David Cameron, happiness and delusion

Can you be happy without a home?

David Cameron may be a One Nation Tory, but what does his new index mean if people can't even get on the property ladder? (Let alone the rest)

When I was small, we used to have at home a mug which bore the words of an Irish blessing (or an Irish curse, as my mother used to call it).
It went as follows:

Health and long life to you,

A child every year to you,

Land without rent to you,

And may you die in Ireland.

In a country with a strong sense of history, where between 1603 and 1750 the percentage of land owned by Catholics went down from 90 per cent to around 7 per cent, there is resonance, or at least the pullstrings of memory, about that third line, "land without rent to you". If an Englishman's home was his castle, an Irishman's was his homestead, the possession of his own turf some safeguard of the means to raise produce for his family - for as the Potato Famine showed, the British government could not be relied upon to provide for its subjects in John Bull's other island (food was exported from Ireland even as the populace starved).

Land without rent is, however, a dream for the young in Britain today. And even a cramped flat in an undesirable suburb is going to be out of the question for years to come, according to a new survey by the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

Mortgages are unlikely to be easy to come by for first-time buyers -- ie without a hefty deposit of 25 per cent or so -- it reports, until 2020. It is not as though soaring property prices had not made it difficult enough already. In the early part of this decade, while working at the Independent, I remember colleagues only a few years younger than me looking despairingly at estate agents' websites, wondering if they would ever be able to afford anything within commuting distance of Docklands. (This, as well as the fact that pay, to an extent, and certainly freelance rates, in print journalism have dropped dramatically in real terms over the last 20 years, has had the perverse and unwelcome effect of making it increasingly a profession which only those who enjoy considerable parental support can enter.)

Prices may now be coming down, but the banks that got us into this mess in the first place are now penalising the rest of us for their foolishness, in all sorts of ways, including an unwillingness to lend to those who are thus forced to turn to rental - spending more money than they might on a mortgage but with no long-term investment in bricks and mortar in return. (For a superb analysis of how Ireland is being punished for the banks' mistakes, incidentally, I recommend Paul Krugman's "Eating the Irish" in the International Herald Tribune.)

On top of this, new graduates are even less likely to be able to raise the requisite deposit once they are saddled with further debts from tripled tuition fees.

This is just one of several contexts in which David Cameron's plan that we should think of our well-being in terms of a "happiness index" instead of GDP is particularly jarring. It may well be that there is something in the idea - President Sarkozy persuaded the Nobel Prize winners Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz to head his commission to examine it, while the term Gross National Happiness was coined by Bhutan's king in 1972.

Most would accept that the quality of our lives is not determined simply by how much money we have, although the efforts of the Labour government's "Happiness Czar", Richard Layard, appear to have been swiftly forgotten.

It's more that there is a shade of the well-meaning but not-quite-in-touch patrician about this, as though Cameron were a country squire meeting a tenant farmer whose crop had failed and saying brightly, "Chin up! Better luck next year!". The squire's sentiments may be genuine, but utterly fail to grasp the nature of the devastation visited upon the farmer.

Others may be far harder on the coalition. But I don't think that Cameron is a bad man, or that he is at all like the hard-faced Thatcherites who did appear to revel in the "creative destruction" of the old industries that threw millions out of work in the 1980s. Nor is that my opinion of the many members of his team whom I'd met long before they even went into politics.

I see them sitting together, brows furrowed, saying, and meaning quite truthfully: "Something must be done". But here I now believe, having welcomed the formation of the coalition initially, http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2010/05/labour-party-coal... that the wealth of those taking decisions is a grave problem. According to the Daily Mail in May, 23 out of the 29 ministers then entitled to attend cabinet were millionaires.

They may very well know people who are facing harsher realities, like Howard Flight, who in the interview that got him into such trouble also said: "Two of my nieces and nephews, both of them very bright, gave up university halfway through because they didn't want the financial burden." But that's not the same as having the remotest chance of facing those realities themselves in the future. We really aren't all in this together.

As I thought about this, a very minor personal example came to mind. Some years ago, probably around 1995, I attended a party in a South Kensington flat shared by some City trainees and, if memory serves, George Osborne. (At the least, the party was certainly thrown by mutual friends and I'm sure I remember him being there.) Come 3 or 4am, it was time to go home. I lived way up the Harrow road in north London, and a mini-cab would have cost me not far short of a tenner. This was exactly what I had. The only trouble was that, not being a City trainee myself, it had to last me for the next four days. So I walked home instead - no great trial for a healthy man in his early 20s, although it did take me about three hours which is probably why I remember it still.

This is no ill reflection on the man who is now the Chancellor. He may, for all I know, be inordinately fond of a stroll, whether nocturnal or diurnal. It may well be that, had I asked him, he would have cheerfully said, "I'll tell you what - I'll join you, I could do with stretching my legs." My point is that I find it hard to imagine George ever looking such a dilemma in the eye, as it were: taxi home - even if means having to make do on a pound or so for a few days?

And if such a small inconvenience is beyond the experience of a large percentage of the cabinet, how can they really understand what it is like for prospective students today, for whom the choice of going to university entails debts unthinkable when George, Danny Alexander and I attended Oxford? (There were still student grants then, for Heaven's sake.) How can they empathise with those with no idea when they will ever be able to call any square footage - never mind the grand terraced houses of the Notting Hill Tories - their own? Above all, how can they possible claim to have an inkling of what it is going to be like for the thousands, perhaps millions, who are going to lose their jobs, only to come up against a reduced welfare system that it appears will regard them as workshy?

David Cameron may be a One Nation Tory, but that honourable strand of Conservatism rests on the assumption that the less fortunate feel some connection to those who would "feel their pain".

Our PM once made a point of wearing a lounge suit to a wedding when all the other men wore Morning Dress. If his policies cause too many people, however, to picture him in their mind's eye in the tailcoat he spurned - still less in the full fig of the Bullingdon Club - he will find no One Nation to unify, and certainly no Big Society. He and his millionaire colleagues need to show that they realise there will be something gross and national about the consequences of these cuts.

To say that happiness will be any part of the equation, however, is delusional at best.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.