Friday, April 22, 2011

Walking on sunshine

How tickled Ken Dodd must be to discover the Government is trying to get us all to sing his old hit “Happiness”.

The Diddymen in Downing Street are spending £2 million trying to find out what makes us happy.

What with war, unemployment, cuts, chaos in the NHS and the blubbing of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, you’d think they had enough to worry about.

But be warned, this Ken Dodd politics boils down to a new way for the Government to control how we live.

They will conclude we are happy if we are healthy and therefore they’ll order us to stop smoking, drinking and eating the “wrong” food.

Actually it’s none of their business how we live our lives. Governments cannot make us happy.

Their job is to keep us secure and reasonably prosperous. The rest is up to us.

Luckily we don’t take this nonsense terribly seriously. Responses to the Office for National Statistics survey of what makes us happy include looking at pretty girls, better pies, cheese and tomato toasties with ketchup on the side and better TV programmes.

Even being allowed to smoke in pubs would make some people happier, it seems.

It’s impossible to measure happiness or even define what it is.They can’t accurately measure Britain’s balance of trade, the inflation rate, the level of economic growth, the crime rate, how many people are unemployed or what the number of illegal immigrants in this country really is.

We treat the statistics as Gospel but they’re not. They are approximate stabs at coming up with something roughly near the mark.

You’d think adding up numbers would be simple but if they can’t manage that how can they possibly measure something as nebulous as “happiness”?

What is it? How long does it last? Is it the same as contentment? Is it a one-off emotion sparked by something nice happening to you – or is it a state of mind?

I was happy last week when we went away to Cornwall for a few days and walked the dogs on a beautiful, near-deserted beach in glorious spring sunshine. Does that mean I am happy?

I doubt it – if only because there are so many things our Government does, from needlessly “reforming” the NHS to madly waging war, which make me angry.

If you took all the advice on the internet, you’d end up miserably confused.

A quick search shows that – according to “scientists” – happiness is contagious and spreads among family and friends; the more we try to be happy the more miserable we become; the colour blue makes us happy; money does buy happiness; no it doesn’t; happiness is earning more than £50,000 a year; being rich makes you unhappy.

Having a fourth child makes you unhappy; fathers talking to their teenage sons make them happy; you’re happy if you earn more than your friends; you’re happy if you eat pizza in front of the TV and live in Norwich.

You can be happy if you don’t marry a neurotic, don’t worry about your career, to go church and stay thin; or if you sleep six hours a night, enjoy four shopping sprees a month and take two holidays a year.

This whole nonsense began, of course, in America, land of the neurotic, where “the pursuit of happiness” is written into the Constitution.

It’s been imported by David Cameron’s personal guru, Steve Hilton, and no doubt when their happiness report comes out we’ll be told we’re all actually quite cheerful really.

It wasn’t happiness but “the economy, stupid” which Bill Clinton saw as the one and only issue when he was running for President.

He realised the job of a Government was limited to creating a stable society we can build our lives around.

It’s still the economy, stupid. Our financial well-being has a direct effect on our happiness. Having a job, a decent income, a roof over our heads and enough to eat – Governments can help us achieve these things.

When the economy goes wrong, the most worthwhile contribution politicians can make to the sum of human happiness is to repair it.

But beyond that, what makes life worthwhile is not in the gift of any politician and they shouldn’t pretend it is.

They don’t choose our friends and loved ones. They don’t give us sunshine on deserted beaches. They don’t give us nice sandwiches or enjoyable telly.

I’m all in favour of spreading a little happiness. A new organsiation called Action for Happiness wants to do just that.

Yet I can’t help thinking this isn’t about encouraging random acts of kindness but about controlling how we live.

Especially when you know the Government has a “Behavioural Insight Team” aiming to find “­intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves” about diet, obesity and alcohol.

When he became Tory leader, David Cameron told the party faithful to “let sunshine win the day” which presumably makes him and Nick Clegg the Morecambe and Wise of British politics.

Even so, they may like to know that Ken Dodd’s greatest hit was not “Happiness” but “Tears”.

Monday, April 18, 2011

More fool us

We are at war and we are officially getting poorer. So what do our MPs do? They give themselves more expenses.

A few ex-MPs have been jailed for fiddling their expenses; others have been forced into humiliated redundancy; a few – those with duck houses, moats and porn videos – have become laughing stocks.

Yet still our politicians think they can milk us for all we are worth.

