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

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The English question

The political community that is England is neither stable nor settled. But something is stirring among Chesterton’s secret people.

From the late 18th century to the early 20th, Britain’s political class wrestled with an Irish Question: how could the British state govern “John Bull’s Other Island” in a way that kept the native Irish quiescent, without jeopardising its own security? When Ireland was partitioned in 1921 the question disappeared from the British political agenda – only to reappear in another guise during the Troubles in Northern Ireland half a century later. It was not laid to rest until the Belfast Agreement of 1998. More recently, politicians and commentators on both sides of the border have had to come to terms with an increasingly intractable Scottish Question: how should the ancient and once independent Scottish nation relate to the other nations of the United Kingdom and to the Westminster parliament? As the convoluted debate provoked by the coming EU referendum shows, a more nebulous English Question now looms in the wings.

Like the Irish and Scottish Questions, it is the child of a complex history. England became a united kingdom in Anglo-Saxon times. It faced external enemies, notably invading Danes, but its kings ruled their own territory with an iron hand. The Norman Conquest substituted francophone rulers and a francophone nobility for these Anglo-Saxon kings; the new elite spoke French, sent their sons to France to be educated and polished and, in many cases, owned territory in France. Simon de Montfort, once credited with founding the English parliament, was a French nobleman as well as an English one. But the kingdom remained united. The Celtic people who had once inhabited what is now England were driven out by the Anglo-Saxons; Lloegr, the Welsh word for England, means “the lost land”. It stayed lost after the Conquest; and indeed, the Norman rulers of England pushed further into Wales than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors had done.

United did not mean peaceful or stable. Henry II, William the Conqueror’s great-grandson, ruled a vast Continental empire stretching from the English Channel to the Pyrenees, as well as England. Inept kings, uppity barons, an aggressive church, restive peasants, a century-long war with France and bitter dynastic rivalries undermined his achievement. But there was no English equivalent to the powerful, de facto independent duchies of Burgundy or Aquitaine in what is now France, or to the medley of principalities, city states and bishoprics that divided Germans and Italians from each other until well into the 19th century. That was still true after the Welshman Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and seized the English crown as Henry VII. His son (who became Henry VIII) was not content with keeping England united. Having broken with the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to annul his first marriage, he made himself head of the Church in England and proclaimed that the realm of England was an “empire”, free from all external authority.

From the upheavals of Henry’s reign and the subtle compromises of his daughter Elizabeth’s emerged the Church of England – an institutional and theological third way between the Catholicism of Rome, on the one hand, and the Protestantism of John Calvin’s Geneva and Martin Luther’s Germany on the other. The Church of England has spoken to and for the English people ever since. Sometimes it has spoken feebly and complacently, as in the 18th century. At other times it has been outspoken and brave, as in the Second World War, when William Temple was the archbishop of Canterbury, and during the 1980s, when a Church of England commission excoriated the Thatcher era’s “crude exaltation” of “individual self-interest”. Despite (or perhaps because of) the subtle compromises embodied in it, the Anglican Church has been prone to schism. “High Church” Anglicans have stressed its Catholic inheritance; followers of the “low” Church have insisted on its Protestantism. Two charismatic High Anglican priests – John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning – converted to Catholicism and ended as cardinals.

Yet these schisms did not affect the laity or diminish the Church’s role in English life. From the end of the English civil wars in 1660 to the late 19th century, England was ruled by the Anglican landed class, the most relaxed and confident governing class in Europe. A bien-pensant, easygoing and undogmatic latitudinarianism shaped relations between church and state. Doctrinal precision was tiresome, even a little vulgar. Wherever possible, differences were fudged: the very Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church are a fudge. There were exceptions. Gladstone’s restless, sometimes tormented religiosity and baffling combination of high ideals with low cunning could hardly have been less easygoing. And as the 19th century wore on, Protestant dissenters, Catholics and even Jews and unbelievers were slowly incorporated into the political nation. Joseph Chamberlain, who did more to make the political weather than any other leader in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and contrived to split both the Liberal and the Conservative parties, was a Unitarian, contemptuous of fudge.

