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The lost herd

When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, he made great play of appointing figures from outs

On 11 May 2007, in a speech at the Imagination Gallery in the West End of London during which he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown promised a "new politics" of openness, reform and change. He pledged to govern "in a different way", with a fresh style and new personnel. "I will reach out to put national interest before sectional interest," he said, "and I will form a government of all the talents, bringing people together to listen, to learn and solve problems, building on a broad sense of national purpose."

Within 48 hours of entering Downing Street as Prime Minister, on 27 June, Brown announced that the former United Nations deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown, the former first sea lord Admiral Sir Alan West, the former secretary general of the Confederation of British Industry Sir Digby Jones and Ara Darzi, one of the country's leading surgeons, would be ennobled and made ministers in government. Over the past two years, other non-politicians have joined Brown's ministerial ranks, including his former chief of staff and ex-head of the television regulator Ofcom, Stephen Carter, and the former City fund manager and multimillionaire Paul Myners.

Today, the Prime Minister's big tent is slowly being folded away, its frame dismantled, as one after another of the chief recruits to his "government of all the talents", called "goats" by Whitehall insiders, slips the ministerial tethers to graze in pastures new. Of the original quartet, only Lord West remains in office.

Should we be surprised? The Prime Minister is by reputation both a party-political tribalist and a keen centraliser of power - his former permanent secretary Andrew Turnbull described him as "Stalinist" and his former cabinet colleague Charles Clarke called him a "control freak". He always seemed an unlikely goatherd. Here was an opportunity for him to show the country his pluralist intentions and bipartisan credentials.

Tony Blair had been a strong advocate of big-tent politics: think of the late Roy Jenkins's report on proportional representation and Chris Patten's commission on policing in Ulster. Brown went beyond Blair, who deployed the great and the good from across the political spectrum only to advise, review and report, by bringing political outsiders directly into government.

Goats, however, are notoriously stubborn creatures, unpredictable and difficult to control. Malloch Brown became Lord Malloch-Brown of St Leonard's Forest in the County of West Sussex and was appointed minister of state for Africa, Asia and the UN at the Foreign Office. Within a fortnight of taking office, he had announced, much to the annoyance of Washington, that Brown and George W Bush would not be "joined at the hip" in the manner of Bush and Blair, a remark that seemed to suggest the end of the "special relationship".

When Malloch Brown resigned this month for "personal and family reasons", he said he remained "completely loyal to the Prime Minister". Yet reports since have suggested that the former international diplomat could no longer tolerate working in chaotic Whitehall, and had told colleagues that he had been party to better "strategic thinking" in Latin America and south-east Asia than in Downing Street. In a farewell salvo on Wednesday, Lord Malloch-Brown became the first senior minister to admit that British troops need more helicopters in Afghanistan - contradicting the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary - and he conceded that Brown's future looked "bleak". So much for loyalty.

His resignation was followed on 14 July by that of the Iraqi-born Ara Darzi - who, as Lord Darzi of Denham, was appointed by Brown as under-secretary of state at the Department for Health. Known as Robo-Doc for his pioneering work in the advancement of minimal invasive surgery and his use of surgical robots, Darzi fuelled speculation about an early election in October 2007 by publishing an unexpected interim report on his plans for NHS reform. He also angered campaigners, and Labour backbenchers, in a speech to the Lords in January 2008, by abandoning Lab­our's historic commitment to eliminate mixed-sex wards from NHS hospitals.

Darzi said he was resigning to focus on his medical work and academic research, but one has to ask: is this the time for a health minister to quit, as the Department of Heath grapples with a swine flu epidemic? He leaves the government having failed to see through the "once-in-a-generation" reforms he announced the government would be making to the NHS. Perhaps his only memorable contribution to political life is the time he leapt across the red benches in the Lords to save the life of a fellow Labour peer, Lord Brennan, who had collapsed after a heart attack.

Arguably the most controversial resignation - and appointment - among the goats was that of Digby Jones. The corpulent, conservative recent head of the CBI took the title Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, and became minister for UK trade and investment in the (then) Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He quit the government after just 18 months in the post following a series of disagreements with Brown over spending and taxation, rows with civil servants, and a stream of gaffes - including some embarrassing remarks at a forum of Middle Eastern entrepreneurs. "We don't care what colour you are," he said. "We don't care if we can't pronounce your names and we don't care where your money comes from. We just want you to invest in our country." Jones then said: "I'm a goat, not a professional politician."

Since leaving government, Jones has spent his time criticising both Brown and civil servants, telling a Commons select committee in January this year that the job of junior minister was "one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences a human being can have".

So who is left? The sole remaining goat from the original herd is the former first sea lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, who became Lord West of Spithead and was appointed under-secretary of state for security and counterterrorism at the Home Office by the Prime Minister in June 2007. Home Office press officers have since described him as "gaffe-prone", a "liability" and a "nightmare to manage". In November 2007, he questioned the government's plans to hold terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge, stating in a live BBC radio interview that he was not "totally convinced" of the case for change - only to perform a U-turn less than two hours later, after a hurried meeting with Brown.

His explanation: "Being a simple sailor, not a politician, maybe I didn't choose my words well." (The PM's spokesman issued his own memorable clarification: "I think he thought it was necessary to make sure his position was properly understood. I'm not sure he has changed his mind. Lord West made his position quite clear. Lord West gave his views quite clearly in his second statement.")

West is known for his bravery. In 1982, as the 34-year-old officer in command of the frigate HMS Ardent when it was sunk by Argentinian bombers during the Falklands conflict, he was the last to leave the sinking ship. His action earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. Nearly three decades on, the "simple sailor" remains the last man standing on the sinking ship of government. One source close to West says he has no plans to quit and that he is committed to his Home Office role - but adds "for the foreseeable future".

Brown's aides are curiously unwilling to lay any blows on the fleeing goats. One Downing Street aide told me each of them had "enrichgovernment" and that their contributions to public life "remain a genuinely positive story". What about Digby Jones? "Digby is Digby," I was told. "We knew he would be outspoken from the moment he was appointed."

But is this a genuinely positive story? One could argue that it was foolhardy to tread down this path in the first place. Political outsiders are, almost by definition, either ignorant of political rules, regulations, conventions and customs, or unwilling to conform to them. This was an accident waiting to happen.

Then there is the issue of ideology. As James Purnell (who resigned from the cabinet in June) has been busy pointing out, ideas matter, and constructing big tents in politics, welcoming as they may be, risks losing sight of this. New Labour was built on the assumption that modern politics is no longer ideological, substantive or divisive, that what matters is what works, and that there are bureaucratic, technical and pragmatic fixes to every political problem. This has proved to be a fiction. Bringing in outsiders to add expertise and experience to government is not new: Clement Attlee succeeded with the trade union leader Ernest Bevin, and Margaret Thatcher with the businessman David Young. Brown's mistake was to pretend that he could defy the laws of politics by appointing people who neither owed him party loyalty nor necessarily shared his political values. Jones, for example, is said to have discussed becoming a Con­servative MP once with the then Tory leader, Michael Howard. As head of the CBI, he had long opposed a range of Labour economic and social policies, chief among them the minimum wage. Why make him a Labour minister?

But, above all else, this is a story of a government of all the talents that could not keep those talents for long. On the one hand, we had a prime minister who thought he wanted independent goats in his administration but really needed loyal sheep; on the other hand, we had non-politicians who thought they could adapt to politics simply by virtue of their experience or expertise.

The shortsightedness identified by Lord Malloch-Brown and the bureaucracy singled out by Lord Jones are now hallmarks of modern British governance. The end result is a group of outsiders who have returned to the outside world, disillusioned, disappointed and depressed. That Lord Myners has announced he is leaving the Treasury to become a student of theology speaks volumes about life as a minister today. Whether we like it or not, politics will continue to be dominated by professionals.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge