Britain’s Appointment of a “Minister of Loneliness” Is No Laughing Matter |


When it was reported, last week, that the British government had
appointed a “Minister for Loneliness,” the news was greeted by observers
on the opposite side of the Atlantic with fascination and a certain
amount of knowing humor. The title, Aimée Lutkin noted at Jezebel, might
denote “a character from an alternate Harry Potter timeline where
wizards battle ennui instead of snake magic.” Monty Python, which almost
fifty years ago parodied Whitehall officialdom with its “Ministry of
Silly Walks,” was invoked. Stephen Colbert, on his TV show, suggested
that “Minister for Loneliness” sounded like “a Victorian euphemism for
‘gigolo.’ ” (Actually, the Victorian euphemism for gigolo was
“Casanova,” but points for effort.) Colbert went on to riff upon the
comedic implications of the appointment. “This is so British,” he said.
“They’ve defined the most ineffable human problem and come up with the
most cold, bureaucratic solution.”

While one might take issue with Colbert’s grasp of broad transatlantic
national stereotypes—surely the nation best known for brisk bureaucratic
compensations for the deficiencies of human nature is Germany—his
performance of wonderment at Britain’s Minister of Loneliness is
understandable. In a country whose citizens are, according to tradition,
so buttoned up—so committed to the stiff upper lip, to the grinning and
bearing of it—the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness provides an
ironic counterpoint to the national caricature. If a country’s
prevailing temperament is one of congenital, chronic emotional
constipation, how would its inhabitants even recognize that they’re
lonely in the first place? The appointment seems to address an ill that
Britain can barely admit it is suffering from, as if the United States
government were to install a Secretary of Humility.

Of course, the more serious commentary would go on to explain,
loneliness is a real and diagnosable scourge. At the end of last year, a
government commission issued the
findings of a
twelve-month investigation into the prevalence of loneliness in the
U.K., conducted with the help of more than a dozen nonprofit
organizations. According to the report, nine million Britons suffer from
loneliness: fourteen per cent of the population. Among vulnerable
cohorts, the rates are much higher. In a survey of the well-being of
disabled Britons, half reported feelings of loneliness at least once a
day. More than a third of elderly people reported being overwhelmed by
loneliness. (This scourge is not limited to Britain: in Japan, elder loneliness is a recognized phenomenon.) The chief officer of Age UK, Mark Robinson,
warned that social isolation could be worse for a person’s health
than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Still, such isolation could be
relieved, the report suggested, by practices and programs that
cultivated conversation, friendship, and empathy: the founding of
community allotments where solitary folk might gather; or knock-on-door
initiatives, with volunteers targeting lonely souls.

It was less widely noted that the announcement of a new minister was, in
fact, mostly a clever public-relations move. The official in question,
Tracey Crouch, is Minister for Sport and Civil Society, and therefore
responsible for the government’s connections to charitable organizations
such as those which contributed to the “loneliness” report. (Crouch
works within the larger Department for Digital, Culture, Media and
Sport; the incongruous yoking together of these disparate spheres of
public life under one bureaucratic umbrella makes for a recurring joke
on the brilliant television satire, “W1A,” a show which might itself be
read as a meditation on the distinctive contours of British loneliness.)
As the minister responsible for civil society, a role to which she was
assigned last June, loneliness is effectively already within Crouch’s
portfolio, and the official announcement of her appointment included a
summary of initiatives underway to combat social isolation, including a
“pocket parks” program to transform unused outdoor areas into green
spaces where lonely adults can volunteer or simply congregate.

It comes as no great surprise to learn that the cure for loneliness
might involve a greater investment in shared institutions devoted to the
common good. But, as critics on the left pointed out, there
was a certain hypocrisy in the sudden attentiveness to the problem of
loneliness by Theresa May’s government, given her administration’s
established priorities. Funding for public libraries, which provide a
social lifeline for many solitary individuals, has been
with close to five hundred libraries having been closed under May and
her predecessor as Prime Minister, David Cameron. The Sure Start
program, comparable to the U.S. Head Start program, has been
gutted, a development hardly likely to help the more than fifty per cent of
parents who, according to the government’s own report, have suffered
from social isolation.

Taking care of an elderly or disabled relative, no less than taking care
of a child, can be a terribly lonely business: the report also notes
that eight out of ten caregivers have reported feelings of isolation as
a result of looking after a loved one. And yet ongoing
cuts in the social-services sector seem likely to produce far more
consequential effects upon the well-being of the needy and vulnerable
than can possibly be overcome by the actions of a Minister for
Loneliness. Crouch’s first order of business, according to the
announcement from Downing Street, will be to bring together government,
nonprofit, and business groups to “identify opportunities to tackle
loneliness, and build more integrated and resilient communities.” The
opportunity presented by not dismantling cherished and effective
social structures is unlikely to be up for consideration.

