Low charisma, high values

Paola Totaro, London bureau chief for the Sydney Morning Herald, is baffled as to why Gordon Brown g

The first time I saw Gordon Brown, my glasses fogged up. It was April 2008, and we were at the Gurdwara Singh Sabha in Ilford, east London, on the Ken Livingstone campaign trail for re-election as London mayor. Maybe my misty vision was less a reaction to the PM’s presence, and had more to do with the unseasonably icy weather and how, during a moment’s refuge in the toilets of the Sikh temple, I’d dropped the glasses down the S-bend. Nonetheless, that day Brown triggered a response within me that the intervening year has not changed.

I had arrived in London to take over the Sydney Morning Herald’s European bureau, smack bang in the middle of the bout for London’s mayoral chain. It was clear that the Boris v Ken show was no ordinary municipal poll; but it was the media coverage of Gordon Brown that had me mesmerised. Day after day, the papers were filled not just with shrieking economic headlines, but with a cacophony of moaning and bitching from a cabal of Labour ministers and backbenchers who seemed utterly at ease airing their despair about Brown’s leadership in public.

As a former political editor blooded by years of reporting the Labor Right – the conservative wing of the Australian Labor Party, and a rough, tough, mongrel breed, famous for their party discipline – I found this complete lack of control fascinating. Was it Brown’s lack of authority, or was this how Labour politics in the UK always played out? I was intrigued, and the mayoral campaign became my opportunity to observe Britain’s political leadership at first hand.

That morning in Ilford, Brown delivered a quiet, well-received speech about justice, notions of hard work and tolerance between communities. Later, I shadowed him as he did an awkward walk through the room, shaking hands, patting backs and doling out halting “Good to see you”s. He appeared shy – well versed in the demands of parish-pump politics, yet uncomfortable with small talk. I decided then that I rather liked him.

The weeks and months that followed turned out to be shockers for Brown. First the disastrous council elections, then poll after poll that seemed to head ever southward. Calls to backbench Labour MPs revealed no binding caucus, no ferocious factions – and no shame in bagging your leader to any journalist. Brown’s clannishness and impatience with dissent were all too visible. Labour seemed to have thrown in the towel and yet, from what I could see, the contest hadn’t really started.

Still, none of this explained the particularly virulent nature of Brown’s media coverage. Whatever his failings, he had been chancellor during a period of unmatched growth in Britain. And where is the proof that his policies – or George W Bush’s, or Kevin Rudd’s in Australia – are directly to blame for the economic troubles of the world now? Behind the scenes at the World Economic Forum in Davos, economists and observers spoke about Brown with respect. He was the first leader to take the huge step of recapitalising a bank, a strategy now followed the world over; in the United States, his speech to Congress was well received. No doubt he is a policy wonk who lacks charisma. But didn’t the British media turn on Tony Blair for being too slick, too good at communication? What is it exactly the UK wants in a leader?

When Gordon Brown delivered his keynote address to the Labour conference last September, he spoke stolidly, with no great shot of memorable brilliance or humour. But he got me. I wrote then that the impact of his speech lay in the lack of spin – and a visceral sense that he believes what he says. His delivery can be diffident, at times monotone. And that smile always looks forced and slightly canine. But his sense of civil service, the desire to see change through, the belief that poverty and problems with public health and education can be tackled successfully are all there – if just a few messengers would allow themselves to see it.

When he is outside the mainstream, Brown seems a different leader. At a couple of panel discussions in Davos, he had the audience in genuine waves of laughter (OK, it was an economist’s joke). At the party conference, he spoke with humanity about the near loss of sight in his right eye, saved by treatment provided by the National Health Service that his parents could never have afforded otherwise. His plea for a “fair” Britain can be dismissed as cynical pork-barrelling, but I have watched enough politicians of all colours to know those for whom these values mean something, personally and politically. “I know what I believe. I know who I am. I know what I want to do in this job,” he said.

The next general election is not expected until 2010. Ultimately, the key to Brown’s chances is the economy. During the next 12 months, there are three possible scenarios, two of which favour Labour. A deepening crisis, with rising unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies, would allow him to argue that handing the nation to the untried opposition is just too much of a risk. The second scenario sees the tide turning, but only just. With the stock market steadying and liquidity beginning to return, unemployment may still be a burgeoning problem – but economists are starting to say that the worst may be over. Brown can then campaign on the message that his strategies have started to reap reward, but the country isn’t out of the woods yet. Again, a change of leadership and policy could threaten what has been achieved.

The third set of circumstances is the most difficult for Brown – but the most unlikely. If the economy reaches the road to recovery before the election, he can take credit for the upturn. Recent polls show that the public acknowledges his strengths. Yet voters have an undeniable sense, too, that David Cameron can be a leader for the future.

Brown’s current position reminds me of the situation that once faced Paul Keating, the Australian prime minister of the early and mid-1990s. He, too, was an ambitious former treasurer who replaced an enormously popular and charismatic PM, Bob Hawke. Like Brown, Keating had been an architect of his predecessor’s success – and he then governed through a recession before winning an election that everyone, and most particularly the media, thought he would lose.

Brown urgently needs to follow Keating’s example and start showing more of his innate strengths – and must remember that self-belief can be perceived as arrogance. Who knows? Then he might emulate Keating and pull off his own “sweetest victory of all”.

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: monbiot.com/music/

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