The end of Dave

If Cameron loses the election, his modernisation of the Conservatives will be deemed a failure and h

David Cameron's crime was that he expected to win. Some would go further and say that from every pore he exuded a belief that he was entitled to win. Either way, beyond him winning, what has been the point of the Tory campaign? What real changes are on offer in return for swapping Labour centrists for Tory centrists?

Cameron spent most of the last parliament obliging Tories to support the Labour spending plans he claimed, by the end of it, had wrecked Britain. If this is change, it requires a different electorate to see it. It also requires an electorate that hadn't come to the conclusion that the Labour/Tory duopoly deserved a monopoly of blame for the expenses scandal. Believing his own spin that he had "handled" expenses, Cameron has spent the general election campaign flailing from one panicked measure to another, reaching the nadir with his casual proposal to rip up the constitution and have, in effect, directly elected prime ministers. Others will tell you how it came to this. Let's just consider what will likely come of it.

Mods and shockers

One thing Cameron's failure will do is kill off the myth that being right-wing has lost the Tory party four elections in a row. Establishing this "fact" was a triumph for the Tory modernisers. Having it believed by anyone required an acceptance that John Major ran a furiously right-wing government; that William Hague, hemmed in by the shadow chancellor Michael Portillo and the shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude, was even more so; and that Michael Howard, far from being the man who patronised Cameron to the extent of having him write his manifesto, was a traditionalist whom other trads just couldn't bring themselves to admit as such. Doubtless there are people who will always think that this was just so; but even they won't be able to deny that Cameron ran as Cameron, and if he loses, an argument will therefore have been settled.

What happens next will also illustrate the difference between the Tory right and the Labour left, and also between the Tory right in internal opposition and the way Tory mods behaved out of power. Unlike too many socialist purists in Labour civil wars past, traditional Tories have wanted their party to win, even under a leader such as Cameron, who openly despised them. Indeed, it will be precisely his taking us to needless defeat that will be fatal. In victory, he would have been forgiven everything. In defeat he won't be forgiven anything.

But just consider how the right has behaved since Cameron became leader: it has stayed quiet and it hasn't caused trouble. William Hague has only to look across the shadow cabinet table to see some of the moderates who caused him the most torment when he was Tory leader.

One myth that has already fallen by the wayside was the comforting fable that leadership loyalists reached for during Cameron's most un-Blair-like dips in the polls in years gone by: "If only David was on the telly more, then we'd get back to where we should be." Cameron has never had more television exposure than the debates he idiotically pushed for, and after each one his support has fallen.

Another myth was that of Cool Hand Dave, the imperturbable leader, whose response to the crisis mounting inside Central Office since the New Year has been to abandon responsibility for taking key decisions to underlings such as Andy Coulson or Steve Hilton. And now, doing everything the mods preached against others doing - not least flip-flops and last-minute "new" policies unveiled during general election campaigns - Cameron confronts Labour and refuses to get close to 40 per cent.

Unless the parliamentary arithmetic abso­lutely obliges it, only Tory fantasists can seriously claim that the Liberals will choose us over Labour. Every policy Nick Clegg would wish to accomplish in office is more readily delivered by Labour, and every second spent in coalition with the Tories would be another vote subtracted from the 2010 Liberal pile and added to Labour's for 2014.

What lessons can and should be learned? For a start, obsessions have no place in the programme of a party serious about power. One clear-cut example was elected police chiefs. Where was the polling that said the public wanted policemen replaced with politicians? Another area where polling was thrown to the wind was foreign policy. Whatever the case for an independent deterrent, talking about a war Britain doesn't need to have with China is not the way to justify it.

Balls up

Then there were the horrendous, unforgivable failures over education policy: the one area where Labour's malevolent, anti-achievement incompetence should have gifted open goal after open goal. Instead it amounted to nothing for the party. Labour's Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, is just about the most off-putting performer in the cabinet, but he has proved far from the serial liability he should have been. Our maddeningly incomplete policy on schools squandered the single best opportunity, after the economy, that we had. Whether it was an unsellable policy, or merely mis-sold, the lack of traction has been one of the most dismal defects of the entire Tory campaign.

At this point, I should be honest and say I never realised Clegg had it in him to change political history. I always thought he was a bit of a wet fish, whose Cameron-lite tendencies would leave the Lib Dems stranded.

But has Clegg truly been the decisive factor? Cameron has led the opposition that has opposed least in history. He was a fool to think the public would not pick up on this. Should Cameron contrive to lose the unlosable election on 6 May, no one can stop William Hague from becoming leader again. And this time, he won't have to face a fifth column.

Christopher Montgomery ran A Better Choice, the campaign that stopped Michael Howard from disenfranchising grass-roots Tories in leadership elections.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

Show Hide image

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