Why life is good

A dangerous gap exists between our personal experience, which is mainly happy, and our view of a soc

Progressive ideology relies on the capacity of human beings to live fulfilled lives in a just and co-operative society. That people whose beliefs imply optimism seem to spend most of their time wallowing in pessimism is one reason that leftists sometimes lack personal credibility (another reason being that egalitarians so clearly enjoy being very well-off). But miserable idealists need to make a New Year resolution to look on the bright side. Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase "private affluence and public squalor"; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.

It is pessimism of a particular and pernicious kind. People are not generally negative about their own lives. In fact, we systematically exaggerate the control we have as individuals. As Malcolm Gladwell, among others, has shown, we tend to give our conscious minds credit for many reactions that are in fact instinctive. Other studies - of what we say has made us happy and what has actually increased our levels of contentment - show that we have a huge capacity to rationalise our life choices. When we are forced to make a choice between limited options, we are as likely to end up claiming the choice as our own as we would if it were unconstrained. And the more we like a future possibility in our lives, the more inclined we are to believe it will happen. The human mind is hard-wired to be personally Panglossian.

In contrast, we are unduly negative about the wider world. As a government adviser, I would bemoan what we in Whitehall called the perception gap. Time and again, opinion polls expose a dramatic disparity between what people say about their personal experiences and about the state of things in general. Take attitudes towards public services. In a recent poll, 81 per cent of respondents said that they were happy with their last visit to hospital. Yet when the same people were asked whether they thought the National Health Service was providing a good service nationally, only 47 per cent felt able to declare it was so, and most think the NHS is going to get worse.

This perception gap is not restricted to public services, as a recent BBC poll on families confirms. Some 93 per cent of respondents des cribed themselves as optimistic about their own family life, up 4 per cent from the previous time the survey was conducted, 40 years ago. Yet more people - 70 per cent, across race, class and gender - believe families are becoming less successful overall. While we apparently thrive in our own families of many shapes and forms, as social commentators we prefer to look back, misty-eyed, to the gendered certainties of our grandparents' generation.

What is true for families is true for neighbourhoods: we think ours is improving while community life is declining elsewhere. We tend to like the people we know from different ethnic backgrounds but are less sure about such people in general. We think our own prospects look OK but society is going to the dogs.

The media seem to be the most obvious cause of this phenomenon. Bad news makes more compelling headlines than good. Tabloids and locals feed off crime stories, middlebrow papers are dismayed at the chaos of the modern world and the alleged venality and ignorance of those in power, and left-leaning broadsheets enjoy telling us that global instability is endemic and envir onmental apocalypse inevitable. Mean while, the content of television programmes - from dramas to news bulletins - contributes to what the communication theorist George Gerbner called "mean world syndrome": people who regularly watch TV systematically overstate the level of criminality in society.

Yet it is too easy to blame the media; the job of commissioning editors is to give us what we want. We make our own contribution to social pessimism. In the burgeoning industry of reputation management, it is generally argued that people are much more likely to tell others about bad experiences of services than good ones (5:1 is the usual ratio). Academic research suggests that people tend to exaggerate in the direction of the general mood. Viewing our own lives positively but wider society negatively, we will tend to pass on and exaggerate evidence that supports these prejudices.

Evolutionary determinists may seek an explanation of our predilection for bad news in neurological hard-wiring; perhaps, for the survival of hunter-gatherers, warning is more important than celebrating. But it is in two of the mega-trends of modernity that more likely reasons for our social pessimism are to be found.

First, there has been the inexorable rise in individualism since the Enlightenment. As Richard Sennett brilliantly argued in The Fall of Public Man, aspects of modernity such as the power of consumer capitalism and the ubiquity of the idioms of psychotherapy have accelerated the process by which we see our authentic selves as revealed in the private and personal spheres, rather than the public and social.

Unstoppable force

Hand in hand with the rise of individualism, we have seen the decline of industrial and pre-industrial collectivist institutions, including the organised church, trade unions, political parties and municipal elites. Robert Putnam's work on social capital suggests this decline in collectivism reaches down into our social lives, with people choosing to spend less time with acquaintances and more with intimates. Putnam's more recent work controversially argues that trust levels are lower and loose social networking less common in more diverse communities.

This points to the second of modernity's mega- trends. Increasingly, we feel that we are the victims of processes set in train by human activity but no longer under anyone's control. Globalisation is the gravity of modern society: an unstoppable force that will knock us over if we try to defy it. The origins of the current credit squeeze in the US sub-prime mortgage market show a financial system that is beyond not only its managers' control, but even their capacity to chart.

Illegal immigration, terrorism and pandemics are seen as the inevitable flip side of cheap travel and consumer goods. Philosophers and policy-makers argue about how best to regulate emerging science and technology in genetics, nano technology and artificial intelligence. But can anything long delay the advance of knowledge - especially if it has commercial applications?

