Steve Richards: Will Cameron's idea of happiness last?

There are hopes that 'wellbeing' will become as important a factor in determining policy as the monthly inflation figures

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David Cameron has made another speech about his Big Society. I confidently predict he will continue making them until the next election at least. Concepts are less fragile than specific policies and can endure as long as their advocates are keen. The Coalition might be in a muddle over some policies. The Big Society is not a policy.

Convenient, woolly evasiveness is not the only reason for the longevity. Senior figures in Cameron's inner circle are as gripped by it now as they were in the slightly more innocent days of opposition. Cameron's speech yesterday was dismissed wearily by some as a fourth relaunch, but there is always something significant in prime-ministerial persistence. After all, while a theme can endure, it can also be easily dropped by a previously evangelising advocate. The removal of a policy can destabilise a government. Look at the tensions over the NHS.

But if Cameron wished quietly to ditch his Big Society he could do so and few would notice. In the mid-1990s John Major dropped his "back to basics" concept amid adulterous revelations. The sudden silence on his big idea was the least of his problems. When Major dropped a policy, all hell let loose. Cameron chooses the opposite course in relation to his overriding theme, one that shaped his bid to be leader, the Conservatives' election campaign, and now their programme in government.

There are much highlighted limits to the Big Society. The theme is freshly projected but is not especially new. Margaret Thatcher looked to the voluntary sector as an alternative to the state, and yet the 1980s is not remembered as a time when society felt at its most cohesive. But there is a difference now to the Thatcherite approach that propels Cameron's intentions into a potentially far more interesting place.

On some levels he seeks to measure the impact of his Big Society approach and, therefore, to be held to account for it. His speeches on the subject are not delivered every few months as a defiant, therapeutic pause from the mundane chaos of policy-making. On the contrary, they are an attempt to inform and determine policy-making.

Quite a substantial part of his speech yesterday focused on the idea of "wellbeing". This is not some form of psychobabble. The notion of measuring "happiness" was first mooted by Cameron and his entourage in opposition and, if anything, is being clung to as more of a defining theme now than it was then. One senior insider tells me he hopes this will be seen as one of the Government's main legacies: formal measures on "wellbeing" should become as important a factor in determining policy as more orthodox economic measurements, such as the monthly inflation figures.

The challenges are obvious and might still reduce a genuinely sought-after goal within No 10 to the fleetingly peripheral, the equivalent of a late-1960s party where miserable people declared themselves to be happy for an hour or two after a few joints and a vat of wine. Attempts at definition are unavoidably imprecise and those who have tried tend to conclude that happiness is most evident in countries with a strong social-democratic tradition accompanied by consistently high levels of public investment. No one can accuse the Coalition of being social democratic, although they insist that they seek social democratic ends. But this does not necessarily mean Cameron's focus on wellbeing will lead inevitably to a "happy clappy" vacuum. The theme might also head in a much more interesting direction, to an emphasis in policy-making that is distinct from the dry, hard-headed calculations of a resolutely pure free-marketeer.

The only effective test of any concept – from Tony Blair's Third Way to Cameron's Wellbeing – is the impact on policy. No 10 insiders offer two immediate examples. First, while it might make economic sense to close libraries and post books to former borrowers from Amazon, a wellbeing index would recognise the importance of libraries to communities and their quality of life. They are a binding agency at a local level. A government that took wellbeing into account as a formally recognised obligation would support a local library even though it was a more costly option.

Another example relates to the Post Office. Local branches might be expensive to keep open. On grounds of efficiency they would be closed. But in terms of wellbeing they score highly – another much valued local institution. On those grounds there is a stronger case for keeping them open to counter, say, Treasury exclamations that they cost too much money.

The overlooked politics of this seemingly peripheral topic make it more urgently relevant and central. Like its New Labour predecessors, the Conservative leadership views political opponents like a hawk. Recently, it has been watching Ed Miliband's partial advocacy of so- called "Blue Labour" policies and his emphasis on optimism with some concern. Like the Big Society, Blue Labour does not imply precise policies, but the theme enables Miliband to venture on to potentially extremely fruitful terrain as the protector of local institutions and communities against Cameron's dour revolutionaries who pay destructively excessive homage to the market.

In the reassuring position of a conservative traditionalist, Miliband puts the case for the limits of markets as well as the state, defending the NHS, the local shop, local post offices and libraries. I doubt if many people will be reflecting on Blue Labour in a few years' time, but given that politics is reported through a largely conservative media that regards "Red Ed" as the ultimate insult, this is a useful prism for Miliband.

As the Conservatives embark on a programme of unprecedented reform, albeit with less swagger than last autumn, they are vulnerable once more to charges of being the nasty ones revelling in iniquitous upheaval, with Labour positioned as the party that stands up for communities and the institutions that bind them together.

The charge has more potency as a result of the Coalition's changed dynamics. With Liberal Democrats newly eager to claim credit for progressive revisions to policies, there is a danger for the Tories from this direction, too, that both are portrayed and perceived as mean-minded reactionaries. A focus on wellbeing is a counter to both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and propels them on to terrain where they become defenders of the local post office or library, although there are difficulties given the scale of closures currently under way.

The motive is by no means only political. There is something of the much- repeated phrase Tony Blair deployed in relation to Iraq. While some in his party are indifferent at best, it is worse than they think. Cameron and his most senior advisers believe in this project. Some of them are in politics to deliver it. They mean it and will show they do by seeking to be tested on whether "wellbeing" becomes accepted criteria in policy-making. No doubt there will be get-out clauses but being held to account for happiness is a bold move.





s.richards@independent.co.uk

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