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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder