Millions of years ago, in 1999, a fresh-faced Tony Blair said that he wanted to achieve “a better quality of life”. His proposed solution consisted of: “That is why sustainable development is such an important part of this government’s programme…and devising new ways of assessing how we are doing.” While environmental concerns are important, and while methodology does matter, as social analysis this left something to be desired.
In 2002, there was a government “life satisfaction” seminar, which led to an unofficial “analytical paper” filled with that inimitable, abominable New Labour mixture of management-speak and aggrievedness, which advocated “a happiness index”, “teaching people about happiness”, “more support through volunteering”, “a more measured work-life balance” and – surprise, surprise – further taxation of the wealthy.
No-one can doubt that happiness is important. Too many of Britain’s streets are gloomy, ugly and suspicious avenues, populated by a shuffling, scruffy mass who look almost as if they are living through some terrible catastrophe. We live in a society woefully lacking in public expressions of confidence and joie de vivre. Every aspect of life seems filled with quiet hopelessness, and a secret sadness.
‘Happiness’ pundits say that we are unhappy partly because we are made to feel inadequate by glossy advertising, because money is unevenly distributed, because we have long journeys to work, because we eat badly and don’t take enough exercise. There is something in what they say. It certainly would not do any harm if we were exposed to fewer advertisements of the sort that make children demand (and usually get) the latest trainers, if more people were a little richer, if we didn’t need to spend so much time travelling (and could thereby spend more time with family and friends) and if we ate fewer junk foods. And perhaps, as has also been suggested, some people would benefit if the NHS were to expend more time and resources on improving people’s satisfaction levels.
The happiness theorists take a tentative step into political incorrectness, by realizing that marriage is beneficial for individuals (and so society), adding to levels of satisfaction and even life expectancy. As the 2002 “analytical paper” was co-written by one of Tony Blair’s chief advisers, perhaps some of this kind of thinking might even find its way into government policy some day.
David Cameron is surfing the well-being wave too, telling the Google Zeitgeist Conference in 2006 that “Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships… politicians should be saying to themselves ‘how are we going to try and make sure that we don't just make people better off but we make people happier, we make communities more stable, we make society more cohesive’.” (quoted on bbc.co.uk, 22 May 2006).
We should applaud examination of the causes of unhappiness. But all these pundits aren’t cutting deeply enough. For people who say (correctly) that economics is not enough, many of their suggested improvements are themselves highly reductive.
The chief reason for unhappiness is, of course, the loss of religious faith. When God is removed from the cosmos, then many things automatically become existentially pointless, and the cruel, freakish, random nature of the universe is made brutally apparent. As the causes of this lie outside politics (and even beyond the established church) we must absolve the politicians of blame for this phenomenon.
And as an agnostic (albeit a pro-Christian one), I am myself a part of the problem, and it would be hypocritical of me to advocate what I do not believe myself. But there are things that politicians could do today to make Britain happier, if only they had the courage and the vision.
For instance, one of the deeper reasons that Britain is unhappy is because so many parts of it are plain ugly. While modern architecture is improving, there are still huge swathes of Britain that are dominated by 1960s tower blocks, 1970s shopping precincts filled with the same shops, bungalows and caravan parks and houses with PVC windows, industrial estates, ring roads and motorways. “To love your country,” said Edmund Burke, “your country must be beautiful”. But who could love Stevenage, or Cumbernauld, or Corby, or Croydon? David Cameron is right to select this as a major cause of unhappiness. More sensitive (and streamlined) planning controls would, in time, make a massive difference to Britain’s landscapes, and accordingly Britons’ happiness.
But society is ugly too. What else could we expect in a country whose ruling class includes John Prescott, Piers Morgan and Jordan? Who could love the Britain of the Sun and the Mirror, of football hooligans, of lachrymose social workers and whining teachers, of late-night vomitings and back-alley stabbings, and fag-smoking 13 year old mothers-to-be? David Cameron famously, fatuously said that “I love the Britain we have today” – but he is a member of a small and shrinking minority. It is less clear what could be done to alleviate this sickness of the soul, but statesmanlike politicians could, at least in theory, start to arrest the rot, one social sector at a time, through judicious financial and welfare reforms.
Another reason for unhappiness is that Britain simply has too many people – with more arriving all the time. It is difficult to avoid feeling that Britain is suffering from “crowding stress” – the phenomenon that occurs in overcrowded rabbit burrows, where there is constant fighting over space, mates and food, and the does re-absorb their litters rather than bear them into a world where room and nutrition cannot be guaranteed. In modern Britain, there are simply too many houses, too many roads, too many cars, too long queues for doctors and dentists, too much pollution and too much noise.
Another reason may be the relatively small proportion of Britain’s population that is under 25. Young people are naturally ebullient, whereas older people are more likely to be querulous and obsessed by comfort. More old people equals more grumpiness.
A deeper possible reason is simultaneously the most widely discussed and the least addressed – the vast chasm between rulers and ruled. This really is the fault of politicians, who claim to respect the vox populi, but who really push their own agendas – on everything from capital punishment to immigration. They say grandly when challenged that they are representatives rather than delegates; when one surveys the mess of modern Britain, perhaps we would be better off if it was the other way around. Whatever they say to get into office, when they get there the majority of elected representatives from the big parties ‘go native’. Even sincere politicians get sidetracked, and most simply disappear into a corrupted machine that tolerates crime and anti-social behaviour, that cedes more and more powers to the EU, that allows the British industrial base to continue shrinking, that presides over the dumbing-down of schools and the arts, and which permits the continued immigration of hundreds of thousands of ‘new Britons’ every year.
We live in a Britain in which there is no longer any common purpose, in which there are no common values, in which there is no long-term thinking, and which sees no permanence in anything. More and more Britons are rootless, bootless and fruitless – and are being simply crowded out of existence in the land they have occupied for millennia through uncontrolled globalisation, uncontrolled immigration, post-civilized post-modernism and punitive taxation.
More and more Britons have no faith in God, no faith in Man, and no faith in the institutions of their country. All this becomes a vicious circle of faithlessness breeding yet more faithlessness. Is it so surprising that so many people don’t get involved in politics, or even read newspapers or bother to vote – or that so many others simply leave for ever, to search for some meaning in Malaga that they could not find in Manchester? It is small wonder that the people of Britain when viewed en masse look rather like a defeated army. Could they be anything other than profoundly unhappy in the circumstances? What I – and many, many others – would like to know is who will be able to make us feel good about ourselves again.
- Mike Smith
- Mike Smith, is Chairman of the Conservative Democratic Alliance (CDA). He was formerly on the Executive Council of the Conservative Monday Club. He is a Chartered Surveyor. Distinguished members of Mr Keith-Smith's family include James Keith, the legendary Prussian Field-Marshal, and his brother George Keith, hereditary Earl Marischal of Scotland and friend of Frederick the Great. Through his paternal grandmother he is descended from Frederick Philipse, Dutch-born merchant of New Amsterdam. Distinguished members of the family who subsequently made their life in England included General Sir Frederick Philipse Robinson. Smith was a member of the Conservative Party for 32 years, attaining area rank and serving for several years as Vice-Chairman of Portsmouth South Conservatives. In 2002 he was expelled from the party for attacking Iain Duncan Smith in print. Challenging this unlawful expulsion with a writ, he was readmitted and his costs paid by Central Office. In the 2005 General Election he stood as the UKIP candidate for Portsmouth North. Smith recently won a major test case for libel over the internet against a former schoolteacher.