It is not only that we as ordinary citizens feel beset by forces beyond our control. We are ever less likely to believe in the power or authority of our elected representatives (although we much prefer our own MP to MPs in general). At a time when they have more to prove to us than ever before, our leaders are diminished by the politics of a populist consumerism. In this time of uncertainty, is it surprising that the more politically successful national leaders - think Chávez or Putin - are those who offer strong leadership in defiance of democratic constraints?

This is the anatomy of social impotence. By definition, progressives argue for the possibilities of progress; but is anyone inclined to believe us? A hundred years ago, Joseph Rowntree established his charitable works after analysing the social evils of his age. When, last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked today's public for its definition of the "new social evils", the list had changed very little. Greed, poverty, crime, family and community breakdown all featured on both lists. But at a seminar to discuss the findings, advisers from the foundation and elsewhere agreed on one big shift between the late-Victorian era and today: while Rowntree had seen his evils as the unfinished business of society's onward march, today we see social patho logies as the inevitable consequences of an idea of progress that itself feels imposed upon us.

Brainier than before

And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before. It is a story of healthier lives and longer life expectancy (obesity may be a problem, but it is one that individuals have more chance of solving than rickets or polio). Think of how we thrive in the diversity of modern cities. Think, in our own country, of rivers and beaches cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago.

As for the powerlessness of leaders, the Bali deal last month may leave much to be resolved, but isn't this at last a sign that nations can unite in the best interests of the planet? And should we really lose faith that human determination and ingenuity ultimately will win through? Despite the power of international finance, this is a world where it is possible to be economically successful in societies as deliberately different as those of Sweden or the United States.

We rightly worry about rogue states and terrorists with dirty bombs; but let us also remember that since Nagasaki we have managed to carry on for 60 years without anyone unleashing the power of nuclear warfare. Not only have there been three generations of peace in Europe, but when in the past has a project as grand as EU enlargement been accomplished, let alone accomplished in a decade?

Progressives want the world to be a better place. We bemoan its current inequities and oppression - yet if we fail to celebrate the progress that human beings have made, and if we sound as though the future is a fearful place, we belie our own philosophy. Instead, we need to address a deficit in social optimism that threatens the credibility of our core narrative.

There are many aspects to this; we should, for example, be making the case for a more balanced and ethical media. But my starting point is the need to forge a new collectivism. It is in working with others on a shared project of social advance that we can be reconnected to the sense of collective agency so missing from modern political discourse. It is the attitude of the spectator that induces pessimism, the experience of the participant that brings hope. The problem is not that change brings fear and disorientation (there's nothing new in this), it is that we lack the spaces and places where people can renew hope and develop solutions.

The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics - hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic - are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together. Twenty-five years ago, with falling audiences, commentators assumed that the cinema and live football were dead: we would all rather stay in the safety and comfort of our new, hi-tech living rooms. But then the multiplex, the blockbuster, the all-seater stad ium and foreign players showed the problem to be no deeper than the failure to keep up with modern tastes and expectations.

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience. Compare that to the last Labour Party, trade union or council meeting you went to.

Roll up your sleeves

The failure to provide routes to collective fulfilment means we assume that our journey is best pursued alone. In the 1970s and 1980s, new left movements at home and abroad placed emphasis on forms of political organisation and debate that were innovative, exciting and (dare I say it without mockery) consciousness-raising.

Today, there are signs of a yearning for new ways of working together. There is the growing interest in social and co-operative enterprise and the emergence of new forms of online collaboration. Gordon Brown's citizens' juries are a tentative step in the right direction, albeit without much fun or risk-taking, but generally, progressives seem more interested in bemoaning the state of the world than in rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on building the institutions of a new collectivism.

Despite the huge impersonal forces of the modern world, people are prepared not only to believe in a better future, but to work together to build it. Tackling climate change offers a fascinating opportunity to interweave stories of action at the individual, community, national and international levels. This potential will be fulfilled only when we provide spaces for collective decision-making and action that speak to the same vision of collaboration, creativity and human fulfilment that progressives claim to be our destiny.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, and former chief adviser on political strategy to Tony Blair

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

The Tory civil war

Even if David Cameron clears the fence marked Brexit, he will find a very deep ditch on the other side.

We all know families who fight and argue in the privacy of their own homes but put on a flawless display in public. So it was, for a few days at least, with the Conservative Party when the campaign for the EU referendum began. Both sides were keen to keep it that way, in the long-term interests of their party. Last month, one MP dressed down Norman Smith, the BBC political reporter, for going on the airwaves and talking about “the Tory civil war”. At that stage, he was perhaps right to do so.

