Gross National Unhappiness

Sarkozy and Stiglitz say we should measure well-being instead of GDP. Bhutan shows how it can all go

Who could be against defining a nation's success by its level of happiness? Much more feel-good than grubby old GDP, especially in times when there's less of the P to go around. This is what President Sarkozy of France is now urging, after taking delivery of a report by two Nobel Prize-winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen.

But the auguries are not good. The country that famously already runs on these lines, Bhutan, is far from happy. In fact, as this report in the Independent shows, it has recently been suffering a spate of suicides.

The more obvious objection, however, is just how woolly Gross National Happiness is as a measure. Who decides what counts as happiness, and what happens when one person's pleasure causes another's pain? This applies in numerous ways to religion. Just the other night I was watching Sepet, a film by the much-missed Malaysian film director Yasmin Ahmad, in which Orked, the Malay female lead, meets her Chinese boyfriend in a cafe. As she passes the chef chopping up crispy pork, poor Orked looks as if she's been stung by a wasp. She's a Muslim, he's Taoist. An essential pleasure for him is anathema to her. More generally, any kind of felicific calculus, as Jeremy Bentham titled his formula for quantifying pain and pleasure, is going to have problems recognising the value of actions and experiences relating to religion or, for that matter, attacks on religion.

Much as utilitarianism appeals, I've found it difficult to take these attempts to weave it into governmental programmes seriously since going to a talk that our own "happiness tsar", Richard Layard, gave at the Palace of Westminster. When I raised the question of how elitism and higher pleasures fitted in with his theories, he gave me a very cold look. Enough said. Any attempt to enliven the "dismal science", as Carlyle called economics, is to be welcomed. But discussions of happiness all too often start off vague and swiftly head towards vacuity.

Let's see how much we hear about Sarkozy's grand new plan a few months down the line.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.