Alastair Campbell on the politics of happiness

Here’s a nice piece by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, on the politics and philosophy of happiness. Campbell has bravely been very open about his struggles with depression, and I think he’s done a lot to change perceptions of mental illness – because he is so well-known as a bruiser / tough guy / big gorilla of Westminster. What I mean is, he has shown that mental illness can go side-by-side with strength and high functioning, and has made it easier for other men to admit to depression without being perceived as weak.

An interesting passage from the article:


By asking the question “Am I happy?”, and via the answer setting out what I mean by happiness, there is a political route that can be taken, by asking another question – “Can politics deliver happiness, and should it try?” It is a question that, among others, the prime minister, David Cameron, has been asking. There is much I disagree with Cameron about. I think some of his policies will directly cause unhappiness among some of his electorate. But the idea that happiness should at least be considered when putting forward a policy proposal is a good one. About halfway through Tony Blair’s premiership, his policy advisers tried to interest him in this agenda, presenting him with a paper, “Life satisfaction and its policy implications” [does anyone know where I can find this report?]. He didn’t really go for it. It is Cameron who is taking up some of the ideas presented to the predecessor on whom he sometimes models himself. There will be scepticism about his commitment. But I hope he is serious.

Interesting that Blair should have rejected the idea of measuring well-being. Nonetheless, I would argue that the ‘politics of well-being’ really started during the New Labour years, and was very much a product of its post-Thatcheritee touchy-feely ethos. I would say one key moment in the emergence of the politics of well-being was the publication by the New Labour think-tank, Demos, of a pamphlet called The Good Life in 1998. Demos was set up by Tony Blair’s former head of policy, Geoff Mulgan, who became a real champion for the politics of well-being, both at Demos and subsequently at the Young Foundation – he’s also one of the founders of the organisation Action for Happiness.
Another key moment in the emergence of the politics of well-being was the establishment of the national curriculum subject, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), which started off as a school subject in Southampton in 1997, before becoming a national subject in primary schools in 2003, then in secondary schools as well in 2007.
The third key moment for the emergence of the politics of well-being was the publication of Lord Richard Layard’s depression report in 2006, which laid the foundation for the establishment of a national mental health service in 2007, involving the training of 6,000 new cognitive therapists – though I believe this policy, known as Improved Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT) was finally enacted under Gordon Brown’s premiership rather than Tony Blair’s.
Finally, the fourth key moment in the emergence of the politics of well-being was the publication of the Sen-Stiglitz-Fitoussi report in 2009, which led to the decision by the French government, and subsequently the British government, to measure national well-being and make it a stated goal of public policy.
This last step happened under David Cameron, who has been quite explicit in his support of well-being as a policy goal. Cameron’s Coalition government also stumped up £400 million in support of IAPT. However, it’s worth noting that Cameron’s education secretary, Michael Gove, is much less enthusiastic about Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning in schools than his New Labour predecessors, and that it looks likely this subject will be scrapped in a review due to be released this year.
Anyway, back to Campbell’s article. He suggests: “we cannot know if we have lived a truly happy life until the very end.” That is, in fact, exactly what Aristotle said as well. Call no man blessed until his life has ended – because fortune can come and kick you in the nuts. Well, he didn’t say those exact words, but words to that effect.

That’s why I don’t think you can really measure a person’s eudaimonia through questionnaires. To really evaluate a person’s eudaimonia, you’d have to wait until after they died – in fact, you’d have to wait until several decades after their death, until the dust of history has settled, and you can try and see their life as a whole, and all its impacts and consequences.

Alan Turing, for example, one of the inventors of the computer, had a fairly miserable end to his life – he was chemically castrated by the British government for being a homosexual, and later killed himself. No one celebrated his life or noted his death, and if you’d asked him how happy he was, in the last weeks of his life, he would probably have answered ‘not very happy’. It is only in the last few years that his genius and his contribution to society has been recognised. He lived a good life, even if it wasn’t recognised at the time.

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