A Minister…for Loneliness?

Following a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, revealing that more than 9 million people in the UK reported feelings lonely, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Tracey Couch as the new Minister of Loneliness on 17 January 2018. At first glance, it is easy to be impressed or pleasantly taken aback – the UK government is making a concerted attempt to tackle such a modern issue that is plaguing millions! Yet, in my honest opinion, a much closer look into the issue is required.

What could be the problems?

In the Late Show with Stephen Colbert on 20 January, he addressed the issue in his usual satirical, slightly exaggerated and inappropriate humour that nonetheless highlights many profound issues.

9 million suffering from loneliness?

He asks “How’d they get that statistic? How do you find out there’re nine million people feel that way?” That is a legitimate and curious question. As with matters of mental illnesses, the victims suffering from loneliness and depression alike may refuse diagnosis. On the other hand, unlike clinical depression, which has been medically recognised, loneliness has yet to be considered an illness. According to a study by MIT called ‘The Study of Loneliness’, loneliness is recognised as a description for a variety of emotions. It can refer to “a not at all disagreeable condition in which a sense of one’s separateness offers “a way back to oneself””. In other words, because the 2017 report’s standard for loneliness is unclear, does that mean that an introvert simply recharging from social exhaustion can be considered a lonely person?

That report was conducted in good faith, yet, can we really rely on its findings?

Appointing a Minister?

In the study of public law in the UK, one of the greatest controversies has always been the issue of “scrutiny”, i.e. the close examination and investigation of government action by both the parliament and the courts. Former Labour MP, Robin Cook, once said, ‘Good scrutiny makes for good government’. One of the reasons for this fundamental constitutional idea is the partisan nature of the UK government – it is elected via a majoritarian system and disproportionately favours the dominance of a single party. This allows issues to become politicised – non-political matters have a political element forced into them to present the government of the day in a better light.

Every Minister has their own political affiliation, regardless of whether their ministerial role is a partisan issue. Just turn your eyes to how healthcare has become such a controversial issue in the US, even though healthcare is often considered a basic human right. Similarly, by bringing the matter of loneliness into the sphere of government control, not only do you allow it to become trivialised and side-lined by party politics, it also becomes more inefficient. By allowing direct ministerial oversight of such a human issue, you add unnecessary elements of bureaucracy to it. As Stephen Colbert puts it, “This is so British. They’ve identified the most ineffable human problem and came up with the [coldest] bureaucratic solution.”

When taken together…

A lack of clarity regarding the standards of loneliness, with a nice hint (or should I say, overwhelming taste) of politicisation is a recipe for disaster. Stephen Colbert joking suggests a possible scenario – “The ministry has reviewed your application and you are not lonely enough I’m afraid. Your application for affection has been denied.” Loneliness has yet to be clearly defined. By allowing the government to have a say in it is, frankly, outrageous. Are they now qualified to determine whether you meet their standards of loneliness to require help? Even if they recognise their lack of jurisdiction in making such judgements, it brings the age-old issue that used to plague depression into loneliness – should the individual not be the best judge of their own emotional and mental states?

A more alarming speculation

Anyone who has involved themselves in politics long enough have either adopted or heard of the cynical view: the government is just distracting you from more immediate problems. That, or they have some evil ulterior motives. Certainly, one can see this entire Minister of Loneliness ordeal as an attempt to draw pressure away from Brexit. It certainly is not drawing attention away, as the New York Times notes, “Since Britain voted to leave the European Union more than a year ago, Europeans have mockingly said that the decision will result in an isolated, lonely island nation.” It can thus be seen as a response, rather than a diversion.

A much more alarming possibility emerged as I stumbled upon a study on the Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology journal named “Social isolation, loneliness and depression in young adulthood: a behavioural genetic analysis”. On part of the research aims “[t]o investigate the association between social isolation and loneliness”. This brought me to another journal – Crime, Law and Social Change – which had an article titled “The war on street ‘terror’. Why tackle anti-social behaviour?” It may seem like a stretch and a grossly unjustified accusation to suggest that the UK government is using the Minister of Loneliness as a disguise for security purposes – i.e. to root out individuals with loneliness/antisocial behaviour, and investigate them for suspected terrorist activities. Yet, one would recall a certain piece of legislation passed in 2014 called the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act.

Antisocial behaviour in the 2014 Act refers to having caused or like to cause “harassment, alarm or distress” and “causing nuisance or annoyance” in residential settings. Given that (i) the UK has recently linked antisocial behaviour to crime, and (ii) the surge in terrorist concerns, it is definitely not a stretch to at least consider this a possibility.

Why so harsh?

At this point, it would be reasonable to accuse me of having no positive reaction to the appointment of the Minister of Loneliness. It would then come as a surprise that I do not wholly dismiss the entire process. The 2017 report was born of good and noble humanitarian intentions and should be further developed on. Yet, letting the government dip its fingers into the matter was the mistake. If public policy was the inevitable end, then loneliness should first attain specified standards of diagnosis and social recognition as either a mental illness or personality disorder.

However, that too is problematic. We already have Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) as a recognised personality disorder, so where does loneliness lie relative to that? If APD is the upper limit, what is the lower limit? It is common sense that an introvert taking time out for himself/herself is not problematic. If so, then what exactly is loneliness?

Before those questions can be answered, allowing an executive, governmental, ministerial decision like the appointment of a Minister of Loneliness is very likely to yield disastrous consequences.

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