Tempers are, however, beginning to fray. Members of White’s, the St James’s Street club and a foremost lair of the Tory grandee, were recently alarmed to see two of that species, Nicholas Soames MP and David
Heathcoat-Amory, an MP until 2010 and a former Europe minister, going at it hammer and tongs about the European question during the lunch hour. Anyone familiar with Soames’s entertaining Twitter feed, which is currently devoted mainly to savaging fellow Tories in Vote Leave, will know that he is no stranger to technicolor vituperation.

It was, according to the account doing the rounds, a ferocious argument, though no blows were struck. “Nicholas and David have known each other since school,” a friend of both men told me. “They have more in common than separates them. It just shows how fraught things are.” That is certainly true. I well remember Soames, a lifelong pro-European, expressing his genuine dismay that Heathcoat-Amory was defeated in 2010 because a Ukip candidate, standing ironically against a devoutly Eurosceptic Tory, split the vote in his Wells constituency and let in a Lib Dem.

Another MP, using an appropriate public school metaphor for a gentlemen’s club packed with Old Etonians, likened them to boys who are friends but who, once on opposite sides of the sports field, let all hell loose at each other. One does not doubt that Soames’s and Heathcoat-Amory’s regard for each other will survive the referendum. Whether the same can be said for the two sides of the Conservative Party – unequal sides at that – come 24 June is quite a different matter.

The way David Cameron has conducted his wing of the Remain campaign in recent weeks has horrified many Tory MPs, even some who are or were notionally on his side. “The personal attacks and crude propaganda have really upset the party and I don’t think he understands how badly this has gone down in the constituencies,” a Remainer told me.

The personal attacks are certainly out in force. Downing Street has started to brief the media about those in particular disfavour. The Sunday Times reported on 15 May that Priti Patel, the employment minister, had behaved “appallingly” (her crime seemed to have been pointing out the government’s failure to supply enough school places to cope with the recent influx of eastern European immigrants). It also claimed that Cameron was especially angry with Michael Gove – which, since Gove has behaved with politeness and a complete lack of hysteria towards the Prime Minister, suggests that the latter must have a very thin skin indeed. Gove does annoy Cameron and his friends, not because of bad behaviour but because his detailed and measured analysis of what is wrong with the EU is hard to rebut, in contrast to more emotive outbursts by the likes of Boris Johnson that can be swatted aside.

Meanwhile, Cameron has sought to ridicule Bernard Jenkin, one of the most vocal Leavers among MPs, for making a perfectly reasonable observation about the dilution of trade union legislation in return for the unions’ support of Remain. The snide side of the Prime Minister’s character, depressingly familiar to those who deal with him in private, is becoming more and more unchecked as tensions in the campaign rise. There have also been briefings against
Penny Mordaunt, the armed forces minister, and, of course, Johnson. One attempt to terrify the country was to have the Sunday Times splash that, Brexit or not, Johnson would be the next leader and, therefore, prime minister. Downing Street seems not to realise that such an outcome is, for reasons few can fathom, one the general public seems to want.

***

The Tory party has long been a coalition. Most diehard Leavers had no social or personal relations with their colleagues in Remain anyway, so that has not changed. Any breakdown in civilities among others at the moment is, for the most part, temporary. Many take the view of Jacob Rees-Mogg that the result must be binding whatever it is and the party must move on. Equally, many don’t, and if the outcome is a narrow victory for Remain it will be the worst possible result for the Prime Minister.

Those trying to maintain peace in the parliamentary party – and it is important to note that a few dozen MPs have never really been interested in Europe and are showing little interest now – believe that things could have been worse. Veterans say the atmosphere is better than it was during the Major government, in the arguments over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty and Britain’s inglorious departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. That, too, is probably true, when one recalls that nine MPs had the whip withdrawn, John Major described some of his cabinet colleagues as “bastards” and he felt constrained to call a leadership contest to prove his mandate to lead the Tories. However, the vote is still a month away and there is scope for things
to worsen.

With the government and the Whitehall machine distracted by the referendum, other aspects of Conservative rule are causing irritation within the party. There is a sense that the whips and Downing Street have given up trying to take MPs with them on other issues, or to explain why changes of policy are being made. There is little doubt about the fragility of the economy, or that it could go south even if the UK remains in the EU – and George Osborne is felt to be doing too little to demonstrate the proverbial firm hand on the tiller, or to inspire confidence among his colleagues.

The recent U-turn on academy schools has caused particular rage among MPs who had gone to great lengths to explain and defend the previous policy to their constituents. Now they find themselves having to do the opposite and, as one of the less self-regarding said to me, “No pompous Tory MP likes being made to look stupid.” There is a widespread belief even among the more feminist MPs – and, believe it or not, the Tories have them of both genders – that Nicky Morgan has proved she is nothing more than a token presence in the cabinet.

