Faith & Reason: This index of comforts can never be enough

Even those who have offered alternatives to John Prescott's quality- of-life barometer have confined themselves to material issues. But what lies outside the crumple-zone?
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THE ANNOUNCEMENT by John Prescott on Monday of a "quality-of-life barometer" provoked a light storm of comment and criticism. That the welfare of the nation is to be gauged by measures other than GDP, inflation and employment was generally welcomed - after all, money does not necessarily translate into happiness, as the National Lottery seems to be demonstrating, to everyone's secret delight.

But the 13 "headline indicators" the Government had chosen were too few for some. Why not plot poverty, drug abuse or violent crime? What about natural beauty or rural tranquillity, complained the Council for the Protection of Rural England. In The Independent Ann Treneman regretted that there was to be no register of dog turds (surely a gross domestic product in anyone's book).

Part of the purpose of the exercise must be to inform our understanding of the complexity of the issues that confront the Government. Every measure it takes is a compromise, a trade-off between competing benefits. These various indicators will help it to show that its policies are maximising the common good. Nonetheless, though they recognise that quality of life is something distinct from standard of living, every one of them (with the possible exception of the index of skylarks) seems still to estimate our well being in material or physical terms. Surely there are other factors.

The secret of happiness is not just - or, some would say, not even - being comfortable but being content; yet the bias of our consumer society runs strongly the other way. The more we possess, the more we want. Our cups may be running over, but the water we're drinking is salty.

So much that is reckoned to enhance our lives seems in fact only to burden them more. Take, for example, technological advance. Just as new roads serve only to generate more traffic, so the effect of built-in obsolescence and the promise of constant innovation is only to breed dissatisfaction. Which our advertising industry, using every available surface and airwave, does its world-beating best to encourage.

There is, of course, no obvious way to gauge the nation's contentment; but that does not mean that it is not a crucial consideration which should influence public policy. The same is true of good relationships. Does our society cultivate them or obstruct them? Of late, the triumph of middle-class values seems to have made privacy and independence a national obsession. More and more people are choosing to live on their own. Marriage is only for the traditionalists, and all our relationships are provisional.

Our public spaces are carved apart by increasingly busy roads, on which people drive alone, isolated from each other by their crumple zones and climate-control systems and hi-fi SurroundSound. Meanwhile, the imminent explosion of digital television is set to make the common currency of popular culture increasingly rare. One day, all of us will be living in niches.

A third sine qua non of the good life is a sense of achievement. The problem with Mr Prescott's index of employment is that it continues to rate paid work above unpaid, and fails to distinguish between that which is worthwhile and satisfying and that which is not. But we should not pretend that it is a greater social good to be employed making armaments for export than to be "unemployed" making a home. Of course, a job is a job is a job if you're desperate, but work that saves or enhances a life is better by far than work that blights one, or ends it. Is it possible, one wonders, to measure the feeling of a day well spent?

Potentially the biggest fly in the ointment of affluence is a bad conscience. Now that the trickledown theory has been tested and discredited, it is difficult to enjoy a rising standard of living without also suffering a surge of guilt. Anyone who doesn't bury their head in the Daily Mail must be aware that the poor are poor in part because the fairly well-off are fairly well-off. Meanwhile, the aid agencies and environmental pressure groups beg us to be less selfish in our consumption of our, or the earth's, resources. Once, perhaps, our hearts would have swelled with pride to see the Ministry of Defence test-firing its first cruise missile; today, we are more likely to get that million-dollar feeling when the Treasury cancels Nicaragua's debt.

Of course, the problem with any putative index of the national conscience would be how to read it. After all, the people who are most aware of their own shortcomings are usually not the inveterate sinners but the saints. Perhaps the Government could concentrate in its first term on maximising our feelings of guilt by making us aware of our responsibilities, and could then win a second term with a promise to relieve our consciences with some real reform. "New Labour, New Leaf" might be the slogan.

But then, of course, believers would want to add that in the final analysis (or the Last Judgement, as it is technically known) the quality of our lives is not measured by us, or by our government, but by God. And that is a rather sobering thought.

Huw Spanner is publisher of `Third Way' magazine