A nation’s wealth isn’t measured by GDP alone

On Thursday 26th November, the Prime Minister announced that he was planning to measure the well-being of the UK population. Although, at first sight, just some new questions in a statistical survey, this is potentially a very significant step.

We do not yet know what the questions will be – National Statistician Jill Matheson will be responsible for deciding – but they are likely to be about people’s experiences, that is, their ‘subjective’ well-being. They will probably be included in the Integrated Household Survey (IHS) which contains information from nearly 450,000 individual respondents, the biggest source of social data on the UK after the census.

This is good news for several reasons.

First, it will be good for policy. The IHS already provides a large amount of objective data, which in future policy-makers will be able to analyse to identify associations between people’s subjective well-being or experiences, and other, objective factors such as (amongst many others) economic activity, education, health and disability, identity, place of residence and income. This will provide information on the impact of social, economic, cultural and physical conditions, which can then be used to shape policy priorities. In the absence of this kind of measurement, policy makers have often had to make assumptions about what matters most to people, but as we all now know, it is not true that “the gentlemen in Whitehall know best”. In particular the emphasis on GDP maximisation at the expense of all other goals has become an article of almost religious faith in the Whitehall-Westminster village.

Second, it will be good for democracy. Over time, the public and politicians will be able to assess the effectiveness of the government’s policies in terms that really matter to people: that is the impact on their experiences. Of course, the ultimate aim of most policy is already to improve lives but, without proper measures of well-being, it can be difficult to assess them in these terms. These new measures will make this easier, not only for the government but, equally important, for the opposition and the public as well, who will be able to hold government to account in a new and more powerful way.

Finally, the measures have a symbolic value. If they capture the imagination, they may well start to shift popular ideas about what constitutes social progress – away from purely economic advance, to something more rounded – something that captures the whole range of things that matter to people. This is not just about the details of individual policies, but about the framing of the whole political debate. If we move away from pursuing economic activity for the sake of it, it will be easier to deal with climate change and other environmental challenges. Thus the framing of the debate is crucial not only to our own well-being but also to that of the planet and so to that of our children and grandchildren.

Jo Swinson MP is the Chair of the All Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economi

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