Graeme Archer: Loneliness should worry us. It should worry our politicians.
This is a shorterned version of Graeme Archer's contribution to a new collection of essays put together by Bright Blue, entitled Tory Modernisation 2.0.
Peter Hoskin will review the collection on ConservativeHome tomorrow.
Follow BrightBlue on Twitter.
Wondering how to frame this piece, how to marshal the argument that I want to make – that we are in danger of becoming fragmented, collectively and individually – I implemented the strategy that I usually adopt in such circumstances. I went to the cafe that lies halfway between our flat and Brighton pier, bought a cup of tea, and sat and looked out at the sea.
Between the cafe and the ocean is Madeira Drive, lined with benches, and dotted with holiday-makers that August morning. On the bench directly in front of me sat a man, iPod earplugs inserted, swigging from a maxi-sized bottle of coke, and, in between gulps, bellowing the words of whatever song he was listening to.
At first he seemed harmless, possibly even amusing – this town doesn't lack eccentrics. As the minutes passed, however, and his shouting escalated into loud shrieks of fury, and pedestrians made ever larger swerves to avoid him, the true state of his isolation, and of his madness, became clear.
This vision of Britain's future – anonymous solitude, punctuated by great shouts of impotent fury – is the one that worries me the most. Is it plausible? And how might it be avoided?
The shortest average time for two people to find one another, if they become separated in, say, a supermarket (think of all those times you leave your partner fussing over a choice of onions, with a curt "I'm going for the cat food", only to return and find him gone, because even Waitrose's allium selection isn’t inexhaustibly fascinating), is for both of them to keep moving. Not systematically ("I'll check the meat aisle first"), but at random.
This works everywhere, not just in supermarkets. Remember the time before you met your other half, when “checking out” had both a more salacious and a more important meaning than the act of paying for onions. How did you meet?
We're like grains of salt in a souvenir of Blackpool Tower. The best hope for two grains to bump into one another is for the vessel which contains them to be given a good shake. So why, when there are more grains of salt in the UK than ever, are more of us living alone, with a particular rise (36% in the last decade) for the middle-aged? More people don’t marry, and more marriages end in divorce.
Most people aren't Colm Toibin, the Irish writer who eulogises his single state as that of a "cloistered nun". Epidemiological evidence suggests that living alone can be a predictor of poorer psychological outcomes: people who live alone are at greater risk of ill-health, and the life choices which lead to it.
Culture reflects the reality of its human substrate; so is it a coincidence that a rise in solitary living is contemporaneous with new ways of working, new ways of interacting? Fewer factories and more home offices; fewer water-cooler moments with people you actually know and more virtual tweeting between strangers.
Few such people end up on a bench in Brighton, screaming their anger and pain at the sky. But loneliness, the gap between people, is the great undiscussed topic of the age. Its precursors – the rise of the broken home, the decline of those industries which defined the towns which housed their factories, the increased level of immigration – are politically important and deserve attention; but we forget, sometimes, that it’s the consequence of those phenomena that really matter.
The primary institution which acts as a bulwark against middle-aged solitude is marriage; one way to support marriage is to increase the proportion of the population we permit to join that institution.
So it is right that Conservatives should support the extension of state marriage to gay people. It is a perversion of Toryism to shut people out from the institution that most strongly supports the conservative value of non-state-dependent mutual inter-reliance between adults.
But gay people represent only a small proportion of potential UK couples. The biggest impact of policy on outcomes will be that which affects the heterosexual majority. It therefore beggars belief that there still exists a “couples’ penalty” in the benefits system: the financial cost (in terms of lost benefits) to setting up a household with your partner. The Centre for Social Justice calculated in 2009 that the group of people who faced the largest financial impact for living together were among the lowest earners. This shouldn't be acceptable for Conservatives.
This topic wouldn’t even be on the agenda without the pioneering anti-poverty work of Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary. His Universal Credit will begin to unwind this insidious penalty on stable relationships. The challenge for the next Tory administration will be take that work further. Parents who work and live together should never be worse-off than those who don’t work and who choose to live apart. When we tolerate a system that effectively taxes the poor for living together, why be surprised at the result? There are consequences of this for those children’s life chances – but the most immediate effect is to increase that pool of people who have to manage life alone.
If the quantity of loneliness is a function of “the gap between people”, as I said, then it’s worth contemplating what has exacerbated such distance at the community level. Possibly the most egregious example of this is identity politics, which has displaced socialism as the defining approach of Britain's Left to problems of community. Groups of people are defined on the basis of arbitrary characteristics (gender, race, religion etc), the "needs" of those groups are investigated, and policies are devised to meet those needs. The intended result is happiness, aka "cohesion".