However, the style and mood of English governance were still quintessentially Anglican. Fudge prevailed. Trollope’s political novels are a hymn to fudging. Disraeli, ethnically Jewish, though baptised into the Church of England, was a fudger to his fingertips. In his low-cunning moods, even Gladstone was not above fudging. After the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 the monarchy itself rested on a mountain of fudge: the monarch was an Anglican in England, but a Presbyterian in Scotland. The English and Scottish parliaments were merged into a British parliament, but because England was far more populous and far richer than Scotland, it was the English parliament writ large, and embodied English constitutional doctrine. Equally, the Scots became junior partners in a new British empire, ultimately controlled by the Anglican elite. It won the race for empire against France, but the stiff-necked, pernickety legalism of successive London governments drove its colonies on the seaboard of what is now the United States into revolt and eventual independence.

The Anglican elite learned their lesson. Thereafter, imperial governance was English governance writ large. From an early stage the colonies of settlement, later known as the “white dominions”, were, in effect, self-governing. At first sight, India, “the brightest jewel in the British crown”, was an exception. It was acquired by force and maintained, in the last resort, by force. The Great Rebellion of 1857, once known as the Indian Mutiny, was brutally suppressed. In the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, Brigadier General Dyer ordered his troops to fire on an unarmed and peaceful crowd; they went on firing until their ammunition was exhausted. But the most astonishing feature of the British Raj is that a tiny sliver of British soldiers and administrators somehow managed to govern a subcontinent populated by roughly 250 million subjects. Force alone could not have done this. The Raj depended on indirect rule, on adroit accommodation to local pressures. It would not have survived without the collaboration of Indian elites, and the price of collaboration was a willingness to temper the wind of imperial power to the shorn lamb of Indian hopes and fears.

***

 

The Anglo-British story echoed the Indian story. The political, administrative and financial elites in Westminster, Whitehall and the City of London viewed the kingdom they presided over through an Indian lens. British subjects in the mother country were treated like Indian subjects in the Raj. Force lurked in the background, but most of the time it stayed in the background. The Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which mounted cavalry charged into a crowd of as many as 80,000 people demonstrating for greater parliamentary representation at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, was a paler precursor of the Amritsar Massacre; the Rhondda township of Tonypandy, where hussars helped crush a “riot” by striking miners in 1910, lived on in the folk memory of the labour movement for decades. Yet these were exceptions, just as Amritsar was an exception.

Co-option, accommodation and collaboration between the governing elites and lesser elites beyond them were the real hallmarks of British governance. The French saying that there is more in common between two deputies, one of whom is a communist, than there is between two communists, one of whom is a deputy, also applied to Britain. In the cosy Westminster village, insurgent tribunes of the people, from the popular radical John Bright to the fulminating socialist Michael Foot, slowly morphed into grand and harmless old men. Outside the village, subjects were inescapably subjects, not citizens, just as their Indian counterparts were. Sovereignty, absolute and inalienable, belonged to the Crown-in-Parliament, not to the people. And the whole edifice was held together by layer upon layer of fudge.

Now the fudge is beginning to dissolve. The Raj disappeared long ago. The fate of steelworkers in South Wales depends on decisions by an Indian multinational whose headquarters are in Mumbai. The empire on which the sun never set is barely a memory. Unlike her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, the present Queen is not an empress; she has to make do with leading the Commonwealth. In law, the Crown-in-Parliament remains absolutely sovereign and the peoples of the United Kingdom are still subjects, not citizens. But legal principles and political realities diverge. The Anglo-British state whose capital is London and whose parliament stands on the fringes of the Thames is no longer the sole institution that shapes and reflects the political will of the people over whom it presides. There are now four capital cities, four legislatures, four governments and four political systems in the United Kingdom.

The devolved administrations in the non-English nations of the kingdom control swaths of public policy. The parties that lead them vary enormously in ideology and history. The Scottish National Party, which has governed Scotland for nearly nine years, stands for an independent Scotland. In Wales, Labour has been the strongest party since devolution, but it and Plaid Cymru (the “Party of Wales”) have already formed one coalition and may well form another after the elections to the Welsh Assembly next month. No great changes are likely. Almost certainly Wales will continue to be a social-democratic candle in a naughty world. Since the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland has been governed by a power-sharing executive, representing both the republican tradition, embodied in Sinn Fein, and the loyalist tradition, embodied in the Democratic Unionist Party. The sovereign Westminster parliament has the legal right to repeal the devolution statutes, but doing so would amount to a revolution in our uncodified constitution and would destroy the Union.

England is a stranger at the feast. It towers above the others in wealth, in population and in political clout. It has almost 84 per cent of the UK population. Scotland has just under 8.5 per cent, Wales just under 5 per cent and Northern Ireland less than 3 per cent. Yet there is no English parliament or government. In times past, English people have often treated the words “English” and “British” as synonyms, but devolution to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures and administrations has made a nonsense of this lazy conflation.

***

England and the English now face the primordial questions that face all self-conscious political communities: “Who are we?”, “Who do we want to be?” At bottom, these questions are philosophical, in a profound sense moral, not economic or institutional. They have to do with the intangibles of culture and sentiment, not the outward forms that clothe them. In stable and settled political communities they are rarely discussed. They don’t need to be. But the political community that is England is neither stable nor settled. Fuelled in part by resentment of the alleged unfairness of the devolution process and in part by the psychic wound left by the end of the Anglo-British empire, an inchoate, grouchy English nationalism is now a force to be reckoned with. St George’s flags flying on 23 April; the extraordinary rise of Ukip; David Cameron’s panic-stricken attempt to “renegotiate” Britain’s role in the European Union – all tell the same story: the “secret people of England”, as G K Chesterton called them, are secret no longer.

But that is not an answer to my questions. It only shows that they are urgent. At the moment, two answers hold the field. The first – the answer embodied in the Cameron government’s “Project Fear” over the UK’s membership of the EU – is essentially deracinated. For the globetrotting super-rich, the financial services sector, the Bank of England and the managers of the Union state, England consists of London and the more salubrious parts of the south-east. The answer to the English Question is that there is no such question. The notion that the English have to decide who they are and who they want to be is a backward-looking fantasy. Globalisation has overwhelmed the specificities of English culture and experience. The English buy and sell in the global marketplace and they face global threats. Membership of an EU made safe for market fundamentalism offers the best available route to security and prosperity in an ever more globalised world.

The second answer – the answer implicit in Eurosceptic rhetoric – is romantically ­archaic. At its heart is a vision of England as a sea-girt and providential nation, cut off from the European mainland by a thousand years of history and a unique constitutional arrangement. It harks back to Shakespeare’s hymn to England as a “jewel set in the silver sea”; to Henry Newbolt’s poem “Drake’s Drum”, evoking the memory of gallant English mariners driving the top-heavy galleons of the Spanish Armada up the Channel to their doom; and to Nelson dying gloriously at Trafalgar at the climax of his greatest victory. It fortified Margaret Thatcher during the nail-biting weeks of the Falklands War; it inspired Enoch Powell’s passionate depiction of post-imperial England as the reincarnation of the England of Edward the Confessor: an England whose unity was “effortless and unconstrained” and which accepted the “unlimited supremacy of Crown-in-Parliament so naturally as not to be aware of it”. As Powell saw more clearly than anyone else, this vision rules out EU membership.

No one with progressive instincts can possibly be satisfied with either of these answers. The great question is whether there is a better one. I think there is, but I can’t pretend that it is easy or comfortable. It is republican in spirit – which does not entail getting rid of the monarchy, as the many Continental monarchies show. It embodies a tradition stretching back to England’s brief but inspiring republican experiment during the civil wars of the 17th century, and before that to Renaissance Italy and Republican Rome. Central to it is the notion of “neo-Roman liberty”: of liberty as freedom from domination, from dependence on another’s will. John Milton was its most eloquent English exponent, in prose and verse, but it also inspired Tom Paine’s contempt for hereditary rule and the “foppery” that went with it. In the 20th century its most engaging champion was R H Tawney, the ethical socialist, economic historian and foe of the “religion of inequality”, its “great God Mumbo-Jumbo” and the “servile respect for wealth and social position” it inculcated.

The goal is clear: a republican England in a republican Britain and a republican Britain in a republican Europe. The obstacles are formidable. As the founders of the American republic discovered, republican liberty entails federal union, combining diversity at the base with unity at the centre; and for that there are few takers. But Gramsci was right. Pessimism of the intellect should go hand in hand with optimism of the will. There is all too much pessimism of the intellect on the British left. It is time for some optimism of the will.

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war