His legacy? We are a society in pieces

Ten years ago, we saw ourselves reflected by Blair as young and energetic. Now we are broken down, i

Where you end up depends on where you start. The mantra of the Blair decade should have been education, education, education, but ended surely as location, location, location. People droned on about property and got agitated about the precise location of those pesky weapons of mass destruction. Location matters. In terms of social mobility it still does. You may be able to fly anywhere in Europe for a tenner, but changing social class is more difficult than ever.

So where were you on that night when a new, young, modern country was being reborn? Were you optimistic? Are you now, just ten years older, a bit grumpier and looking for someone to blame? Or were you really duped by Tiggerish Tony who promised you a land of casual clothing and free extra-virgin olive oil?

The current "structure of feeling" has moved inevitably from hope to disillusionment, but many of the decade's underlying social changes would have happened regardless of who was in government. Blair began by presenting himself as an agent of change, which was attractive, though I never was convinced by him. Easy as it was to hate Thatcher and everything she stood for, there was something about Trust Me Tony that was not quite right. Or too right.

Mostly, I just didn't get the "big tent" deal, the fantasy of inclusiveness. Third Way strangu lation seemed to rest on the deluded idea that all conflicts would vanish if only we were able to come together. The Third Way, which hadn't worked for Bill Clinton in the first place, operated under the assumption that the powerful won't always protect their own interests and that the market always gets results.

I needn't have worried. We never got the big tent. We got the Dome . The man said to have his finger on the pulse of popular culture overruled the begrudgers and decided to impose the Dome on "the people", as he used to call us. There was obviously no real idea of what should be inside this big tent. No plan B. We were simply to gawp in shock and awe. A portent of things to come, this reckless belief in his own visionary power? As Blair's certitude increased, ours diminished. Was it really the case that we spent his first term wondering if he stood for anything at all and that his biggest crisis was the fuel protests? The man who didn't seem to believe in anything in particular morphed after 9/11 into one of the scariest conviction politicians ever. We failed to understand that his style was substantial enough to win three elections and take us to war.

Blair leaves behind a country in fragments, despite a "strong" economy. The coalition that brought him to power - public-sector workers, aspirant middle classes and core Labour voters - has fractured. Some of this fragmentation was beyond his control. With our changing relationship to technology, we now communicate endlessly and have increasing access to information without going outside the front door. Half of all UK adults have broadband, 40 per cent have read a blog and more than two-thirds of us have tried "some kind of digital activity". As a result, our definitions of public and private space have been redrawn. We enter the world already in one of our own, with our own soundtracks, sharing our most intimate thoughts on the bus, sending images of our bums, our babies, our business plans into cyberspace.

Blair was always keen to get us wired up. Laptops for all! He had seen the future and would deliver it unto us. Gordon Brown helped with tax breaks and the consequences are every where. In cyberspace, individual consumer choice is sovereign, unlike actual public space, which involves negotiation. Such rapid social change required a unifying narrative, one that enabled social cohesion and was beyond the reach of the market. New Labour has never provided a satisfactory one. Blair was for "progress" and against the "forces of conserva tism". The logic of consumer capitalism remains neutral in Blairite discourse.

Without a notion of the social, it is unsur prising that antisocial behaviour became a real problem. A generation has grown up acting like it owns the place, unable to share, unwilling to agree a code of what is and is not acceptable. The omnipresent CCTV is a technological and nonsensical attempt to police the streets with no names. Yet there is such a thing as society and it reasserted itself at the oddest of moments, from the mourning for Diana to dancing "flashmobs". Mass ritual and spectacle have not gone away, but now manifest themselves as the return of the repressed. We are technically more connected than ever before, but more of us live alone and many of us feel alone.

The apotheosis of individualism is obviously celebrity culture, which only a fool would declare dead. (Pontificating lefties need reminding that Heat sells more than the Guardian.) The acquisition and maintenance of fame remains a central obsession. All children want to be famous without having any actual talents, not because they are stupid but because this is now possible. You can be famous for being "yourself" on Big Brother. You can be famous for acting famous like Chantelle. Remember the outrage when, in the first riveting series of Big Brother, a public-school boy, Nasty Nick, lied to his housemates. Another portent of things to come?

But Blair has played himself fanatically well, a superlative performer whether on the world stage or in a Catherine Tate sketch. He no longer seeks our approval but, like every other reality-show contestant, refuses to apologise. It is de rigueur for the loser in The Apprentice to declare themselves a winner. Blair insists he will be judged by a higher power than even Alan Sugar.

The comedy of the Blair years was also about a man who performed "himself": The Office. David Brent's "identity" was driven by deluded self-belief and an awareness of the burgeoning celebrity culture, but bore little relation to his actual job and the alienation of his co-workers. He mouthed the new laws of political correctness as he broke them. Ricky Gervais's genius was a comedy of social embarrassment and disaffection at a time when many felt awkward about new codes of behaviour.

Blair's government embraced some parts of the rising social liberalism better than others. The focus on lifting children out of poverty rather than penalising single parents was a break with the past; the provision of some free nursery care and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 remain genuine achievements. Strangely, an ease with homosexuality came to symbolise modernity itself. The Church and the Tories have yet to catch up. The argument that homosexual partnerships undermine heterosexual marriage is difficult to make when heterosexuals undermine around three in every five marriages all by themselves.

The old struggles around identity politics have got even more complicated, hence the urgent need to define Britishness. Racism has been fuelled by the refusal to have a civilised debate about immigration. Only recently have Labour min isters acknowledged that the pressure on public services in certain areas has been unmanageable and that some of our poorest communities have been "unsettled" by it. The result has been the rise of the BNP.

Al-Qaeda and alcopops

Our self-image as "tolerant" has been tested by the 7 July 2005 bombing and our new awareness of jihadi operations here. The question remains: How scared do we want to be? While the government has continually cranked up the threat level, the public is clearly underwhelmed by the idea that an ID card can protect you from a Yorkshireman with a grudge. If Blair thought he could unify us around a notion of the enemy within and without, he has been sorely disappointed.

The unspoken recognition that government cannot act as guarantor of our safety has meant it has resorted to micromanaging our personal lives. Al-Qaeda won't kill us, but alcopops might. We must not smoke, eat junk, drink too many units, or be slothful. Again, popular culture has mirrored this obsession with a zillion programmes telling us what not to eat or wear. We profess to hate the nanny state, but spend much leisure time being bullied by experts telling us to do something about ourselves as we sit with cook-chill meals on our laps watching telly.

In a parallel universe that we may still call the real world, more and more of us seek to get off our heads. We take more and cheaper drugs than ever. The government has done as well in the war against drugs as it has in Iraq, and every few months a venerable body produces a sensible report about this, which is systematically ignored. Unsurprisingly, our prisons are fuller and our mental health is declining, but as such people will never tell all to Hello!, they fall by the wayside.

No wonder that such cultural anxiety has produced a booming nostalgia industry. From yucky Cath Kidston repackaged chintz and our re-embracing of the briny British seaside to our mad pursuit of baking (thanks, Nigella) and the popularity of the daft School Disco - nostalgia, even a sense of loss, remains just below the surface. Old Jean Baudrillard, who fittingly popped his hyperreal clogs at the end of the Blair era, used to call it "accelerated culture". He was right, because now we see young adults getting tearful about things that happened only a few years ago.

The emptiness of the consumer experience, the rise of individualism, the loneliness of cyberspace, the unease on the streets show that though some have made money, all is not well. To deal with climate change requires a much less insular cultural climate. The rush towards the end of Blair's reign to talk about happiness and quality-of-life issues, which David Cameron has picked up, signals the uncomfortable truth about living through Tony Time.

Our lack of trust in all institutions has risen. Yes, we know about the huge sums of money eaten up by the National Health Service, but most of us experience brilliant emergency care and pitiful aftercare. Our schools, even those financed by maverick millionaires, have succumbed to endless targeting, testing and pressurising of young children that has little to do with learning. The damage inflicted by the disaster of Iraq on the Labour Party, on the ideal of humanitarian intervention and on democracy itself needs no rehearsal in these pages.

I would simply say that the catastrophic repercussions of the war on terror mesh with many other cultural trends to form a national mood of distrust and insecurity. Trust only yourself. Thus, the confessional, the emotive, the blogger, the personal continue to dominate. If we cannot speak for anyone but ourselves, then we will speak only of ourselves. We are now entrepreneurs, all selling our unique personalities, in cessantly spinning on behalf of ourselves. Blair taught us this by example.

Those of us silly enough to think that the main job of a Labour government was to make us more equal do indeed look silly. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently said that "most measures of income poverty and inequality increased in 2005/2006". Not only is the gap between the rich and poor ever more evident, but the gap between the middle class and super-rich is huge.

When Charles Murray's essay on the underclass was published in Britain in 1994, the left gasped in horror. The underclass, he told us, was not about a degree of poverty, but defined by "a type of poverty". Poor people didn't just lack money, "they were defined by their behaviour". It is a sign of how far we have moved that such an analysis is no longer shocking. The underclass, chavs, people on estates, black kids shooting each other will always be with us. The question is how to avoid such people. Some make huge efforts to segregate themselves from those that Murray christened "the New Rabble".

Beggars outside the tent

Somehow this is acceptable, because the dis possessed have simply made the wrong moral choices and we haven't. So much for the big tent when all around the big tent are those begging, smoking crack, hearing voices. These chaotic, confused souls wander through our cities and our lives. The hope that things might change for them dwindles. There is no trickle-down effect from the City bonuses of millions, no social justice for those without advocates.

This is why I say we are a society in pieces. Even those who have a house and kids in college feel insecure about their debt, their mortgages, the top-up fees.

Blair's followers will say he saved the public sector from years of Tory neglect, but where was the promised remoralisation of society? Where was the narrative that emphasised connection, cohesion and active participation; that said, yes, public is as important as private; that insisted on Our Space in a world of MySpace? Did Blair bring harmony where there was discord? Did he leave us wanting more? No. For such a performer, that really is a disaster.

Ten years ago we saw ourselves reflected by Blair as young and energetic. Now we look broken down, grubby, anxious. The progressive narrative has disintegrated, the very goals of liberty and equality are deemed impossible, but still we are told things have got better. We are so disenchanted that we no longer trust that they have.

The spell is broken. I wonder if Blair has made it impossible for it ever to be cast again.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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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: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood