A Fellow of Infinite Jest is a blog by Ken Leach. Ken reaches for pretentious David Foster Wallace references when pushed to register a URL. He also talks about himself in the third person. That should tell you everything you need to know. His posts are likely to talk about UK wellbeing policy, mixed in with some personal musings about...stuff.

Brexit and...wellbeing policy

Will all the hot takes around Brexit, I thought I would spin out 810 words from one word a few politicians reflexively said and apply it to my own little corner of thought.

After the Brexit vote came a joint statement from EU leaders:

"We will stand strong and uphold the EU's core values of promoting peace and the wellbeing of its peoples ... together we will address our common challenge to generate growth, increase prosperity and ensure a safe and secure environment for our citizens ...” [1] [Trigger warning - Daily Mail link.]

On a similar note, the Prime Minister of Spain said:

"Spain will remain committed to the EU. The EU is the area of greatest prosperity and wellbeing; we will continue building a better future between us.”[2]

In my thesis I attempt to chart the development of well-being policy making in the UK, but it is worth noting that one clear originating point was the 2008-09 International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission)[3]; which recommended that measures of subjective well-being be developed to measure national well-being.  EU leaders have extoled the virtues of this approach ever since[4].

This appeal, post-Brexit, is interesting because it speaks to the idea that increasing the well-being of the population is the core responsibility of government and the European Union; and, that only by a cross-national effort can such things be achieved. Of course, well-being is an elastic term, used in different ways in different contexts - but it is fair to conclude that its invocation here is related to the interrelated international and national well-being strategies.

Well-being and the past

In the UK, the Office for National Statistics is collecting well-being data by asking the following questions on a 0-10 Likert scale:

  • Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  • Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
  •  Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
  • On a scale where nought is ‘not at all anxious’ and 10 is completely anxious’, overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

The questions are framed with an eye to the past to prevent the person answering being influenced by their current mood. Basically - how they feel overall - rather than now. I’m not going to make a judgement to the effectiveness of this approach, but it is clear that this focus on subjective wellbeing invites the subject to look back at their past selves and lives and make a judgement on whether their lot has improved.

I think Brexit happened, in part, because it spoke to nostalgia. The leave campaigns (official and the UKIP-led spin off) invoked images of a free UK; casting aside the tightening embrace of the EU and returning to a simpler time, where, as a nation we controlled our own destiny – and, in a lot of instances when there were fewer of those people around. This is backed up by looking at the British Social Attitudes Survey and figures on immigration[5].

There is a discrepancy here, or at least a disconnection. If we are being told that national personal wellbeing is increasing[6], then that means people are becomingly increasingly satisfied with their lives in the present, when compared with their past. Yet, if that’s the case, why is anxiety about the effects of immigration increasing? Why did appeals to a Glorious Great British Past work?

Well, there are probably a multitude of reasons for this, people don’t think rationally; the press in the UK is pervasive in its anti-immigration/anti-EU rhetoric; old-fashioned racism; not everyone has benefitted from globalisation; they may not have lived through this alleged golden age etc. etc. I’m not attempting to set up a straw man argument here, I’m more interested in thinking about where well-being policy could go.

Options for the EU

Arguably, one of the areas where the ‘Remain’ camp failed, was explaining the benefits of EU membership and immigration.

If subjective well-being is increasing on a population level across the EU, then work could focus on exploring and explaining what it is that the EU, free markets and free movement, does that impacts subjective well-being. If there are any links, then these could be communicated in a way that makes sense to the public - not as propaganda, but as rebuttal.

I think that is the most likely scenario for the EU’s well-being policy programmes. It seems apparent that efforts will be made to make membership more appealing, and subjective well-being statistics may add to the evidence base. It is also quite likely that the national well-being statistics of a post-Brexit Britain will be poured over. Whether they will be used as a cautionary tale, a nationalistic rallying cry, or potentially both at once, remains to be seen.

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/reuters/article-3657998/European-leaders-shock-EU-look-inward-Britain-votes-go.html#ixzz4Cn0hvt49 

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36623685

[3] http://www.insee.fr/fr/publications-et-services/default.asp?page=dossiers_web/stiglitz/documents-commission.htm

[4] http://www.cnbc.com/id/100794505

[5] http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/latest-report/british-social-attitudes-31/immigration/introduction.aspx

[6] http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/measuringnationalwellbeing/2015-09-2

Eurovision, Star Trek, and Optimism