A Better Politics: How Government Can Make Us Happier, by Danny Dorling

Book of the week: Facts and figures can get you only so far when it comes to political change, says Gordon Marsden

March 31, 2016
Person jumping for joy on seafront promenade
Source: Getty

I am looking at a book cover showing a cluster of small brown wooden balls with frowny faces, alongside one smiley one. Given that this book’s subtitle is How Government Can Make Us Happier, we might infer that Danny Dorling thinks that the chances of such a thing happening are fairly slim. In fact, the book hums with what its preface calls “ideas that are grounded in practical idealism”. Dorling, a social geographer, deploys his formidable grasp of statistics to argue vigorously for an enabling state to do this, rather than one simply holding the ring.

It was published to coincide with the United Nations International Day of Happiness (yes, there is such a thing). Happiness has saturated the song lyrics of people as diverse as Ken Dodd and Pharrell Williams. But until recently we have shied away from analysis – like Sir Francis Bacon’s “jesting Pilate” asking Jesus “what is truth and would not stay for an answer”.

Dorling, however, does want to stay for answers. He also wants to change the terms of trade. He wants to inspire a better politics with “new measures of what matters most to us”, and he rapid-fires some: “The avoidance of misery, the gaining of long term life satisfaction, the feeling of fulfilment, of worth, of kindness, of usefulness and love.”

He fleshes this out in an introductory chapter, “Basic Needs”, stuffed with data that he will go on to use to argue for rafts of policies in chapters headed “Safety”, “Love”, “Esteem” and “Education”. He proclaims that “we live in an information-rich, scientific world, but this is a recent phenomenon. Yet while we might not fully understand climate change or atomic physics, we should now find it easier to understand what makes us happy.”

This is where I become somewhat queasy with the premise and methodology, remembering T. S. Eliot’s 1934 work The Rock, with its prescient message for our digital age: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

The discursive arguments in Dorling’s opening chapter with statistical tables shoehorned in (one is entitled “Regression equation of subjective happiness and major life events”) make it an uneasy read of chattiness, factoids, percentages and probabilities. The danger of echoing Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind summing up the horse (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth”) is only narrowly avoided.

This is a pity, because Dorling takes us to territory that is by turns shocking and novel. To, for example, our individual responses to death – grief over the loss of parents, the need for good end-of-life judgements and our corporate responsibility for the mournful disparities between infant mortality in the UK’s inner cities compared with more prosperous areas.

And he is certainly right to bang on about government cuts hampering local authorities from undertaking proactive social care and healthcare, and to challenge the stark gap between ill health and mortality in inner town/city areas (like, for example, central Blackpool) and the leafier ones. The statistical gaps that he exposes between the spending of some of our West European neighbours on such care and that of the UK (in some cases we spend 27 to 49 per cent less) give him the moral authority to say “there is something very wrong at the heart of our politics”.

His words on intergenerational unfairness, the destructiveness of present economic models for work-life balance and our judicial system’s lack of balance between rehabilitation and retribution, are searing, as when he notes that 7 per cent of children in the UK have had a parent in prison. He argues that countries with increasing inward fearfulness and economic inequality “end up with fewer carers and more bean counters” (and in the latter group, he namechecks lawyers, bankers and accountants).

The chapter on esteem contains some of Dorling’s strongest critique – about having a job that is valued, and the importance of care and voluntary work as crucial forces for social cohesion. He is pungent on the hermetically sealed worlds of the super-rich and the media that idolise them.

Some of the rest of the book is a mixed bag. He is good on women: how far they have come and how far they need to go. His statistics show that home ownership has become a chimera for Generation Rent. I think, however, that he overstates its abiding role in happiness. For my grandmother, moving in the 1920s into one of Manchester’s new council houses – where my mother grew up, and I spent my first two years of life – was just as liberating.

On education, he echoes progressive fears about schooling and the merchandising of higher education. But his focus is curiously narrowscape. There is little on the emotional power of lifelong learning for transformation, especially for women, that I saw consistently over 20 years as an Open University tutor.

Dorling’s concluding battle cry is for the UK government to “do what will make most people happier and take more care to avoid causing harm”. He adds, “I am impressed by facts and figures.”

But facts and figures are not the be-all and end-all. As a politician, I can take this book’s cumulatives – on the devastation that the Work Capability Assessment is wreaking, or the unmet needs for children with special educational needs – and use them in debate. But it is the individual examples crossing our lives – the woman who came to my MP’s surgery after her teenage son with Asperger syndrome had thrown himself off a roof; the 30 years I saw my mother battle against disabilities and osteoporosis – that cut through, beyond the world of social science.

“All of us can hope and dream and act and advocate,” says Dorling. But to do so effectively, we have to engage with dimensions that are little mentioned in this book. These include the paradoxes of our new digital world – how it links and makes the world our conscience chamber, but also can dull our sensitivities, atomise and commodify us. And how, in the 21st century – post 9/11, post-2008 economic crash – new challenges about individual and national identity are emerging. There is a renewed sense of the importance of images, of belief, of rituals spiritual and secular and of public ceremony (of which the response to Princess Diana’s death was a harbinger and David Bowie’s passing the latest example).

This is the new world in which we all have to live. One episode from the 2010 election, of a journalist interviewing a prominent politician on a train, sticks in my mind. As the train went through breathtaking scenery, the politician’s aide exclaimed, “What an amazing view.” The aide and journalist stopped to look out the window; but the politician talked on, neither looking nor drawing breath. Alice Walker’s character Celine puts it pithily in her book The Color Purple: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Dorling concludes A Better Politics elegiacally: “When people look back on their lives…they wish they had not had to worry so much through so much of their life about so many issues they later realised were quite trivial.”

Well, therein lies the challenge for a better politics of connection.

The American politician Mario Cuomo famously said: “You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose.” But sometimes we need to govern in poetry too, or at least aspire to.

Gordon Marsden is shadow minister for higher and further education and skills, and a former editor of History Today.

A Better Politics: How Government Can Make Us Happier
By Danny Dorling
London Publishing Partnership, 192pp, £8.99
ISBN 9781907994531
Published 20 March 2016

The author

Are politicians interested in building a better politics? And are they any more interested in listening to academics than to the general public?

“Politicians are normally exhausted,” observes Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder professor of geography, University of Oxford. “They do a very good job of appearing interested, but most are tired when they talk to you. They try to do too much and are often workaholics. Some are driven by liking the limelight a little too much for the good of the rest of us. But my overall impression of politicians is that they really would like to be remembered for having done a good job, if not a brilliant job, and so they do listen because they do not want to make mistakes.”

What of academics’ obligation to contribute to the political process? “The job of a professor is to profess, to declare openly what you believe to be true and to admit that you were wrong when you discover you were or when others demonstrate you are wrong,” says Dorling. “Given that, there are a great many people you should be engaging with if they wish to engage with you – for mutual benefit. If you are a social scientist and interested in understanding and explaining British society, politics, economics and geography, it is very hard to do that without some understanding of politicians and policymakers.”

He adds: “Participant observation can also be enjoyable and can help you make fewer mistakes as an academic. Every time I give a public talk, someone teaches me something new by asking a question I had not anticipated. Every time I meet a politician, I learn something I did not know or hear them say something I did not expect them to say. The whole sum of human knowledge is not held in books, papers and datasets just waiting to be analysed.”

Read Danny Dorling’s comments on A Better Politics in full in this Q&A

Karen Shook


Print headline: If you’re happy can you know it?

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