Now that the Conservatives are trying, wisely, to reposition themselves as a party of fellow-feeling free from the old, damaging charge of selfish greed, they are increasingly using the language of feeling.
It can be dangerous. Although Conservatism has a long and honourable history of social responsibility and concern for the less fortunate, I think it is rather un-Conservative to dwell incautiously on abstractions such as happiness. Pursuing abstractions is what statists do.
David Cameron spoke recently of wellbeing — the new Conservative buzz word. “It’s time we focused not on GDP but on GWB — general wellbeing” he said. “There’s more to life than money.” Wellbeing, he went on, has to do with our surroundings, our culture and “above all, the strength of our relationships”.
It is true that wellbeing is not quite the same as happiness, but the idea clearly has its origins in the work of Professor Lord Layard of the London School of Economics, who caused a great stir a year ago with his views on happiness in society and what promotes it. I think it is fair enough to assume that Cameron means something quite like happiness, or at least contentment.
I accept that although we are richer than in 1950, we are no happier. Of course I would like to see more happiness (or less unhappiness) in this country. I do believe that politics is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or at least the liberty to pursue happiness. But the idea that there might be some sort of happiness agenda among new Conservatives is distinctly alarming.
When Cameron says that “improving society’s sense of wellbeing is the central political challenge of our time”, that sounds like a happiness agenda to me.
The essential difference between left and right — between Conservatives and Labour — is that the left seeks actively to intervene in every aspect of life and to set one agenda for us all, whereas the right seeks to promote freedom and security, so that people can pursue their own many agendas. The left is hands on, the right is hands off. It is the difference between enforcing and enabling.
The suspicion that Conservatives may be toying with some kind of felicific or hedonic calculus, to organise our joys for us just like the social engineering tendency, is too terrible. I doubt that they are, but it is all too easy, when talking the language of happiness, for them to sound as if they might be. One wonders what David Cameron had in mind for “celebrating parenthood”, as he promises. In politics, as in science, it is surely more effective to eliminate what is clearly wrong rather than to pursue what may elusively be right. The greatest obstacle to happiness, obviously enough, is unhappiness and unhappiness is something that can sometimes be relieved.
One of the chief causes of unhappiness which a government — or at least Britain’s government-controlled National Health Service — could do something about is mental illness. Relieving someone’s mental distress might not make him or her happy, but it would make them feel freer to pursue happiness in their own ways.
Treatments for mental illness are still quite crude, but there is no doubt that modern medicine can help many people very significantly. Of the talking therapies, the only one that impresses me is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), a rapid retraining of one’s negative thoughts and feelings, which is both effective and cheap. Modern antidepressants can be almost miraculously effective, although not cheap.
The country is full of people who need such help — people who are profoundly unhappy in one way or another. Most families have at least one person who is made wretched by depression or anxiety, whose relationships and whose work are blighted by it. It is now clearly recognised that even quite young children can suffer badly from mood disorders. One in six people suffers from significant depression or anxiety. About 40% of disability is due to mental illness.
Yet mental illness or, as it is now usually called in the euphemistic spirit of the times, mental health is scandalously neglected. Common as they are, miserable though they are, depression and anxiety get only 2% of NHS spending. Mental health units are often little more than hellholes and there are hardly any beds anyway. Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) suggest that everyone suffering from depression should be offered CBT because it is so cost-effective.
Yet the guidelines are being ignored because there is not enough money. Care in the community is all too often a double oxymoron — no care and no community. Yet if the acute pain of mental illness were recognised in the way that physical pain attracts instant sympathy and painkillers, this cruelty and neglect could not continue.
For once I find myself in total agreement with Polly Toynbee, the Guardian columnist, that this is a scandal. But I am in total disagreement with her attitude to it. Drawing on a report on depression by Lord Layard, of happiness fame, to be published tomorrow, she argues it would be cheap and easy to relieve a huge amount of mental suffering, to do away with whole sloughs of despond.
As Layard points out, if the NHS ignored Nice guidelines to offer some very expensive new cancer drug, there would be a public scandal. Why is it that there is no public outrage at the shortage of money that goes to relieve mental illness and at the way Nice guidelines are being ignored? Toynbee and Layard are both entirely right.
Where Toynbee, a cheerleader for another natural interventionist, Gordon Brown, remains alarming, though, is in her general view that happiness is the concern of the state. She even believes that happiness can be objectively quantified by measuring electrical activity in the brain. She thinks that it would be easy to audit the progress of national happiness each year, just as we monitor the GDP.
The “national happiness audit” would enable us to form and judge social policies, she explains. This is without a doubt the scariest idea I have read for many years. If Cameron is going to carry on talking of gross domestic happiness, he would be well advised to distance himself from this horrifying vision of a Happy New World.