And what do we get in return? A supine Parliament where a pathetically feeble 13 people voted against the latest in the series of wars we have been waging in the past few years.

Just 13 people out of 650 had the courage, temerity or conviction to object to yet another headlong rush into a war with no apparent end and no defined objective.
They just did as they were told by the whips of all three main parties.

They didn’t, for instance, object that defending civilians and ousting Mad Dog Gaddafi were not the same thing.

They didn’t vote against the war on the basis that there’s no exit strategy. They didn’t vote against because the Government’s defence cuts mean we have no weight to throw around any longer.
They didn’t vote against bec
ause there’s no money for more missiles or because putting British lives at risk for a few hundred miles of sand is none of our business.

They didn’t even vote no because, once you start trying to police civil war in the Middle East, then who knows where it will stop?

They voted yes – by 557 to 13. You may wonder why we bother with MPs at all if they can be so overwhelmingly in agreement over our latest Blairite military adventure.
Many people think there’s something wrong with the whole idea of “humanitarian bombing raids” but not our MPs.

There are a few honourable exceptions. Tom Watson (Lab, West Bromwich East) abstained, saying: “I cannot give the Prime Minister carte blanche to execute an unconvincing military plan. I've done it once before and I'll regret it for the rest of my life.”

And David Winnick (Lab Walsall North) voted against, pointing out: “In Yemen, the regime slaughtered 45 people last week. They were protesting. And Saudi Arabia actually took military action to intervene in Bahrain. Has anyone suggested that we should intervene against Saudi Arabia? Of course not.”

As well as bombing-for-peace, there’s another issue which unites most of our MPs –their expenses.

After they were found to be on the fiddle and on the take, we were promised ever so humbly that never again would our politicians betray our trust or thrust their hands deep into our pockets in order to line their own.

That contrition lasted right up to the General Election. It looked for a while as if they had learned their lesson, especially as ex-MPs like David Chaytor and Eric Illsley are now behind bars.

They were the fall guys. It’s hard to say their scams were very different from their colleagues’, from David Cameron (wisteria-cutting) and Gordon Brown (domestic cleaner) down.

Between them, our MPs repaid the taxpayer more than £1 million.

Ever since the election, MPs have been whingeing about how hard done-by they are as their expenses claims shrank from £2 million a month to £800,000.

The body set up to police them – the Parliamentary Standards Authority – came under more fire than a Libyan tank column.

Even the Prime Minister joined in, warning he would abolish the quango entirely unless it became the MPs’ flexible friend.

So they’re now getting a special Parliamentary credit card – British Excess? That’ll do nicely – to meet their home and office costs.

Another 31 MPs will be allowed to claim for second homes even though they live in commuting distance of Westminster.

Even more bizarrely, MPs will get a benefit of £2,500 per child even though they’ve voted to axe child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers.

All this extra featherbedding takes place in a period of extreme austerity.

We don’t need half a million protesters, or anarchists occupying London’s top stores, to remind us these are tough times.

The Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility admits households face falling standards of living for at least another two years.

According to one estimate, a typical family’s disposable income is expected to shrink by £1,500 this year. Another claims we’re £1 a day worse off.

Either way, everyone except bonus-rich bankers is feeling the pinch.

So where are those “I feel your pain” MPs when you need them?

The only time they take their snouts out of the trough is when they trot through the voting lobbies without thinking, without questioning and – in some cases – without even knowing what they are voting for or against.

We seem to have elected a parliament full of yes-men and yes-women milking the system for all we are worth while the rest of us get poorer and our country is yet again fighting a war that’s got nothing to do with us.

The new expenses system comes into force today. But it’s the voters – not our MPs – who are the April Fools.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Plus ca change....

Amazing isn’t it? The Government abolishes Advantage West Midlands and the Government Office of the West Midlands and the word “regional” is more or less banned from the civil service vocabulary. So what happens?

The Department for Business opens a regional office; the Department for Transport sets up a regional unit; the Department for Communities and Local Government sets up a regional office to process applications for EU funding; the Department for Business plans a “sub national” Coaching for Growth business support programme; a changed regional international trade operation is introduced; the Skills Funding Agency keeps its regional structure; the Cabinet Office keeps a regional structure for emergencies from floods to terrorism; the Home Office encourages police forces to collaborate to save costs; and the Environment Agency keeps its regional structure to deal with flooding.