Speculation about what would happen in the event of Brexit – and none of the 20 or so MPs I spoke to in preparing this piece, whatever their allegiances, would rule it out – is now starting to grip the Conservatives and is causing tempers to rise. Nobody seems to want Cameron’s immediate departure if the vote goes against him. There is talk of a “managed, orderly withdrawal” to see the party and the country through the initial shock of the change, with a contest getting under way formally at the Tory conference in October and the process – a vote of the parliamentary party, followed by a plebiscite of the membership to decide between the two most popular candidates – over by early December.

Johnson’s high-profile Brexit campaign is, in effect, the start of his bid for the leadership and why Cameron is so agitated about him. Johnson, as I wrote here in March, has not made the best impression on his fellow MPs since returning to the House last May and it is far from assured that he will be one of the final two candidates. There is also an uncomfortable recognition that he achieved little for London as mayor, other than traffic chaos and a series of vanity projects. “We’d like to do a Checkpoint Charlie-style swap, halfway across Westminster Bridge, with Sadiq Khan,” a Remainer told me.

However, Tory activists forcefully tell their MPs that Johnson is a “winner” who merits support in a leadership vote. Some younger MPs, yet to learn the difference between being a representative and being a delegate, are nervous of disagreeing. Three of them – Nigel Adams, Ben Wallace (a junior Northern Ireland minister and former soldier) and Jake Berry – are running a campaign for Johnson, organising lavish drinks parties for colleagues so the candidate can press the flesh. This irritates older MPs, who see it as a provocative manifestation of ambition and vulgarity that the party could do without.

A prominent Brexiter is almost certain to be in the last two in the leadership contest, be it later this year or in 2019-20, whatever the outcome of the referendum. Whether that is Johnson depends on if he self-destructs during this campaign – his reference to Hitler in his Sunday Telegraph interview on 15 May suggests that is quite possible, given the opportunities ahead. What might entertain the general public – and his unrestrained remarks, such as about President Obama’s Kenyan heritage, probably do –
increasingly angers his colleagues.

It may then be up to Michael Gove to offer himself, something that is said to be unlikely at the moment but that may become less so if things go badly for Johnson. Whatever Cameron thinks of his Justice Secretary, his colleagues have nothing but praise for the way in which he has conducted himself. It is widely thought that, in the event of a Remain victory, Cameron will promote Gove, possibly even to deputy prime minister, as a very public healing of wounds, in an attempt to unify his fractured party.

The favourite to end up in the last two with a Brexiter if there is an early leadership contest is Theresa May, described by one who knows her well as “cold, unfriendly, charmless, not as clever as she thinks she is, lacking imagination, unable to think outside the railway lines and intellectually dishonest”. However, he said that were the choice to be between her and Johnson, “I would, of course, vote for her.”

The wider party probably would not. It is accepted that if Johnson reached the last two, the party in the country would elect him leader. His fate, therefore, lies in the hands of his parliamentary colleagues, whenever the contest comes.

An MP who is a constitutional authority told me of his belief that even if Johnson became leader he would struggle to form a government, because a hard core of pro-Europeans might refuse to support him. Others, knowing the ambitions of their brethren, doubt that but the thought was recently echoed by the former MP Matthew Parris, probably the most articulate columnist writing in support of Cameron, who said on BBC radio that if there were a vote for Brexit he and others like him would leave the party.

***

A victory for Remain might end Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions and the prospect of such a realignment. But unless that victory is substantial – at least as large as the 55-45 vote in the Scottish referendum – Cameron will struggle: and even that margin of victory in Scotland has not squashed demands for another vote.

The Prime Minister has failed to grasp how many of his MPs are against the EU. A former cabinet minister, not known for hyperbole, told me that “more than 200” of the party’s 330 MPs would vote for Brexit in the privacy of the polling booths. The proportion of Leave activists is even higher. Some MPs still maintain that they can find hardly anyone in their shrunken constituency bases who wants to stay in.

What we are witnessing is the expression of the resentments and tribal hatreds of many years, in a party that has never recovered from the splits after Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech and the Maastricht arguments, or indeed from the conduct of the debate over the UK’s entry into the then EEC during the passage of the European Communities Bill in 1972.

A former minister, a pro-European, said: “Dave is going to have to bring in the people he has alienated but even then it is going to be hard for him to do more than limp on for a couple of years.” Another said the government now, with its small majority, deals with the Tory party on a “issue by issue” basis, seeking just to get over the next hurdle. Even if Cameron clears the Becher’s Brook-style fence marked “Brexit”, he may find a very deep ditch on the other side.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster