Prime Minister Theresa May has good news: she has appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness. “For far too many people,” she explained this week, “loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”
Indeed, the statistics she cites are alarming. More than 9 million people in the UK always or often feel lonely. Around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. More than one in 10 men are lonely, but would never admit it.
Following recommendations from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, the PM asked the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Crouch (pictured), to “[drive] action on loneliness across all parts of government”, create a cross-government strategy on loneliness, develop evidence-based strategies on combatting loneliness, and establish appropriate indicators of loneliness.
Bureaucrats wallow in forming committees, writing reports and gathering statistics. But there’s something Monty Python-esque about bureaucrats turning off their computers to hold hands with the Eleanor Rigbys of this world. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the eleven most terrifying words in the English language must surely be: I'm from the government and I'm here to keep you company.
But the British government seems grimly determined to jolly its citizens up. Rachel Reeves, a Member of Parliament who co-chaired the Commission on Loneliness, even envisages a new kind of welfare state which doles out less money and more hugs:
Our welfare system is stretched to the limits and too many people have been pushed to theirs after years of austerity. But, as well as more money, we need a new kind of welfare system that acts as a convener bringing people together to help them help themselves.
Can you imagine the horror of opening your door to the rictus smile of Boris Johnson –of Jeremy Corbyn?! – and having to spend the rest of the afternoon reaching out to him and his minders?
Not that loneliness isn’t a substantial social issue. The former US Surgeon-General, Vivek Murthy, wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review that “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”
Loneliness reduces life span as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; it is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.
And – the bureaucrats insistently point out– loneliness is a drag on the economy. According the UK’s Commission on Loneliness, it costs UK employers £2.5 billion per year. And £1 invested in tackling loneliness has a good return on investment of £1.26.
Will this work? Could it possibly work?
Only if the government knows what causes the so-called epidemic of loneliness. The evidence is there. More and more people are living alone; suicide rates seem to be rising; social media allows people to live lives of hyper-connected isolation.
Ms Reeves offered wide range of explanations. How we work. Decline in trade unions. Decline in the local pub. Insecurity. Families living apart. The internet. Poverty. Disability. Working at home. Nursing homes. Globalisation. Inequality. Technology. The market economy…
In short, she’s baffled – just like Theresa May and Vivek Murthy.
Why haven’t any of them highlighted the obvious cause: the decline of close, loving, committed families? As far as human relationships go, the two most powerful social changes of the past half-century have been the rise in divorce rates and the decline in marriage rates. Families have shrunk and splintered into isolated fragments. No wonder social isolation and loneliness are increasing.
It is impossible to imagine a government strategy to combat the social pathologies associated with loneliness without a parallel plan to strengthen the family. However many cups of lukewarm tea the Minister for Loneliness sips with her constituents, she will never blow all the blues away. She can’t; she’s not family; she’s not even a friend.
Of course, there are dysfunctional families and not everyone without a close family is lonely. But a government policy which seeks to crack the conundrum of loneliness without strengthening the bonds of the nuclear family is doomed to failure.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.