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Britain’s economic hopes rest not on productivity, but happiness

This piece by Michael Hayman MBE originally appeared in City A.M, see here

They were the best of times, they were the worst of times.

Thank you, Dickens, for words that capture the daily diet of our much-divided Britain.

Happiness seems to be much on our minds, mainly because it seems so difficult to attain and then maintain.

Next week we face Blue Monday, allegedly the most depressing day of the year due to a combination of post-Christmas blues, cold dark nights, and the arrival of unpaid credit card bills.

Today is another form of Blue Monday, this time for a Conservative government that faces the ultimate Brexit vote tomorrow – one that it knows it will almost certainly lose and that will take us, in the Prime Minister’s words, into “uncharted waters”.

Gnashing of teeth and impatient angst abound within our body politic. Environment secretary Michael Gove captured something of the mood last week by suggesting that MPs waiting for the perfect Brexit deal are “like mid-fifties swingers waiting for Scarlett Johansson to turn up”.

It doesn’t look like the low mood of big business is going to swing anytime soon either. The Confederation of British Industry’s Business Optimism indicator has plummeted to its lowest reading since the third quarter of 2016, while the tepid results of our biggest retailers and gloomy news in the automotive sector leave big questions about future performance.

So far, so awful. The relentless message of doom and gloom has many convinced that they are living in the worst era of human history. Period.

For the polemicists, it’s an opportunity to weaponise misery – the projection that something which might easily be attained by the many is being denied by the elite few.

If you buy into this view, then capitalism is the historic villain. A dirty word, a symbol of division and market failure with no answers.

I spoke at an event where one leading commentator voiced with the determinism of the Communist Manifesto that we have lived through all of this before. When? In 1917, the year when workers in Russia finally broke away from the system and created the Soviet Union.

The conclusion was that a similar fate could well await our pampered plutocrats in the same way it did to those in St Petersburg.

But if you are going to use examples from twentieth century history, why look east when you could quite as easily look west to the start of the American Century?

This was an era when democratic, popular capitalism created economic vibrancy and social inclusion on a scale unwitnessed in human history.

Indeed, the whole nation rested on the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we dismiss the importance of that pursuit at our peril.

Britain’s economic problem is not productivity, but happiness. Listen to Lord Price, the former Waitrose chief and government trade minister.

He says: “my wish is simply that more business leaders and the government understand the link between a happy and engaged workforce and greater productivity”.

Launching his Happiest Countries report earlier this month, Lord Price investigated industries with the most content staff.

He poses the question: how is the UK doing overall? His answer is “not well”, concluding that “in a post-Brexit world, engaged and happy workers will be vital if we are to become competitive on a global stage”.

For him, that means empowering people, listening to them, rewarding them, and making them proud.

There is a certain irony here, because this is exactly what the EU Referendum was meant to deliver. But it has led to the polar opposite.

The problem with the continuing funk of the dysfunctional Brexit debate is that it is such an unhappy one, sucking the joy out of almost everything else. It is a stale proxy for our greatest moans rather than the freshness of our most heartfelt hopes.

No wonder that so many are attracted to messages about a return to a life of yesterday. Back to fiction. “Such vapid nostalgia for the gentle past” was John Malcovich’s Poirot warning in the ABC Murders over Christmas.

We need to get back into the business of believing in the potential of tomorrow’s economy – a place where we can prosper, grow our potential, and deliver on our promise.

So, if you are looking for clues to the future, forget the Brexit vote. It will deliver little in the way of harmony and much in the way of continued anxiety.

And the cost of this is forgetting that happy economies are growing economies. Which, remember, really do deliver the best of times.

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