Transport Minister Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South, wrote a blog yesterday entitled ‘Heaven Knows We’re Miserable Now’, in which he asked why unprecedented health, wealth and security doesn’t seem to be making people any happier. High-def TVs ‘fly off the shelves,’ everyone has two cars, eating out is ‘as commonplace as going shopping’ and the threat of nuclear Armageddon seems to have passed (for now), he says; ‘So why is everyone so bloody miserable?’
Not surprisingly, there has been no shortage of people willing to provide him with an answer to that question. Opposition MPs have been lining up to condemn his insensitivity, while his blog prompted a near-apoplectic front page rant from the Daily Mail, who called it ‘an astonishing message at a time of rising prices and falling incomes’. The paper quoted Shadow Treasury Secretary Philip Hammond, who clearly couldn’t wait to stick the boot in: ‘The short answer to Mr Harris’s question is: because we’ve got Gordon Brown as our Prime Minister’. Like Brown, Harris ‘clearly lives on a different planet from ordinary hard-working families’, Hammond sniffed sanctimoniously.
Harris (whose only real claim to fame is having his face on a Taiwanese postage stamp - apparently they were so excited by his white paper on railways that they adopted it), no doubt had the best of intentions, but this was a fairly dim move politically while his party is so unpopular. And particularly since he earned £92,100 plus expenses last year, a lot more than most of his voters. So it’s no surprise that he’s been back-tracking furiously this morning, suggesting that his comments have been misinterpreted (perish the thought).
But although he’s left himself open to Tory cheap shots, we think he should stick to his guns, because there’s actually an interesting point in there. Harris wasn’t telling people to ignore their current problems – he was asking why this generation is so much gloomier than previous generations, despite having so much more stuff (in his book 'Status Anxiety', Alain de Botton argues that greater prosperity just creates unrealistic aspirations, because we’re constantly comparing ourselves with others). And despite the general media gloom at the moment, it’s worth remembering that the economy has been in much worse states than this in the relatively recent past.
On the other hand, given that politicians are supposed to make our lives better, you might argue that Harris is part of the problem, not the solution...