Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
I exist in a miasma of misery – or at least grumpiness – at the moment. My colleagues and friends are in despair at the state of politics, the Conservative Party, and occasionally the world.
The thing is, my friends and family are weird. A high proportion of them are engaged in politics and policy in some way professionally. They know who Dominic Raab is.
For them – and in political discourse – there is an instinctive assumption that the anger and preoccupation they feel is shared by people in general. The public is angry at something – at our failure to leave the EU, at our wanting to leave the EU in the first place, at the north-south divide, at the lack of housing, how vulnerable people are let down. At stuff politicians have or haven’t done. That’s what drove Brexit isn’t it?
And of course if you ask people directly, that’s exactly what they’ll say. In the hundreds of focus groups my company Public First has done on various issues over the last few years (and the many hundreds more I’ve seen my husband do in the previous decade) then people’s response to a direct question about education, health, welfare, housing, or anything else is a) politicians are bastards; b) it’s not fair; c) something should be done but they’re not quite sure what (except fewer low-skill immigrants and more money for the NHS. Good call, Cummings).
That’s what we did with Brexit. We chose to ask them the direct question. It’s not obvious it was a question they were spending much time thinking about before we called a referendum.
If you just talk to the participants in those focus groups, the overwhelming impression is not one of people who are spending their days railing furiously at ‘the system’. They’re just, well, fine.
The statistics back this up. The UK seems to be happier than ever. Not dramatically, but there are lower anxiety scores, and a steady uptick on all of the three key questions on life satisfaction, a ‘worthwhile’ life, and happiness.
This is true across age groups – young people are happier and more satisfied than they were several years ago despite the housing crisis (it would be interesting to figure out why – does it affect too small a proportion of young people in certain parts of the country, does renting only make them slightly more unhappy, or is it just that positive things have counteracted?).
Relatively it still sucks to be in your late 40s and early 50s before life gets substantially better again, but things have improved for them, too. Women remain happier but a bit more anxious than men (women are happier across the world). It does seem to have levelled off in the last quarter, but it certainly hasn’t declined.
And most of the rest of the world seems much more miserable than us. The latest Worldwide Happiness Report puts the UK in 15th place out of more than 150 countries (up from 18th in 2012, the first report).
Why – “despite Brexit”, despite housing – have we never had it so good?
The thing that most determines people’s happiness is health and relationships (as Resolution Foundation’s report recently pointed out) – more than wealth. The NHS is still functioning, and divorce is at a 45-year low. On a much longer timeline, we no longer have children who regularly die – a pretty dramatic increase in the population’s wellbeing. I do also wonder whether the increasing ability for people to stay in touch with family and friends, including in different countries, through technology has increased life satisfaction. Getting a job is also a good way to increase your happiness, and if the Conservatives have one true triumph of their time in office it is employment.
Nevertheless, it is quite hard to square this picture of contentment with the unquestionable increasing political and policy anger. Whether you’re on the side of the Conservative Party that wants to go after young remain voters in urban areas or Leave voters outside of London, your target vote ranges from irritated to furious about politicians’ behaviour over Brexit. Activists are regularly shouted at about the NHS and school funding.
I think there are two things going on. First, we in politics do need more humility. Yes, the public are really annoyed with Westminster when asked – and they would like to punish politicians. That doesn’t mean those politicians have actually done anything particularly dramatic to voters’ lives. Adam Smith famously pointed out “there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation”, and most of the fundamentals that dictate whether people have a nice life or not aren’t in our control. The total lack of interest most people have in politics is fairly rational. It would take a big effort – and I think Corbyn might manage it – to really hurt most people. It’s not obvious that any scenario in Brexit will make a big difference to the day to day experiences of most people either way.
Occasionally, though, we need to recognise warning signs – and that is in those areas where politicians’ control and the dictators of people’s happiness truly overlap. On those few things – the health system; enough of a pension; a house – we should see political anger as an indicator of serious future unhappiness. In other words, we have some time – but not infinite time – to put things right before life satisfaction takes a real dip. These are domestic issues, and they are getting little attention.
The state and politicians unquestionably matter. But not quite as much as we often think they do (a good thing, since we don’t want it to be too easy for them to wreak havoc) – and, sadly, not on the areas that often absorbs their attention.