Voice of the heartlands

Maurice Glasman was an obscure academic living above a shop in Hackney when he was made a peer. Now,

In January, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, addressed the annual conference of the Fabian Society. His speech was a prolonged mea culpa for the sins of New Labour in government. To those who had deserted it at the 2010 general election, the party, he said, appeared to have been "in thrall to a vision of the market that seemed to place too little importance on the values, institutions and relationships that people cherish the most". The remedy? "Rooting our values in traditions and ideas that go beyond the bureaucratic state and the overbearing market."

Attentive listeners will have been struck by the rhetorical similarities of this speech with some of what Miliband's elder brother, David, had said during the Labour leadership campaign last summer. In the Keir Hardie Lecture that he delivered last July, David, too, had talked about the need for Labour to revive some of its dormant traditions. "A life fit for human beings," he declared, "is about more than money and benefits. It's about responsibility, love, loyalty, friendship, action and victory, values that used to be engraved upon the Labour heart."

It was refreshing and, frankly, a little disconcerting to hear a left-of-centre politician speak in this way - especially one as closely identified with the New Labour project as the elder Mili­band. Gone were the bloodless platitudes about "fairness" and in their place were the language of virtue, "love" and "friendship" and an appeal to a specifically English tradition of personal liberty and independence.

As is often the case with speeches of this kind, the lecture was the work of several hands. One hand was especially prominent: that of the north London-based Jewish academic and community organiser Maurice Glasman, born in 1961, who until recently had been toiling in relative obscurity as a lecturer in political theory at London Metropolitan University. "I worked very closely with David on the Keir Hardie speech," Glasman tells me. "It was a very good experience but he did not put [my ideas] at the centre of his agenda."

Now, it looks as if the younger Miliband is doing just that. In November 2010, Glasman received a phone call from the Labour leader's office. "They said, 'Would you like to be a lord?'" In February, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill in the London Borough of Hackney. (Glasman is a north-east London patriot: he lives in a flat above a shop in Stoke Newington and supports Tottenham Hotspur.)

I meet him at the House of Lords. At the entrance, we negotiate a slightly uneasy encounter with the Labour peer Michael Levy, a patron of the Jewish Free School in north London, where Glasman studied before going on to St Catharine's College, Cambridge, to read modern history. He is far more comfortable joshing with catering staff and porters as we try to find our way through a labyrinth of narrow passages to the terrace of the Palace of Westminster, where he wants to smoke a roll-up.

Once we're settled at a table overlooking the Thames, Glasman tells me about the reaction of his "working-class" family members, his students and the "secretaries at work" to his ennoblement. "There were tears of joy and a sense that this was a recognition of a life's work that they are connected to." But from his "middle-class" family and colleagues, "There was just a sneery: 'Oh, this must have been a very difficult decision for you.'"

The loathing that his colleagues displayed for the institution into which Glasman had just been inducted is typical, he says, of a political "rationalism that I think is completely unreasonable". It is contemptuous of inherited institutions and regards tradition as "synonymous with conservatism". This attitude drove the constitutional hyperactivity of the early New Labour years, the legacy of which is, Glasman thinks, an unresolved "question of England". "There is a political void where England should be," he has written. "While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy devolved government, the English do not govern themselves."

Glasman's critique of the botched constitutional settlement that New Labour left behind is part of a much bigger story he tells about an English political tradition that the left has ignored for too long. What he calls "Blue Labour" ("blue" because it stresses a conservative strain in Labour ideology) is about getting the party to see that it belongs in a long "national tradition of resistance" to various forms of domination, from the Norman conquest, through the enclosures, to the Industrial Revolution.

By this account, the Labour Party's commitment to "parliamentary socialism" is not, as the Milibands' Marxist theorist father, Ralph, maintained, an aberration or wrong turn, but rather its very essence. Glasman has emphasised Labour's historic "attachment to the language and sensibility of the politics of the common good and [its] commitment to a central role for the inherited institutions of governance that represented the interests of what used to be known as 'the commons'".

“England was alone in Europe," he tells me, "in that we didn't go for the sovereign will on the one side, nor the divine right of kings on the other, but, in essence, resisted the Norman conquest through an assertion of both liberty and tradition. I see Labour as the embodiment of that tradition in modern times."

If the mention of "liberty" and "tradition" evokes Edmund Burke as much as it does Ernest Bevin, that is no accident. The historian and former Labour MP David Marquand remembers the first time he met Glasman. "It was at a talk I gave about Burke. There was a debate between me and Anthony Barnett, who was saying all sorts of anti-Burke things. Glasman waded in very powerfully on my side of the argument." Some liberal commentators have ridiculed Glasman's eulogies to Burke and his fondness for Tudor statecraft, suggesting that there is something unworldly about his vision of merrie England. It is not immediately obvious what purchase such ideas could have on a world in which, as the Times columnist David Aaronovitch puts it, "People . . . have a power they enjoy using - to decide for themselves what shower gel to use, where to go on holiday and . . . where to live and work."

But Glasman would say that liberals routinely overestimate people's ability to choose where to live and work and that, at the same time, they downplay the corrosive effects that a flexible labour market can have on settled ways of life. Here, he borrows from the work of the Hungarian political theorist Karl Polanyi, who argued that the labour movement emerged in the 19th century as a form of "social defence" against the dislocations that accompanied the development of a "self-regulating market".

In the last two decades of the 20th century, the institutions that had been erected as checks on the market atrophied, where they did not wither away altogether. While in government, first under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, Labour did nothing to stop that process. "Both Blair and Brown," Glasman says, "signed up to a capitalist-progressive form of globalisation, in which working-class people were the biggest enemies of change.

“The irony of it was that there was no signi­ficant private-sector growth. Instead, we got all of the pathologies of globalisation: endless churn, disconnection, and so on."

Just deserts

Glasman qualifies his assessment of the New Labour years. "Where Blair will always be superior to Brown is that he didn't accept that the welfare state was OK as it stood. The paternalistic money transfer to the poor as long as they stayed in their place - he didn't accept that. Brown [had] an uncritical approach to the market and the state. At least Blair had some critical views of the state, though an uncritical view of the market."

James Purnell, who got to know Glasman after resigning from the cabinet in June 2009, says that a significant chunk of the Labour Party membership was "completely in tune with New Labour on poverty, on welfare and on work. But it was more sceptical of Tony Blair on globalisation. Maurice is that tradition made flesh." This is a direction in which Ed Miliband may be less willing to follow, however - for, as well as emphasising the values of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity, Glasman gives the notion of just deserts a prominence that it has not previously had.

Debates on the centre left about redistributive questions have been dominated in recent years by a conception of justice as "fairness" - a conception derived from the work of the American political philosopher John Rawls. But as Purnell points out: "At its most simplistic, the Rawlsian theory would say that even our ability to put in a shift is morally neutral. There is something about [this] view that abstracts from the reality that some people work hard and some people don't. And if you don't recognise that, you are leaving out something that is not only popular with the electorate but is key to our moral vision."

Marquand concurs and observes that, for all the talk of love and friendship, this is not a particularly "soft-hearted" tradition. "There is an element in all this," he suggests, "that chimes with the Victorian idea of the deserving and undeserving poor." It is not clear that Miliband would be comfortable with such a muscular outlook. But, in any case, Glasman is under no illusions about how far his writ with the Labour leader runs. "There's no way on earth that this is going to come out as a Blue Labour agenda. But that's not the point. The point is that we are part of a project with some intellectual energy and I'm really interested to see how it moves."

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?

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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