Generally pissed off

Alan Duncan, Shadow Secretary of State for Business is on the war path. When I spoke to him this wee

The past week has offered the Tories a chance to hone their analogy skills on two fronts. The return of Mandelson, “He’s like a rat joining a sinking ship” And Brown’s financial crisis, “He’s like an arsonist who comes with a hose pipe and says look at me I’m putting out the fire”. Some of them have been quite creative, “Like a Tory with endless analogy possibilities”

There had been a concern since before party conference, a concern that has only heightened during Gordon Brown’s global economy tour. At what point do the Conservatives point out who started it?

There are a few MPs who think they could have indicated their disgust with more haste, “How does he have the nerve? For years Brown has hid debt, managed his government by headline, spent money to buy votes and left the bill to be paid by future generations”. But the reluctant consensus is: “It would it be seen as churlish and point scoring, we will do all we can to rescue the country for his error.” The overall feeling is one of irritation.

There are a few camps, 1) “a bit gloomy” 2) pensive and generally pissed off 3) cheer up twits (Boris) 4) Alan Duncan spitting-bullets angry. Duncan, Shadow Secretary of State for Business is on the war path. When I spoke to him this week he was livid, 5 ft 6in of grrrrrrr.

“We are now in a political war, a war where Labour are trying to brand us for their failure. This is Brown’s failure. Brown is the most deceiving politician I have ever met other than Ed Balls. They are performing the most revolting political gymnastics and we will nail it.” Sleep with one eye open, Balls.

Duncan continues, “Gordon Brown and George Bush have fuelled this with massive deficit. Some of us did foresee this. [In 2004 Duncan openly supported John Kerry in the US Elections citing he was not convinced of Bush’s economic record.] I sat in the boardroom of the RBS and asked “Are you worried about debt?” They turned prudent lending into pyramid selling. This has been fuelled by a boastful arrogant Government in the US and the UK. But the UK is the main culprit.”

Give him his dues; Alan Duncan has been talking about this for a while. In September 2007 he wrote on, “The surest sign that problems are looming is when bankers, institutions and countries convince themselves that they have entered a new period in which economic gravity can somehow be defied. UK conditions are not prepared for the turn in the cycle and worse, with nothing set aside for a rainy day, the pain stands to be greater than it would otherwise have been. Brown mortgaged the country the way that banker have mortgaged banks.”

Accusations of the crisis being a threat to Conservative ideology are batted down. “This is the death of socialist pollution of the free market. If we had had lower spending, lower taxes and traditional banking we would not be where we are now. How dare they suggest it's Thatcher’s fault, if she stood for one thing, it was living within your means” says an MP from the pensive camp.

To be fair, not a day has gone by when a humble Tory has not remembered the roller-coaster of 2007, no one has had any public James Cameron “I’m King of the World” moment. Which is actually quite staggering… considering.

In London and spreading to distant constituencies are small murmurs of this being as good as it gets for Brown, it has canny prospective candidates mobilising and making quiet preparations for a spring election. Whispers are if Gordon is up in the polls he would be mad not to call an election be it to win or damage limitation. The fact is they [the candidates] want it, they were gee’d up like coiled springs last October. From Portsmouth to Witham, they were prepared, and they are prepared now.

The future looks bleak with the country going from over heating to perma-frost in one fell swoop, should we have seen it coming? Historically Labour Governments always run out of money.

Perhaps Boris is right, we have to do something to get away from the gloom, play some records, put up some colourful bunting. A usually chipper Tory MP at a party last night who managed to get out of bed that morning, mumbled, “Brown has left nothing in the kitty. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. The real pain is about to begin”

What now? Gordon appearing in a pinny showing us how to make a Victoria sponge sandwich using powdered egg, Sarah Brown cajoled into doing a public services broadcast advising girls to paint stocking seams on their underfed legs, Lord Mandy helpfully giving “make-do and mend” fashion tips to hard-up city boys. It is after all unpatriotic not to look ones best

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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