Clowns to the Left of me, jokers to the Right

Craig Berry

Image © The Prime Minister's Office

In 2010 David Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to measuring levels of happiness. There’s more to life than money, he argued. Accordingly, the Office for National Statistics included four questions on ‘subjective well-being’ in the Annual Population survey for the first time in April 2011.

This is the sound of the Conservative Party moving away, albeit very tentatively, from neoliberalism. The economic downturn has not altered but reinforced Cameron’s point of view on this. His support for measuring happiness, alongside GDP, derives instead from his profound commitment to conservative ideology.

As New Labour’s ‘accommodation’ to neoliberalism and the Thatcher legacy became stronger rather than weaker – contrary to early promises – Cameron carved a space for himself in promoting traditional English values in contrast to Labour’s fanatical modernisation.

It would be easy, and not unjustifiable, for the left to be cynical about what the government is doing. But the left’s bêtes noires of recent decades, the neoliberals, are also cynical, and in some cases incensed – see for example Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod’s research for the free market think-tank Institute of Economic Affairs. And take another look at the speech on happiness Cameron gave in November 2010. He contrasts the pursuit of happiness in public policy with three shining examples of a neoliberal agenda in action: immigration, cheap booze, and consumerism.

This does not mean there is not a major flaw in the government’s thinking. In terms of measuring social progress, the effectiveness of happiness measures are undermined by the fact that, as Johns and Ormerod point out, people always say seven. The ONS asked people ‘how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’, ‘to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’, and ‘how happy did you feel yesterday?’; across all three questions, three-quarters of people said seven out of ten. (When the question was posed in more negative terms, that is ‘how anxious did you feel yesterday?’, the vast majority said three out of ten.)

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