This month as part of a UK government reshuffle, much lauded as being a significant repositioning of people in seats around the cabinet table, but which ended up being nothing more than a slight bum squeak of arse on leather, Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch to the newly appointed post of Minister for Loneliness. The announcement left us with Harry Potter inspired images of a gothic Ministry for Loneliness located on the windswept desolate north Yorkshire moors, with a Boris-come-uncle fester type concierge on the door. The fact that someone was appointed to this newly created post was never the issue – we have a modern epidemic of loneliness whose consequences and effects can be measured in terms of cigarettes per day, obesity and diabetes – but the question of why now hasn’t fully been answered, nor to be honest, fully asked. Of course, setting aside the question as to whether she is really there to promote more loneliness or to try and combat it, the creation of this role has more than a dystopian edge to it. Stewart Dakers, in his Guardian column on the 23 January 2018, notes that loneliness is a lifestyle issue some 30 years or so in the making built on consumer materialism, the politics of envy and a political discourse that has sold off the community centre, public parks and closed down libraries and swimming pools. Neatly labelling this diet of political narrative as the ‘pathogens of loneliness’, Dakers leaves us asking whether the peddlers of the causes of loneliness can really become the architects of its renewal. Has Lex Luther or the Joker seen the errors of their way, and become the new gamekeepers? We doubt it.
The age of austerity has pushed the very people who made use of the community centre, the library and the public park as a means of meeting other people, back into their homes. They have drawn the curtains, locked the doors and sealed up the letterbox, denying them the oxygen of community that we all need in order to feel valued, useful, wanted. It has created a sub-strata of the forgotten, people that don’t matter in any significant political, social or economic way, mainly older, disabled, or unemployed.
The attention towards the lonely and forgotten is not due to benevolence or a damascene conversion. It is part of a desire to take greater control of community–based, and sometimes led, initiatives that are changing the face of health and social care services up and down the country. These services attempt to fundamentally change our understanding of personalisation, and the care experience. Building on the notion of greater self-management, they utilise the idea of community circles – building networks of relationships between people to sustain and support each of us. Thus the lonely and forgotten, become an essential element in a new economic and political narrative that seeks to harness them, to become a new army of volunteers in a newly identified health and social care infirmary – the public space. Each of us become more responsible for our own needs, and the needs of others.
In part the rediscovery of community as a place to have our needs met is a good thing. It should act to build bonds, reduce isolation and loneliness. It is the potential replacement of better funded public services staffed by professionals that gives us cause for concern, and the opportunity for it to act as a panoptican where each of us are the watcher and watched, that provides more than a shiver down our spines.