Britain’s phoney pursuit of happiness

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 18 November 2010

If you have ever had to find some vital data about the UK economy, you would have come across the website of the British Office for National Statistics (ONS). It is not only one of the driest places on the web; it is also one of the most confusing.

Locating something as simple as per capita government spending in North-East England takes many frustrating hours in front of the computer screen. Compared with the ONS website, navigating through Henry VIII’s famous maze at Hampton Court is child’s play. In fact, had the ONS been around in Henry’s time, forced use of its website would have presented a viable alternative to corporal punishment.

Given its track record in creating misery for countless researchers, it seems ironic that the ONS has been chosen for Prime Minister David Cameron’s latest initiative: to make Britain a happier place.

Or at least to measure how unhappy Britain really is.

A British government spokesperson has told The Guardian that the ONS will now regularly collect happiness data. This new index of ‘general well-being’ is meant to deliver facts about the mental and physical condition of the British people and complement more traditional measures such as gross domestic product.

The British government’s new venture does not come as a surprise. Soon after becoming leader of the opposition, Cameron pledged to make the pursuit of happiness his guiding principle. At a conference in 2006, he claimed that GDP did not tell the whole story and added: “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general well-being.”

Cameron’s early speeches appear to come not so much from a different era but from a different planet. Back in pre-financial crisis Britain, all basic economic problems were believed to have been solved. The country was in its longest period of uninterrupted growth. Rising house prices created the illusion of ever-increasing prosperity. Unemployment, at least judged by official statistics, appeared low (if you found them on the ONS website, that is).

Of course, there remained a few whingers and moaners who complained that this rosy picture should not be taken at face value. But with their unfashionable insistence on sound economic policies, balanced budgets, and a smaller state, these critics were quickly diagnosed as Thatcherite dinosaurs who had not understood that Cool Britannia had long moved on. Cameron, the young Tory leader, certainly did not want to have much to do with these political reptiles.

The invention of ‘general well-being’ was Cameron’s way of showing that he had truly bought into the new zeitgeist. In any case, it was much more pleasant for the self-styled ‘modern Conservative’ to talk about making everybody happy rather than discussing spending cuts or tax reform.

The financial crisis shook Britain out of its self-chosen smugness. Almost from one day to the next, all the foundations of the UK’s economic model turned into quicksand. Suddenly, the old Thatcherite warnings against inflating the size of the state did not sound so outdated anymore.

This would have been the perfect opportunity for Cameron to take advice from John Maynard Keynes. “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” the economist once asked.

Cameron’s answer to Keynes’ question would have been to continue regardless. And why give up your image as a ‘compassionate conservative’ or a ‘caring Tory’ just because you just realised that your country had explicit and implicit debts to the tune of around £4.8 trillion?

Britain may be unhappy, and Australians know a thing or two about ‘whingeing Poms’. But the actual sources of its misery are economic. They can be dealt with using conventional economic tools, not the fashionable fad of happiness economics.

To give just one example: By definition, death is the logical opposite of a happy life. But chances of dying are very unevenly distributed around Britain, and the distribution is strongly connected to the economic performance of the regions.

A study by the World Health Organisation revealed that between the more prosperous parts of the UK and deprived areas there were enormous differences in life expectancy. They concluded that adult death rates were more than twice as high in the poorest parts of the UK than in the most affluent. To put it differently – according to ONS data, men living in Manchester only have a chance of 51 per cent of living until the age of 75 compared to a 78 per cent chance if they lived in wealthy East Dorset.

Death is only the most extreme example, but similar differences exist with regards to education results and general health. The pattern is as stark as it is unsurprising – economic development is the key driver behind health, education and longevity.

There is little that Britain’s new index of general well-being can reveal apart from the bleeding obvious – unless you find it astonishing that being poor, unemployed and unhealthy does not make you happy.

The rise of politicians talking about ‘happiness’ and ‘general well-being’ is a new European fad with similar initiatives also undertaken by Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Angela Merkel in Germany. But you don’t have to be a cynic to detect their ulterior motives. ‘Happiness’ is either used as a political repositioning tool for politicians wishing to appear as caring, or it is used in countries that have given up hope on future economic growth and seek different measures to feign success.

In either case, the new ‘happiness’ cult is no substitute for hard-headed economic policies. If Cameron really wants to make Britain a happier place, he should aim to make it more prosperous – happiness will follow almost automatically. He may even get re-elected.

In the meantime, the ONS would make the world a happier place if it scrapped the ‘index of general well-being’ and used the freed funds to design a more user-friendly website. As they say, it’s the little things in life that bring the greatest happiness.