The real reason for the institutional and media attention given to the
announcement of Crouch’s new role is the provenance of the report: it
was published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. Jo Cox was the
member of Parliament who was brutally murdered in the streets of her
Yorkshire constituency in June, 2016, two weeks before the Brexit vote.
Cox, a Labour M.P., had been a vocal advocate of remaining in the
European Union; her killer, a local man in his fifties named Thomas Mair
who was later discovered to have neo-Nazi sympathies, was heard to cry
“Britain first” as he stabbed and shot her.

The social dangers presented by loneliness had been a concern for Cox,
and the commission, which was taken over by a bipartisan pair of
legislators, Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy, sought both to extend
Cox’s work and to commemorate her. That Mair was someone who fit
the loneliness profile—he lived alone, had no partner, and reportedly
shunned social contact—is only one of the tragic elements in a story
that has many. (Cox, who was forty-one, was the mother of two young
children.) A few years before killing Cox, Mair told a local newspaper
that the mental-health problems from which he had suffered had been
alleviated by getting out of the house and doing volunteer work. “I can
honestly say it has done me more good than all the psychotherapy and
medication in the world,” he was reported as saying in the Huddersfield
Daily Examiner.

At Mair’s sentencing, in November, 2016, Cox’s bereaved husband, Brendan
Cox, spoke movingly of her legacy, calling the killing, “An act designed
to silence a voice which instead had allowed millions of others to hear
it.” The murder—a shocking event, particularly in a country where gun
violence is almost nonexistent—did not, however, tip the balance with
regard to the issue over which Cox was killed. At the end of June,
Britons still voted marginally in favor of separating themselves from
the institutions of the European Union in a referendum. At the time, Nigel Farage,
then the leader of the right-wing UKIP party, celebrated a victory that
he said had been won “without a single bullet being fired,” displaying
considerable amnesia, or callousness, or both.

Mair killed Cox because he was a bigoted and hateful white supremacist,
not because he was lonely. It would be a facile conflation to suggest
that his murderousness was derived from his loneliness, any more than to
say that his case proves the inefficacy of community gardening as a
salve for friendlessness. Isolation does not necessarily breed
isolationism, and loneliness does not make people into killers. It
doesn’t even make them into Brexit supporters, although, given the
demographics—among voters aged sixty-five and over, two out of three
voted leave the E.U., as opposed to only one in five under the
age of twenty-six—it’s reasonable to assume some overlap.

And yet Mair’s separateness from society and his embrace of violence are
not entirely unrelated. The social conditions that allow loneliness to
proliferate—the decline of a commitment to the collective, the loosening
of ties and obligations to the community—are the same ones in which
invidious feelings about strangers can arise, and even lead to violent
acts against them. According to the commission’s loneliness report,
fifty-eight per cent of refugees and migrants in London say that
loneliness and isolation present the biggest challenges they face. It’s
hard to imagine that their sense of vulnerability has diminished since
the Brexit vote empowered a vocal repudiation of non-native Britons.

Meanwhile, the vote to leave the E.U. has already had consequences that,
it’s fair to hazard, will increase the anguish of lonely Britons,
particularly those whose health has suffered from the effects of social
isolation. A New York Times story from November laid out the
implications of the vote for Britain’s National Health Service, the
country’s most treasured public institution. Since the vote, ten
thousand health-care professionals who had migrated to the United
Kingdom from European countries to work in the N.H.S. have quit, and
applications from European nurses to work in the U.K. have declined by
almost ninety per cent. The Minister for Loneliness—who has declined to
reveal how she voted on Brexit—will have to build her “more integrated
and resilient communities” with a health service diminished by her
government’s policies.

Sturdy institutions aren’t everything: loneliness may be assuaged by
something as simple as a friendly word at the check-out counter from a
cashier empathetic enough to recognize its symptoms. (Be patient: the
chatty retiree holding up the line may be having his first conversation
in days.) The effort to carry on the work that Jo Cox started offers
some small compensation for her loss, and an indication, however paltry
and symbolic, that her death was not entirely in vain. For the British,
so accustomed to a cultural prohibition against making emotional
demands—mustn’t grumble!—the very existence of a Minster of Loneliness
may provide some kind of permission to the lonely. It may offer some
reassurance that they do, indeed, deserve to be ministered to.

Still, to imagine that a problem as damaging and pervasive as social
isolation can be remedied with ample good will and sufficient cups of
tea, rather than with a renewed commitment to the kind of institutions
that the government continues to undermine, is wishful thinking, as
baseless in its own way as the Brexit delusion of restored British
independence. Both depend upon fantasy: in the case of Brexit, that a
lost sovereignty can be regained without social cost; in the case of the
Loneliness Ministry, that a rupture in the social fabric can be repaired
on the cheap. Such a separation of costs and effects is impossible:
nothing, not even loneliness, happens in isolation.


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