The Tories a joke in Washington

Imagine a football match in which your team is performing formidably. It leads 3-0, then, inexplicably, it slows down, allowing the adversary to advance despite a weak, unconvincing performance and a desperate shortage of star players. Welcome to the match of your lifetime: Team Labour v Team Tory.

Though based in Washington, DC, where I am a Master’s student, I follow British politics closely. It seems to me that during more than a decade of leadership, Labour has delivered Britain into the 21st century. Sustained investment in state education has yielded demonstrable results. The risk of being a victim of crime is at historically low levels. The effectiveness of the British health-care system is envied in the US, and again the improvement is undeniable. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is potently orchestrating domestic and global economic strategies.

Yet, for reasons I find increasingly hard to understand, the Labour Party has been hesitant about defending its own policy record. This is surprising because Labour’s decade-long policy output is so superior to the Conservatives’ platform for the future that the latter does not stand up to serious analysis. On education, for instance, the Conservative vision is to divert funding to building new independent schools. This will incur unnecessary costs for taxpayers. Additionally, some of their proposed schools are to be funded based on the number of children they attract. The Tories are ignorant of, or unconcerned by, the severe distributional implications of this competitive system.

Wealthier parents will have an incentive to invest more in their children’s education in the same way they invest in luxury cars. Inevitably, schools in poorer areas will fall behind. The imperative for education should transcend the obsession with individual success conditioned by market competition and the profit motive.

Equally questionable is the Conservatives’ evaluation of education, which resembles

an engineer’s assessment of road construction. Using percentages of “poor discipline” and “truancy” to punish teachers and state schools is nonsense. It conjures up America’s No Child Left Behind programme, whose assembly-line approach consigned students to a vicious cycle of inequality. Education is a complex co-productive process, in which students, parents and teachers are all responsible for the outcome.

Tory policy on crime rests on a false causality between law enforcement and criminal behaviour. Overall, their objective is punishment at all costs to deter criminals,

but with no guarantee of subsequent social integration. They assume that punishment will generate fear and reduce criminal intent. But criminals do not act because of an absence of fear. Crime rates may be simultaneously a function of the economy, health, deprivation or family. Isolating enforcement from the rest is imprudent. This demonstrates a failure to distinguish between “law enforcement” as procedure and “increasing personal and public safety” as a policy goal.

Also unreasonable is the Tory rejection

of programmes such as early release. They shape their response to fit transient public fear, and call for more prisons and more severe sentencing, irrespective of crime type. Yet here, again, the Conservatives refuse to consider that the costs of building additional prisons and extending incarceration stretch out into the future, multiplied by the costs to society when inmates are released without proper rehabilitation. Cost-benefit analyses overwhelmingly show that enforcement tailored to the degree of criminality is more cost-effective than generic long sentencing, and transitional programmes are twice as cost-effective as longer sentences.

On health, the Conservatives introduce profit motives, exposing the NHS to the uncertainty of the free market. They believe that health providers must have financial incentives to deliver a better service, which implies an infusion of government funds into greedy competition among doctors and hospitals. Inevitably, rewarding providers for success will transform health care into a supply-driven system at the expense of the taxpayer. You can expect the NHS to overflow with unnecessary medical procedures that will increase costs.

Finally, the Tories’ overall economic policy is inconsistent with their spending pledges for education, health and crime. First, they commit to interventionist funding at all costs, especially as they promise corporations seats at the table. Next, they pledge fiscal conservatism by lowering business taxes and raising the inheritance tax threshold to £2m. This is oblivious to long-term negative consequences, including an imbalanced national budget.

The immaturity of the Tories’ platform reveals itself again as they intend to interfere with the demand-and-supply dynamic of the jobs market. They promise to ensure work for everyone, which is noble indeed. However, their actions would disregard sensitive aspects of the economy such as elasticity of demand for certain jobs. Failure to consider these will hurt British workers in the long run and could unleash endemic unemployment.

When we discuss the Conservatives’ policies here in Washington, DC, we are often reduced to laughter that a political party seeking to govern a country as important as Britain could publish such plans as it has. But it has. It is time that they were subjected to proper attack.

Alina Palimaru is a student in advanced public policy analysis at American University in Washington, DC

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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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