The miserablists need a politics they can believe in
It was a bizarre spat. The Daily Mail's front page spluttered with outrage at a junior transport minister's musings on national gloom and pessimism. The paper seemed to take it as a personal affront - and in a way, of course, it was. No one tries harder to foster national anger, despair and fear than the Mail. No one paints a grimmer daily portrait of a nation that's been in terminal moral decline since Lord Northcliffe rolled the first edition off the presses in 1896. When asked at the end of his life for his magic formula, Northcliffe wheezed: "I give them a daily hate." So no wonder they were incensed that anyone might challenge the national gloom they have wrought.
The roads minister Tom Harris had pointed out that living standards have risen, crime is down, people live longer and they enjoy more pleasures and entertainments of every kind. "So why is everyone so bloody miserable?" he asked. Are "crippling levels of cynicism and pessimism part of the human condition ... Were we always like this? What happened to that postwar optimism and commitment to common values? Are they gone for ever, and if so, why? If not, how can we bring them back?"
He was forced to scramble into the studios to apologise: "Timing isn't my strong point," he admitted. Indeed, he didn't pick his moment, with unemployment starting to rise, petrol up 22% in a year, consumer prices up by 3.3% and the average family facing a drop of £8 a week in disposable income. At the same time, house prices are tumbling, mortgages cost more and new mortgages are vanishing amid warnings that things may get as bad as the early 1980s. So it probably wasn't the best week for a minister to be puzzled by pessimism.
But his remarks raise interesting questions - the first being a reminder that ministers are not allowed to raise interesting questions. If they say anything beyond the anodyne mantras of the day they will be crushed by the same negative forces that complain that modern politicians are uninspiring, never tell the truth and never engage honestly with the public. This is not a partisan point: any Tory saying anything out loud that is mildly speculative but off-script will be mangled just as fast by media that are, paradoxically, eager for politicians to say something even slightly original - yet squash the breath out of them if they do. Thinking aloud is not allowed. Indeed, thinking of any kind is dangerous. It was not always so at Westminster, or not to this degree.
But what of the substance of Harris's remarks? Let's imagine that he had made them before the recent turmoil; in the good times his words would have been just as true, for the public mood of cynicism and bloody miserableness flourished alongside healthy GDP growth. Loathing of politics and politicians was already reaching a peak, with disbelief of every fact and statistic, and support for any anti-politics gesture (David Davis, the Irish no, refusal to vote) - to the point where parliamentary democracy itself looked rocky.
Who's to blame, and what might be done? Culprit number one is undoubtedly the media, more virulent than in almost any other western democracy, with too many newspapers competing for a shrinking readership. The Mail's doom-laden poison pretends to speak for an imaginary "middle England", just as the raucous Sun pretends to speak for a fictitious "white van man", reflecting back to the nation mythical caricatures of itself. Mercifully, real people are nicer. Three maverick rightwing owners controlling most of the press set the tone and the agenda - bullying the BBC to follow them in the name of "balance", which the BBC too often does, uncertain of its own compass. Rabidly anti-European, socially penal, xenophobic, anti-state, they spread the simple message that nothing works except markets mitigated by punishment. Instead of breaking away, the dominant voices of the blogosphere often echo and intensify this pessimism and malice.
The impact of newspapers is hard to measure, but over a century their caterwauling has helped make the British the worst Europeans, with the widest inequality, one of the lowest top tax rates, and more of its citizens jailed than anyone else. An Observer poll shows we are more likely to deny climate change, making it hard for politicians to take brave and necessary action - consider the Mail's constant promotion of climate doubt. Measles is back, and officials warn of the great decline in vaccination. Why? It's the Mail's weird campaign against MMR. And how spitefully the Mail makes all women miserable, like the mean girl in the playground bitching about the others - too thin, too fat, too bossy, too ambitious, too brassy, too chav, too divorced. The only good Mail women give up top careers for their children. No wonder this country is a more miserable place than it need be: fearful, mistrustful, angry.
But politicians deserve their share of blame. New Labour, modelled from the dull clay of focus groups, rarely dared challenge the nostrums of the media moguls. To keep pessimism at bay, people need a political endeavour to believe in. Politicians courting popularity by appealing to selfish individualism rightly earn contempt: they threw that 2p bribe back at Brown. Social animals need encouraging towards that "optimism and commitment to common values" whose passing Tom Harris regrets. But when both parties cling together in a deadly embrace to prevent any choice between them, politics is rightly despised.
Harris is right in one important regard: there never was a better time to be alive for this European generation, freer to shape their own destinies, freer to be themselves, defying the Mail's yearning for a better yesterday that never was.
But in another way, Harris was badly wrong. Airily he boasts of "average" per capita growth - but Labour hasn't understood the hard facts revealed in the latest ONS figures. Half the population has had little growth for five years, and a third - including skilled workers - has suffered a real fall. Homeowners saw their capital rise - but that may turn to dust. City bonuses grotesquely skew "average" earnings, while incomes fracture all the way up the scale among the top half. We are not two but three or four nations now: what's good for those on professional salaries has done no good to the rest.
All new research here and abroad shows how inequality diminishes wellbeing and makes people unhappier. Labour should be explaining these basic facts, persuading voters that it need not be so. Recapturing that postwar progressive optimism is what Labour's for.