My vision for the future

Will the forthcoming change of prime minister lead to a radical change in British politics? As specu

Politics requires many virtues - organisation, ideas, resolution, luck. But chief among them is the hardest to define: that elusive sense of being in tune with the times. Political parties succeed when they join their values to deep economic, social and cultural trends. I am convinced that a fourth election victory, and fundamental changes to the landscape of Britain, are possible precisely because a more demanding, educated, savvy population want the power and control that modern progressive politics can offer. I believe the opportunity is as great as at any time in the past 60 years.

In the years after 1945, people said: "I need . . ." I need the basics of a civilised life: good insurance against pain and economic misfortune, a decent education and housing. The Labour Party understood that mood, shared it and enacted policy to make it real.

The fit was both philosophical and administrative. Labour's governing ideas of community and fraternity were perfectly suited to a society that had lived through the most binding of all common experiences, a war against an aggressor. Labour's strategy - the state as the provider of social goods such as healthcare and education - was no more than a continuation of the evident success of the wartime economy. Millions of lives were made better as a result.

In the 1980s, "I need" was replaced as the dominant philosophy by the politics of "I want". A political philosophy emerged which, again in its ideology and its methods, understood the times. The Thatcher government licensed this materialism, encouraged aspirations and captured a new constituency. Its method was simple: get out of the way. The revolution was never completed. The state actually grew in size.

Millions of people, every bit as aspirant as those who had been rewarded, were left behind. Some communities missed out altogether.

The government stood by. The helping hand of the state had been scorned, replaced by the invisible hand of the market. We are still living with some of the consequences of those times: the families struggling to get on the housing ladder; the young people outside education, training or work, unsure of their futures. The politics of "I want" collapsed under its own weight. In the end, no society can be the sum total of individual desires.

Since 1997, Britain has changed in some ways more fundamentally than new Labour promised. It is a different country - richer, fairer, more confident. I also think it is being driven forward by a new spirit. I call it the politics of "I can". The era of "I can" is the culmination of the long decline of deference and automatic authority. It is the late flowering of individual autonomy and control. It is, in other words, one of the founding ideas of left-of-centre politics: to put power in the hands of the people.

In the "I can" era, people want to be players, not just spectators. They want to be contributors, not just consumers. Technology is enabling these aspirations to be fulfilled and new institutional models to emerge. In South Korea, the online newspaper Ohmynews has, as its motto, "every citizen is a reporter". It is the first "paper" in the world where the majority of the content is written by freelance contributors who are mostly ordinary citizens. YouTube and MySpace enable citizens to create and distribute content, shifting power from traditional broadcasters and record companies to citizens and small groups.

Politics cannot stand apart from these changes. A generation is coming to political maturity that expects not just high standards of provision, delivered quickly to specification, but also real control.

David Cameron is groping for this when he talks about social responsibility. But it is not enough to say that the world would be a better place if people showed social responsibility. This soon becomes a new code for malign neglect, the old Tory idea in fancier dress.

An "I can" society asks new things of citizens, and demands that they acquire new skills. But it also requires very different government institutions. That is why social and economic change today require government leadership and profes sional innovation, as well as mass mobilisation.

In the battle against climate change, an "I can" society enables citizens to become producers as well as consumers of energy. Within ten years, all new homes will need to sell energy back to the national grid, with citizens getting a fair price for their electricity. The power stations of the future will draw energy from a million roofs, rather than just a central generator.

"I can" must be combined with a sense of "we can" - the belief that there is a shared willingness within each community that individuals' actions will be reciprocated by others. The best way of getting citizens to invest in energy-efficiency measures is not just to appeal on the basis of individual self-interest, but to target a whole street or ward and make citizens feel part of a wider drive to tackle climate change. That is why energy policy in future must be a matter for local government as well as national government.

In public services, an "I can" service will continually ask: how can we devolve power, funding and control to the lowest appropriate level, while maintaining high national minimum standards? Can teachers and children inject more creativity into what is learnt, where and how? Can communities manage public spaces, from parks to community centres? Can the criminal justice system become more connected to the communities it serves, with courts based within communities, and citizens able to have influence over sentencing (as happens in the pioneering Liverpool experiment that Charlie Falconer described to the cabinet two weeks ago)?

This is not a zero-sum game between government power and citizen power; it is a genuine partnership that breaks down the divide between producer and consumer.

In the economy, "I can" companies and public sector organisations will inspire their employees to go the extra mile and apply their creativity in the workplace. Employees will be offered more power, responsibility and autonomy, from options to buy a stake in the company to the opportunity for further training.

These changes must be underpinned by changes in the way we govern. Strong local government in cities such as Manchester, Sheffield and Exeter has been the heartbeat of economic growth and social inclusion. But, in truth, new Labour has been better at strong national leadership than at nurturing strong local institutions of self-government. Yet look at our membership cards: they say clearly that we are pledged to put power, as well as wealth and opportunity, in the hands of the many not the few.

The concentration of power in Westminster is as antithetical to our ambitions of a more equal society as is the concentration of power in the private sector.

Creating institutions closer to citizens, open and accountable to their communities, able to reconcile conflicts and competing demands, is the way to tackle the sense of powerlessness that can seem pervasive. That means we need to fight the instinct of bureaucracies and political parties to hold on to power. One hundred towns and cities with the leadership, confidence and power to lead British economic, social and cultural renewal should be our aim.

New Labour has joined together the twin drives to meet needs and to fulfil aspirations. The next phase will be to capture the politics of a people who can now do so much more. That is a project that should excite everyone for the years ahead.

David Miliband is Environment Secretary. His blog is at

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

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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