Duncan Gillies: Cameron's index unlikely to put a smile on everybody's face


Forget New Labour, this is the New Age Tory Party. Just as ruthless, except, whereas Margaret Thatcher scared you when she smiled, Cameron hopes to make you feel all warm and fuzzy.

Thank goodness for politicians. The British were having a terrible old time, what with high unemployment, massive debt and the biggest cuts in public spending since anyone can remember.

But then Prime Minister David Cameron launched the "happiness index", which will measure the population's social and environmental wellbeing. Before long people will realise they don't need jobs, healthcare or any form of government support to be happy.

Happiness, after all, is a state of mind. So from April next year the number crunchers at the Office for National Statistics, those masters of measuring people's state of mind, will gather information about what makes people happy.

And if people aren't happy, they can probably expect Cameron to send someone over to tickle a smile on their sad little British faces. That's just the kind of feel-good leader he is.

Britain isn't alone, of course, in trying to measure happiness. French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced last year that he wanted to include happiness and well-being in the measurement of economic progress, while Canada is discussing the idea.

The happy kingdom of Bhutan, though, is the leader in this field. In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck put gross national happiness ahead of gross domestic product when it came to determining the welfare of the small Himalayan nation.

But Bhutan, about the size of Switzerland and with less than 1 million inhabitants, has been largely protected from the excesses and deficiencies of the western world, although the internet and TV are helping it catch up.

And as Buddhists, its citizens follow the teachings of a man who turned his back on a life of wealth and power to go in search of enlightenment.

They are taught happiness isn't tied to material possessions which, I imagine, makes it easier to smile when times get tough. Then again, the Bhutanese don't have to deal with such serious issues as the possible outcome of the Ashes series.

Cameron, though, has tried to show a softer side in introducing his index. Forget New Labour, this is the New Age Tory Party. Just as ruthless, except, whereas Margaret Thatcher scared you when she smiled, Cameron hopes to make you feel all warm and fuzzy.

Still, his "happiness index" has been called "airy fairy" by some critics.

Cameron was quick to respond.

"If I thought this was woolly and insubstantial, I wouldn't be bothering with it," he said, while making daisy chains for cabinet ministers and sending out positive vibes to constituents across the nation.

Maybe the British could learn a thing or two from Cameron about happiness. Just last month, when Prince William and Kate Middleton announced they were engaged, Cameron sent the happiness index into orbit all on his own.

Still a bundle of joy since becoming a dad again this year, Cameron was the picture of schoolboy charm as he stepped out of 10 Downing Street and fronted the cameras.

With flushed cheeks and a great pride in all things royal, he recalled how, on the night William's mother got married, he joined in the celebrations and slept on The Mall, no doubt dreaming that one day he would marry a prince, or a princess, or at least lead a Tory government.

That last of those dreams came true but it hasn't been plain sailing. The Tories claim the Labour Party spent so much money trying to make people happy that they now have to cut costs wherever they can.

The Government announced in October that 490,000 public sector jobs would be axed over the next four years.

Last month the Royal College of Nursing estimated that almost 27,000 National Health Service jobs could go in cuts across hospitals and other acute services.

Maybe Cameron expects workers who are laid off to find happiness in their new-found free time and those hardest hit by a struggling health system to just be happy to be alive.

Students have been protesting over the rise in tuition fees. But then, don't students like protesting?

Or maybe Cameron will take the Buddhist approach, shave off all his hair and turn his back on material wealth in the hope that those hurt most by the cuts will see it as an opportunity to follow his example.

I somehow suspect not.

Politicians will tell you they can't please everyone and Cameron could well feel he has been unfairly criticised for trying to find out what is important to people's well being.

But timing can be everything and he could at least have waited until the British people had something to be really happy about, like an Ashes series win over Australia.

* Duncan Gillies is the Herald's foreign desk sub-editor

- NZ Herald

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