The actual result is increased atomisation: if you tell someone that they do not belong to a particular group of humanity, and then instigate policies tailor-made to that group, do not be surprised if the excluded person begins to feel resentment. Do not wonder, either, if such a person extends his resentment to every example of the group from which he has been excluded.
Tory politics should be about externalisation, about facing outwards. The voluntary wings of our political parties are often maligned as "so last century". But if you want a good example of a group which, according to identity politics, should view itself as a seething mass of competing interests, but which has sublimated these in search of a common goal, then spend an evening canvassing with Bethnal Green's Conservatives. You'll find every race, religion, gender, orientation and age cohort, working together. You don't have to invest the lyrics of "Imagine" with the status of dogma. There is a practicable, Tory solution to a society too often fractured along its religious and ethnic lines.
Such conglomerations of common interest are the best alternative to identity politics: they act to draw diverse people together, rather than reinforcing their surface differences. That London, in our lifetime a left-leaning city, "gets this", was demonstrated at the last Mayoral election, with the defeat of perhaps the most calculating practitioner of identity politics in post-war Britain.
But outward-looking communities of interest won’t occur spontaneously: another Tory solution is required to encourage such behaviour. We need to shake up those salt-grains, to make it worthwhile to join together with others to fight for those common goals. In other words, increase the number of decision-making positions that are filled through election.
This started with the Police Commissioner elections in November 2012, but needs to be pushed further. That our system isn't perfect, that candidate selection is crying out for reform - open primaries, everywhere, now, please – should not blind us to the fact that the alternative of a public test of a theory's support, whether that theory relates to police priorities, education provision or health, is the imposition of one such theory by unelected, hidden officials. Forcing elections for the decision-making class is the only way to drag them into the light of day.
Leave the identity politics to Labour, obsessed with whether you're Bangladeshi, White-British, Orthodox Jewish, or whatever. The Tory solution for the mistrust we have fostered between people is to say: isn't it more important that we sort out the bus routes in the borough? Elect the guy in charge of transport policy, and watch as the inevitable competition to win that election aligns people who might otherwise pass a lifetime without being aware of just how much they've got in common with the folks who live next door. The ones they usually avoid.
I've outlined some data that hints at the atomised, lonely life too many of us face, the consequences of unwanted solitude, and the importance of supporting marriage. I've discussed the failings of the Left to bring us together through identity politics, (and in the book I discuss the potential dangers of social media as a replacement for traditional interactions), and how we might use the mechanism of increased elections to create spontaneous communities of interest. How does this fit together as a Tory vision for the future?
Because we can't go back, and even if we could return to some golden age, we'd like as not find it imperfect. In my life with Keith, we have a running joke. I'm so oddly out of joint with the time I live in, I often say how much I'd like to live in the 50s. You know: politeness on buses. Slow-moving traffic. Hats.
“Really?” asks Keith, eyebrow raised. “You think we'd be living like this? Even in Brighton?”
He's right, of course. He's always right, even about onions. So what sort of country are we trying to build? Where do you strike the balance between anarchic individualism, and stultifying conformity? Time for a swim.
Swimming is a good model for a Tory society because it's usually simultaneously individual – the stroke you choose is up to you - and collective – no one can swim as though they have the entire pool to themselves. If a handful of selfish individuals are tolerated, everyone's swim will suffer.
More encouragingly, it doesn't take much to make a swimming pool content: lanes to allow different average speeds, with the freedom to move between them as appropriate. Lifeguards to intervene in case of life-threatening occurrences, and if only we could elect the lifeguard, and the system for pool-policing he favours, so much the better.
But the real rules that make a good pool are those we bring ourselves. The mornings I speak to the neighbours in my lane – after you, no, you go first, oh thanks – are the mornings of the best swims. Simple human decency, born of non-anonymous interactions. We are unconcerned with the gender or religion of the other swimmer (there's only one pool, not separate ones for each religious or other "identity"), because we've come together with the same goal. And something almost mystical happens: caring for your immediate neighbour, the one you can reach out and touch, results in increased levels of contentment across the entire community of interest.
Why does any of this matter? Because, outside of supermarkets, couples will rarely check out together. About half of us, even if blessed with marriage, know that one day we’ll wake up alone.
No politics can change that. But we can devise policies that encourage individuals to sublimate themselves in the everyday causes that matter the most, to come together with their nearby swimmers – their neighbours – and to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. To do something more worthwhile than to sit alone on a bench, shouting angrily at the sea.