According to the OECD, arguably the world’s leading think tank, not only have most people in the UK become better off over the last eight years but poverty has dropped and inequality declined. These findings will force a change of script from the Government’s many critics and even from ministers who have pleaded mea culpa in the face of earlier evidence of widening inequality.
The OECD findings further highlight the paradox I am addressing in my concluding essay for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation project on ‘new social evils’. It was already difficult to explain why it is, when we are living longer, healthier lives, enjoying greater opportunities and freedoms and demonstrating more tolerance and even, arguably, compassion towards our fellow citizens, we are also so prone to say society is going to the dogs. Combining an internet survey of 3,500 people and commissioned essays from leading thinkers across the political spectrum, the JRF project shows this social pessimism to be as prevalent amongst the public as it is among public intellectuals. Left leaning thinkers tended to explain our unease in a time of plenty by highlighting social polarisation. If the OECD report is correct this argument may need to be re-examined.
Forgive my unformed thoughts (after all, that’s what blogs are for) but I am beginning to develop a new theory to explain social misery amidst social progress. This came to me when I pondered the impact of the coming recession on the public mood. The obvious assumption would be that our pessimism would be exacerbated by a downturn – a bit like a reworking of the old office witticism “they said ‘smile, things could be worse’ so I smiled and they were”.
But the assumption may well be wrong. Not only is there no simple correlation between objective conditions and subjective mood, it can be at times of greatest threat and danger that communities feel most united in solidarity and hope. Throughout the nineteen seventies and eighties the people of conflict-torn Northern Ireland regularly reported among the highest levels of life satisfaction in the UK.
It does not have to be the case that economic adversity adds to social pessimism. What may be the determining factors? Try fairness and leadership. It is important that the pain of the recession is seen to be felt appropriately. This probably means three things: that those who are most held responsible suffer the most (thus the ‘no bonuses’ strings attached to Government bank bail outs), that as much as possible is done to stop a drama turning into a crisis (thus the emphasis on stopping repossessions and small business failures) and that the most vulnerable in society are protected (thus the Government’s defence of public spending in a downturn).
So far the Government seems to be getting this message broadly right. Indeed, Phil Woolas’s controversial comments about immigration at the weekend can be seen as another sign of ministers’ determination to counter claims of unfairness. From the public’s perspective it is one thing for economic migrants to cash in on a strong UK economy, it is another for those migrants to be competing for scarce jobs and resources in a downturn.
On leadership I still feel that none of the Party leaders have managed to frame what is happening in a way that is realistic, compelling and heartening. We need the kind of message that Churchill was brilliant at delivering: we are in a very bad place but if we stick together and do the right thing we will pull through. Currently the message we are hearing veers between ‘don’t panic it may all still be OK’ and ‘the world is collapsing but Gordon Brown is its saviour’. As for the increasingly disappointing David Cameron, just when he might have been expected to show how he is a new kind of leader he has retreated into an oppositionalist comfort zone.
But the bigger point I am trying to get my head round is the link between social unease, affluence and consumption. Here is my tentative argument. As individuals most of us want to feel useful, that our life has a purpose and that we are giving something back. We like to have fun and say we want to win the lottery but, in fact, the most consistent sources of satisfaction are the feeling we are doing a good job and that we looking after our loved ones. If this is true for individuals why shouldn’t it be true for society? In other words if things feel too easy we become uneasy. If we don’t know how to deal with that sense of unease we channel it into aggression – towards Government, towards outsiders and towards society as a whole. The perception of a social deficit becomes self fulfilling.
To this account one of the most vital roles – indeed possibly the most vital role – of politics is to shape, engender and sustain a sense of social purpose. For a variety of powerful reasons both major parties have largely abandoned this objective. A tough recession may provide an opportunity for politicians to reclaim their role of the articulators and mobilisers of social meaning. So far the signs are not encouraging.