for the underdog”), rather than corporate law. “It wasn’t work for the sake of becoming a millionaire. It was working hard and giving something back.”

He became a trainee solicitor in 1994 at Christian Fisher under the renowned human rights lawyer Louise Christian. Three years later, he was made a partner – a precocious achievement for someone of his age and background. In 2004 he left the company, which had been renamed Christian Khan, to become the Labour candidate for Tooting. Khan and his former partner, who was aggrieved by his sudden departure, have not spoken since.

As a human rights lawyer, he acted for what he recently described as “unsavoury individuals”, such as Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and Babar ­Ahmad, who pleaded guilty in the US in 2013 to “providing material support to terrorism”. Ahmad, whose extradition was opposed by Khan and other MPs (including Goldsmith), was a childhood friend. Khan’s opponents have sought to exploit this.

“We never went to each other’s houses. We weren’t close friends but we knew each other growing up – we’d see each other at mosques,” Khan told me. “When you see people at the mosque you don’t discuss politics and stuff. It’s, ‘How you doing? How’s things?’ You may play cricket together, as most kids do at the park and stuff. I can’t remember having an argument about his views in detail. What I do know is that when he was arrested it was a big deal because he was the victim of police misconduct. He brought a claim and won damages in relation to how he was treated – he suffered serious injuries.” Khan has seen Ahmad twice since he was released from prison in the US: at a funeral at Balham Mosque and on the Tube with his lawyer.

In 2005, Khan was elected as the MP for Tooting, his lifelong home. He was praised by former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who represents neighbouring Streatham, as a constituency champion. "In spite of the fact that he's had a national role he was never seen to have taken his eye off the ball of the local situation," he told me. 

Six months after entering parliament, Khan rebelled over Tony Blair’s attempt to introduce 90-day detention for terror suspects, the first of several clashes with the then prime minister. In 2006 he signed an open letter warning that the government’s foreign policy provided “ammunition to extremists”. On the tenth anniversary of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, he spoke of how Blair had “called the four MPs of Islamic faith in to No 10 and sat us round a table and said – to Mohammad Sarwar, Khalid Mahmood, Shahid Malik and myself – it was our responsibility.

“I said: ‘No it’s not. Why have you called us in? I don’t blame you for the Ku Klux Klan. Why are you blaming me for the four bombers on 7/7?’” (This account is contested by Mahmood and Malik, who accused Khan of “self-serving revisionism”.)

“They’re allowed to recollect things how they like,” he told me. “I’m quite clear in my recollection . . . It reinforces my view that we’ve got to defeat radicalisation and extremism by all of us working on this – this isn’t a uniquely Muslim problem. There’s a great saying, which is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Similarly, it will take a village to defeat terrorism and extremism.”

In Gordon Brown’s 2008 reshuffle, Khan was appointed communities minister, becoming the second Muslim to serve in government. The following year he was made transport minister: the first Muslim to attend cabinet and become a privy counsellor. “The palace called me and said, ‘What type of Bible do you want to swear on?’ When I said the Quran, they said, ‘We haven’t got one.’ So I took one with me.”

Of his faith, he told me: “It’s part of who I am – that’s the best way of describing it, because I’ve been asked this a lot. We all have multiple identities: I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a long-suffering Liverpool fan, I’m Labour, I’m Fabian and I’m Muslim.”

I asked him how he felt when an LBC/YouGov poll was published showing that 31 per cent of Londoners would be “uncomfortable” with a Muslim mayor. “That was during the selection campaign. When I saw it I was thoroughly depressed.

“When you’re the candidate in a campaign, you’ve got to be strong; you’re the leader. I went to the campaign – we’ve got lots of volunteers – three of my volunteers of Islamic faith were devastated. Two of them were crying. They just didn’t want to carry on because they were devastated that the impression was given that three out of ten Londoners are somehow Islamophobes.

“That’s not what the survey was about. With surveys, with polls, it’s how you ask the question. If I ask you the question, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the mayor of London was of Islamic faith?’, what sort of message would that send? It elicits a very different answer to, ‘How comfortable are you with the mayor of London being a Muslim?’ And so I’ve spoken to people at LBC who on reflection realised that the question maybe shouldn’t have been asked, or at least asked in a different way.

“You can slice and dice it whichever way you want, this is a great, great city. There is no other city I’d rather raise my daughters in. I’ve got cousins in Pakistan, ethnic majority and religious majority, and they say to me they couldn’t achieve in Pakistan what I’ve achieved here.


For some politicians, campaigning is mere business; for Khan it is a pleasure. I joined him in east London as he visited start-ups hosted by the Bootstrap Company in Dalston: a film-maker, a bakery, a dressmaker. “Are you making a profit yet?” he asked. At a time when his party is increasingly perceived as “anti-business”, Khan takes every opportunity to present himself as a friend of enterprise. He has been aided by Goldsmith’s decision to support Brexit.

“We’re a city where literally more than 500,000 jobs are directly dependent on us being a member of the EU,” he said. “We’re a city where 60 per cent of the world’s companies choose their headquarters. Forty-three per cent of London’s exports go to the European Union. In those circumstances, if you want to be a good mayor, how can you be in favour of leaving?”

Goldsmith has argued that a Conservative mayor will invariably get a better deal from the government, a notion that Khan dismisses. “To give the current government their due, they do business with a Scottish Parliament, which is not Tory . . . they do deals with the Welsh Assembly, which is not Tory. They’ve given greater devolution to Greater Manchester, which is not Tory and probably never will be.

“I actually get on with George Osborne and other members of the government. Many of them sponsored me when I did the marathon. I think I’m friends with some of them.” Osborne, a fellow Londoner, personally congratulated Khan when he won the mayoral nomination.

Khan’s name is often mentioned alongside that of Sajid Javid, the business secretary and fellow bus driver’s son (“I’m the son of a bus driver. I used to love that line ... then Sajid fucking Javid came along,” Khan quipped during his press gallery appearance). “I saw him the other night, actually,” he said. “I think one of the great things about politics now is if you’re an ethnic minority the sole party for you to choose isn’t the Labour Party. That’s fantastic, I think, it’s really encouraging that both mainstream parties have embraced the importance of reflecting society.”

During his time in the shadow cabinet, Khan was one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and a tribune of the soft left. But he told me that he no longer supports signature policies such as a 50 per cent income-tax rate or a “mansion tax”.

“It’s really important to understand that we had a manifesto, which we fought the 2015 election on, and we lost – we lost badly for the second time in a row.

“In the Eighties when we were losing elections, members of my party had a phrase, which I think was wrong, which is ‘no compromise with the electorate’. The electorate are always right.”

In his book If Mayors Ruled the World, Benjamin Barber writes that “a preference for pragmatism and problem-solving over ideology” is a feature of successful city leaders. It is a model that Khan – like Ken Livingstone before him, a socialist who forged an alliance with big business – has embraced.

If Sadiq Khan wins the race to lead London, he will capture a prize that increasingly eludes Labour outside the city: elected office. The election of a British Muslim mayor would be an event of international significance, and a symbol of London’s cosmopolitanism. “I’m fed up of losing. I don’t believe in heroic failure,” he told me. “I’ve got the policies, I’ve got the principle. We need the power to improve London.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

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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