For five years, 12 UK government ministers have quietly been meeting every six months to talk about loneliness. These aren’t group therapy sessions, but they could be. MPs are known to seek out Stuart Andrew – who has convened the group since he was appointed minister for loneliness in September 2022 – and open up about their own loneliness. He has an agony-uncle reputation, and bakes sausage rolls and sticky toffee cake for colleagues.
“MPs are human beings and the majority are desperately trying their best for their constituents. The sacrifice that sometimes brings can bring about loneliness,” he told me when we met in his office on the first floor of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, overlooked by Big Ben.
The 12 ministers – from corners of Whitehall as varied as the Department for Transport, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and the Ministry of Justice – gather around the boardroom table in the office, which also features a yellow sofa, a stately pair of Union Jack and Pride flags, and pigeon-grey courtyard views. Officials from the departments meet more regularly to keep up the conversation.
“Loneliness is discussed a lot in government,” said Andrew, 52, relaxing into the sofa with a stats-stuffed folder beside him. “Whenever we’re talking about policy, loneliness is a factor that has to be considered, and we put key tasks to each department to think about what measures might help tackle loneliness in the development of each policy.”
Loneliness has reached pandemic levels. Nearly a quarter of adults across 142 countries reported feeling lonely in a global Meta-Gallup survey published last October. Social isolation can have life-shortening effects akin to smoking and obesity, the World Health Organisation warns. Britain is not immune. Twenty-eight per cent of UK adults told the Office for National Statistics (ONS) they feel lonely “often”, “always” or “some of the time” in the latest survey in December.
The problem isn’t fully understood, but seems to afflict wealthier countries. Experts cite online lifestyles, the tendency to move more often for education or work, longer lifespans and delayed milestones (owning a home, starting a family, retirement) as possible factors.
Six years ago, Britain was the first country to launch a loneliness strategy. In January 2018 the Theresa May administration tasked the ONS with developing national indicators to measure loneliness levels. Later that year, it appointed what was then the world’s only loneliness minister (the United Arab Emirates had a “minister for happiness”, but apparently the title was deemed too much for a cynical British public to swallow). Other countries, including Japan, have followed.
This commitment – so uncharacteristic of a Tory government flailing from one priority to the next after the Brexit vote – was the legacy of tragedy. It was inspired by Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered in 2016 who had been focusing on tackling loneliness. Whitehall officials, seldom sympathetic towards their ministerial masters, praise the agenda as a rare example of decent cross-governmental work. Its measures are still playing out; last year, for example, GPs were compelled to include “social prescribing” in their practice – directing patients to non-clinical activities such as art classes and gardening clubs.
Stuart Andrew is the UK’s fourth loneliness minister. With his “Keep Calm and Carry On” cufflinks, tidy silver short-back-and-sides, and paisley tie, he is the embodiment of an affable Tory junior minister. But he’s a rather unusual soul in today’s Conservative coalition of Wykehamists and wannabe Little Englanders: a liberal who defied Fifa – and the then foreign secretary, James Cleverly – by wearing a rainbow armband at the World Cup in Qatar; an ex-Conservative councillor who defected to Labour from 1998 to 2000 because of his former party’s attitude to gay rights. (He had come out on Newsnight, which “didn’t go down particularly well. The party was not in a good place on those issues – I couldn’t cope so I left.”)
Raised on a council estate by his father, a welder, and mother, who worked in a newsagent, Andrew grew up gay in rural 1980s Anglesey. This was his first experience of loneliness: he felt “totally isolated” in his mid-teens. “I felt withdrawn. I was trying to hide it, that feeling, because I didn’t want to admit why I was feeling lonely. I was struggling with it on my own.”
After leaving school he took a job at the Department of Social Security, before going on to work in hospice care, specialising in fundraising. In 2010 he won the seat of Pudsey in West Yorkshire from Labour and headed to parliament. Again, he felt lonely; he was thrown overnight into an unfamiliar city and social scene. “A part of me thought, ‘I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing…’ Parliament is a very busy place. You can be surrounded by so many people but still feel isolated.”
Much like the stigmatised feeling of loneliness itself, the government’s six-year strategy is little discussed. An Economist report in August 2023 mixed up Andrew’s first and last name throughout. It fell to the New York Times, concerned about isolation in working-class America, to notice in a September 2023 piece that Britain was something of a pioneer.
But Andrew’s work doesn’t seem yet to have made a measurable difference. A 2017-18 government survey, conducted before the first loneliness minister was appointed, found 6 per cent of adults “often” or “always” reported feeling lonely. The latest figure, from December 2023, is 7 per cent.
Andrew argued that the department’s key achievement so far was “improving understanding”: the discovery that younger people feel lonelier than older generations, for example, and women lonelier than men. Rural areas are not necessarily lonelier than towns and cities; deprivation is more of a factor than population density (which is why his department is spending £19m on community projects, such as intergenerational befriending services, in the 27 poorest parts of England).
But in 2010, the year Andrew was elected, his party began cutting local bulwarks against loneliness: libraries, leisure centres, youth clubs, playing fields, Sure Start children’s services, charity contracts. David Cameron’s “Big Society” shrivelled on arrival. Andrew voted through every austerity budget.
“Tough decisions had to be made,” he said. But, given his experience in hospices, he felt torn. “I see it from two angles… I’ve got a responsibility as an MP to make sure our public finances are sound, but equally I do see the challenges. I experienced it myself in the charity sector and it was really, really challenging – there were certain times economically when donations would drop the moment demand was going up.”
Another dilemma for Andrew, who is also a minister for equalities, is trans rights. A patron of LGBT+ Conservatives, he is “passionate” about supporting gay and trans people – among the loneliest demographics, as studies in a number of countries have shown. Are his colleagues – Kemi Badenoch has condemned “gender ideology” and Rishi Sunak insisted “a man is a man and a woman is a woman” – creating a hostile environment like the one he endured as an out gay Tory in the 1990s?
“It’s become such a toxic argument that we need to have a calm approach. When we’re talking about trans people, we’re talking about people, individuals,” Andrew warned. “I absolutely acknowledge there are some really challenging questions… but the best debates I’ve had are when opposing sides have talked about it in a thoughtful and respectful manner. We need to see a bit more of that.
“I don’t think it’s just the Conservative Party. I think wider society is struggling with how to answer some really complex questions in this space.”
[See also: Susan Hall: “I’m not what you think I am”]
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously