PM speech on wellbeing

A transcript of a speech given by the Prime Minister on wellbeing on 25 November 2010.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Cameron

A transcript of a speech given by the Prime Minister on wellbeing on 25 November 2010.

Prime Minister

I am excited about this, because it’s one of those things you talk about in opposition, and say that this is something we ought to try and measure, get right, and understand, and people think ‘well, of course, you say these things in opposition, but when you get into government you’ll never actually do anything about it’. But here we are, and today the government is asking the Office of National Statistics to devise a new way of measuring wellbeing in Britain. And so from April next year, we’ll start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.

Now, I think this is something that is important to our goal of trying to create a more family-friendly country, and it’s something that I’ve been calling for for a long time. But I know, and I fully understand, that there are some people in this country who take a different view, who’ve got some real questions and challenges about whether this really stacks up. In my brief speech today, I want to try and answer those questions as directly as I can, because I think over the past couple of weeks, as this initiative has been coming to the fore, three objections have become very clear. First, there is the worry that this is a distraction from the major, urgent economic tasks at hand. Second, there is the criticism that we can’t hope to improve people’s wellbeing - that this is beyond the realm of government, so why are we trying? And third, there is a suspicion that, frankly, the whole thing is a bit woolly, a bit impractical. You can’t measure wellbeing properly, so why bother doing it at all? I want to try and take on each of these three objections.

First and foremost, people are concerned that talking about wellbeing shows that this government is somehow sidelining economic growth as our first concern. At a time when we are recovering from the longest and deepest recession since the war, they say that all our energies should be just focused on driving up GDP. Now, let me be very, very clear: growth is the essential foundation of all our aspirations. Without a job that pays a decent wage, it is hard for people to look after their families in the way they want, whether that’s taking the children on holiday or making your home a more comfortable place. Without money in your pocket it is difficult to do so many of the things we enjoy, from going out in the evening to shopping at the weekend.

So, at this time I am absolutely clear that our most urgent priority is to get the economy moving, to create jobs, to spread opportunity for everyone. [Party Political reference] If we let our debts spiral out of control, interest rates would go up, mortgage rates would rise and people would be hurt.

So, we are doing everything possible to try and drive a new economic dynamism in our country. We’re trying to make it easier for people to start their own business, we’re cutting corporation tax, we’re getting behind entrepreneurs. It’s why we’re taking practical steps to try and rebalance the economy. We’ve got this Regional Growth Fund that’s going to help stimulate enterprise and help create jobs across our country. And it’s why we’ll continue to measure GDP as we have always done. But I do think it’s high time we admitted that, taken on its own, GDP is an incomplete way of measuring a country’s progress. Of course, it shows you that the economy is growing, but it doesn’t show you how that growth is created.

So, for instance, when a country is hit by an earthquake, that can increase GDP, because of the extra spending on reconstruction. When a city is torn apart by crime and disorder, that actually increases GDP, because we spend money on locks, and more people get employed in security. When someone falls seriously ill, that can increase GDP, because of the cost of buying the drugs and paying for care - all those things that also count as economic activity. So, destruction, crime, disease - in a very crude way all these things can amount to progress in terms of GDP. The point is that all of life can’t be measured on a balance sheet, and no one put that better than Robert Kennedy more than 40 years ago, in a fantastic speech. He said that GDP, and I quote, ‘does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’ I actually think that’s a slight overstatement, but it was Kennedy style - beautifully put. Simple and profound words, but we haven’t yet heeded them in our country.

Let me give you some domestic examples, if you like, of this issue. We had, in Britain, something of an immigration free-for-all justified by the argument that it supposed to be good for growth, but without enough thought about the impact on public services and social cohesion. We’ve had something of a cheap booze free-for-all - again, supposed to be good for growth, but were we really thinking about the impact of that on law and order and on wellbeing? We’ve had something of an irresponsible media and marketing free-for-all - again, this was meant to be good for growth, but what about the impact on childhood? It’s because of this fundamentally flawed approach that for decades Western societies have seen the line of GDP rising steadily upwards, but at the same time, levels of contentment have remained static or have even fallen. Now, there are some who will just leap on this and say, ‘Well, that’s evidence that capitalism has failed, that money is the root of all misery’. I think that is completely wrong and naive, but I do think we have got to recognise, officially, that economic growth is a means to an end. If your goal in politics is to help make a better life for people - which mine is - and if you know, both in your gut and from a huge body of evidence that prosperity alone can’t deliver a better life, then you’ve got to take practical steps to make sure government is properly focused on our quality of life as well as economic growth, and that is what we are trying to do.

Now let me try and answer the second charge, which is that government can’t affect how people feel, or do very much to improve their wellbeing, and so shouldn’t really try. It’s an argument in a way that the business of government is mechanistic and highly practical, and that what happens in Whitehall doesn’t really reach into people’s personal lives or feelings. Now, it’s interesting that the people who most often rail against the negative impact that government can have on people’s wellbeing, who campaigned, for instance, against the closure of Post Offices for the loneliness it could cause for elderly people in rural areas, who criticised top-down targets in the public sector for the damage they did to workers’ morale - it’s often those people who are the ones who don’t accept it can work the other way round, that the actions government takes can make people feel better as well as worse.

Now, of course, you can’t legislate for fulfilment or satisfaction, but I do believe that government has the power to help improve wellbeing, and I’m not alone in that belief. What’s interesting about this whole argument is now how many countries, economists, people and experts are joining in. We’ve got a whole host of world-leading economists and social scientists, including Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, who have developed a new school of thought about government’s role in improving people’s lives in the broadest sense. Here with us today we have Lord Layard, Professor Helliwell, Professor Felicia Huppert and academics from all over the world. The contention is that just as we can create the climate for business to thrive - by cutting taxes, slashing red tape and so on - so we can create a climate in this country that is more family-friendly and more conducive to the good life. That’s why I reject the criticism that government policy simply has no role in this area. To those who say that all this sounds like a distraction from the serious business of government, I would say that finding out what will really improve lives and acting on it is actually the serious business of government.

Finally, let me try and address the suspicion that all this is a bit airy-fairy and a bit impractical. Now, of course, you cannot capture happiness on a spreadsheet any more than you can bottle it. If anyone was trying to reduce the whole spectrum of human happiness into one snapshot statistic I would be the first to roll my eyes and write about it in newspapers. But that’s not what this is all about. Just as the GDP figures don’t give a full story of our economy’s growth, but give us a useful indicator of where we’re heading. So, I believe a new measure won’t give the full story of our nation’s wellbeing, or our happiness or contentment or the rest of it - of course it won’t - but it could give us a general picture of whether life is improving, and that does have a really practical purpose. First, it will open up a national debate about what really matters, not just in government but amongst people who influence our lives: in the media; in business; the people who develop the products we use, who build the towns we live in, who shape the culture we enjoy. And second, this information will help government work out, with evidence, the best ways of trying to help to improve people’s wellbeing.

Now, of course we’ve already got some very strong instincts - even prejudices, sometimes - about what will improve people’s lives, and we act on those instincts. We have got an instinct that people who feel in control of their own destiny feel more fulfilled. That’s why we’re giving parents real choice over schools and patients real choice over where they get treated. We have an instinct that having the purpose of a job is as important to the soul as it is to the bank balance, and it’s there in our hugely ambitious work programme to get people off welfare. Our instinct that most people have a real yearning to belong to something bigger than themselves - that is leading our plans to bring neighbourhoods together, to increase social action and to build what I call the Big Society. These are instincts we feel to the core, but it’s right that as far as possible we put them to the practical test, so we really know what matters to people. Every day, ministers, officials, people working throughout the public sector make decisions that affect people’s lives, and this is about helping to make sure those government decisions on policy and spending are made in a balanced way, taking account of what really matters.

I’ve said before that I want every decision we take to be judged on whether it makes our country more or less family-friendly, and this new focus on wellbeing I believe will be an important part of that. Parents need to know that the concerns they feel about the sort of country their children are growing up in are felt and acted on by their government too. That’s why anyone who cares about community, about civility, about making this country more family-friendly I think should welcome what the Office for National Statistics is doing.

So, this measure that we are setting out today reaffirms the fact that our success as a country is about more than economic growth. It will open a national debate about how together we can build a better life. It will help bring about a re-appraisal of what matters, and in time, it will lead to government policy that is more focused not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile. And on that basis, I think it’s a very worthwhile thing that the ONS is doing. Thank you very much.


Prime Minister, traditionally, Scandinavian societies which have a larger amount of equality have been seen as societies with a larger amount of wellbeing. If our research here suggests that higher taxes would improve the wellbeing of the majority of the population, is that something you would consider?

Prime Minister

Well, I am yet to meet lots of people who want to pays lots more taxes but I am sure this research could show up anything. I think there is a very good point which is that I do think wellbeing - and we are going to be able to measure this more than just listening to people’s views - is linked to how people feel they can get on in a society and whether they feel that what some people have is out of their reach. I think that actually we will find as we start to debate these things that social mobility, the chance to get on, to make a better life, being able to take part in things we want to, those things will all loom very large and important.

In a way, that is the point of doing this; rather than just reading books where people are saying that of course a more equal society will be a happier society or a society where we better understand the countryside will be a happier society, everyone has got their own opinions and this is going to help us to have a rational debate about these things. I think it is a thoroughly worthwhile thing.


But do you think that if people feel that the rich should be paying more that is something you will then consider? You are saying that you do not want this to be woolly, but it sounds a bit woolly unless you are actually looking at real measures that could make a difference.

Prime Minister

I think we should wait for the measures and see what they will throw up and that will inform the political debate. I think that is half of the point of this. I was thinking as I was listening to Jil that, presumably, when we first started measuring GDP there would have been people saying, ‘What’s the point in this? You can’t measure it properly; you can’t get everything into a measure of economic growth so why do we bother?’

But actually, every time the GDP figures come out, quite rightly that sparks a great debate about how our growth is going, whether it is balanced between north and south or whether it is balanced between manufacturing and services. We have a debate about GDP which is more informed than our debate about wellbeing and actually what the quality of life is like.

So this is an attempt to try and make sure we debate both properly and of course it could throw up things that might challenge politicians’ views about equality or taxation but that is all for the good. We should never be frightened of having a debate.


People often regard the ‘happiness agenda’ as being a bit like candyfloss; it is sweet but insubstantial. Will this change people’s lives, do you think?

Prime Minister

I hope it will change the debate we have in British politics and that could lead to a change in people’s lives. If I thought this was woolly and insubstantial and candyfloss-like, I would not be bothering to talk to you about it on a Thursday morning when I have got lots of other things to do. I have got the Swedish Prime Minister turning up for lunch so we can talk about Scandinavian approaches to these things.

The reason I think this is important is because the things that government does have a huge impact on the wellbeing that we feel. The way we are building shopping centres and how that affects our towns, the way we market to children affects how we bring up our kids, these things are important. And so, just as the GDP debate means we properly talk about how we get economic growth and what it is made up of, I think this debate can make sure we think more carefully about how we are affecting people’s quality of life.

To me it is not woolly or insubstantial and this is an attempt to make it a bit more structured and substantial. I think, for that, it is thoroughly worthwhile and I think the fact that other countries are doing this as well should encourage us. We often talk about the importance of science and research; this is a little bit, if you like, of science and research that is being looked at the world over and I would rather we were in the vanguard of doing this rather than just meekly following on behind. I think there is an opportunity on that front as well.


Prime Minister, as you said, there is a great debate every time the GDP numbers come out, but at least everybody understands what goes into GDP and what doesn’t go into GDP, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. This is necessarily going to be subjective. You take the view that marriage is a good thing and therefore more married people presumably increases national wellbeing. The leader of the opposition has made a different choice for himself and perhaps might be less happy if he were married. How are you going to -

Prime Minister

Let me rest with Robert Kennedy; I think that is the safest place to go. Thinking about it in a very simple way, if you ask people how they are, people will say the job they are doing and the money they are being paid is an important part of how they are feeling. However, often one of the first things people talk about is where they are living, what their neighbourhood is like, how their relationship is going, what their family circumstances are like or how they feel about their town centre when they go in there and go shopping.

All those things are about people’s wellbeing and often when you ask people how they are feeling they will come up with those things first, like maybe their health, before they even get onto their job or their pay. This is an attempt to try and make sure that we debate those things properly and make decisions as a country about them properly as well as just thinking about the composition and make up and speed of GDP.


Prime Minister, you often talk about bringing evidence into decision making and traditionally politicians do not really change their minds much in the face of evidence. Do you think that this new method of feedback from the public, do you think this will start to change the nature of democracy? Do you think the democratic decision-making process will be affected by this increase in statistics coming back?

Prime Minister

I think it will. I mean, often what politicians do is seek evidence to back up the view they already hold, and so it is one of the reasons we have an independent statistics office, to try and stop us from doing this. What I believe this will do is help to provide evidence to create a debate that may encourage us to change our minds about some things we have been rather stubborn about. I think all politicians, over their careers, do get confronted with evidence, and hopefully you are thoughtful and reflective, and you change your mind. I mean, certainly I can think of, in my own political career, the issue, for instance, of positive action to get more women into politics. That was something I definitely came into politics thinking it is all about meritocracy and opening doors, and I definitely came to the view, confronted by the evidence, that that did not work, that you needed some positive action to help make it happen, so I changed my mind because of the evidence I was confronted with.

I think this, hopefully, will have a similar effect. I am going to have another go at trying to answer the question about ‘will this change life?’ Let me give you three examples where I really do believe there is a link between what politics and government does and people’s happiness, contentedness and quality of life.

One is I do believe if you give people more control over their life, if they feel they have more of a say, they are authors of their own destiny, that actually increases people’s self-worth and wellbeing. Now that has a real effect on, for instance, education policy or health policy. We should be trying to give more power to the patient and the parent to have more choice over where they are treated, where their kids go to school and the rest of it. So that has a real-life effect.

The second one was mentioned - relationships. It is absolutely right that people’s wellbeing often depends on the quality of their relationships, so we should ask as a country, why do we spend billions and billions on the consequences of family breakdown, but so little on trying to help families stay together? £20 million on the budget of Relate, but £20 billion on the consequences of social breakdown, so again if we think about wellbeing, rather than just GDP, we might actually change that.

Another one is planning policy. People, definitely, the way your happiness, contentedness, wellbeing does partly depend on your surroundings, and your surroundings depend on planning policy and how much you are involved and have a say over your neighbourhood and what it looks like. So therefore, I would say: give people more power over the planning policy in the neighbourhood and they will be more contented.

Now, those are three things where, actually, government policy, I believe, needs to change and is changing, and it is those three things that are as much about wellbeing as they are about economic growth.


I was just going to ask, will religious philosophy and contentment and optimism be part of this survey? Is that going to be included in it?

Prime Minister

We will have to ask the ONS about the details. What is included in it, obviously, there is a lot of self-assessment about how people feel, and there is some quite interesting evidence that people who have faith and are part of a faith-based organisation feel that they do have a bit more control over their life. They are more involved in their neighbourhood. That is good for the country, arguably good for them, in a way. My view is not that important, in a way. It is not what politicians think, or even what statisticians think. It is what people think.


Will that lead to government policy?

Prime Minister

Well, for example, if you believe that people having more control over their life is a good thing for their wellbeing, you could come to the opinion that therefore faith-based organisations that involve people and get things done in their communities are a good thing, and governments should do more to support them. Now, I am in danger of doing what I just said all politicians do, which is trying to find evidence to back up an opinion, because that is my opinion anyway. Jil, am I going to find the evidence?

Jil Matheson

What I can say is that whatever evidence is there, we will collect and we will produce independently and we will publish so that the debate can happen. That is what our job is.


Thank you, Prime Minister. Some people watching this might feel there is a certain irony with you launching a happiness index, when many people around the country are pretty worried about their jobs. If the measure shows that wellbeing actually falls during your time in office, will your government be seen to have failed in some way? Also, if I may, if Liberal Democrat ministerial colleagues of yours, not necessarily people in the Cabinet, but not back-benchers, end up refusing to vote for an increase in tuition fees, how will your wellbeing be impacted?

Prime Minister

There are always reasons for not doing things in politics, and two of the most common reasons are the ones that you gave. It is a difficult time, and why are you talking about this rather than that? I just happen to think if you have the privilege of being in government, you should try and think about the long term and not just today. And in the long term, I think the country would be better off if we thought about wellbeing and quality of life as well as economic growth. I think that is a fundamentally obvious point, and so, therefore, there is never a good time, never a good day to do these things, but if you believe in them, you should just get on and have the courage of your convictions.

On tuition fees, I think that what matters is: have we got the right policy? I think that we have. Students are not going to pay anything upfront. It is a more progressive system than the one that we inherited, because no one will pay anything until they earn £21,000. I think it will create a universities sector that is more vibrant, where universities are more independent, and I suppose my wellbeing will be well served by making sure this policy gets through in good order, which I am sure that it will, but I would like to commend my Lib Dem coalition partners for taking difficult decisions. Again, they have not gone for what was behind your question, which is: do not do anything that is difficult or inconvenient. They have taken the long-term view, done the right thing, and I think the country will be better off as a result.


First of all, just to say, Prime Minister, I am really delighted, and I am very impressed with your grasp of the associated risk factors with these issues already, even though the evidence is not yet all there. So this is very exciting.

The point that I wanted to make is that I think the quote you had from Robert Kennedy relates very much, in fact, to the concept of mental capital. I wanted to ask whether we can also bring this in and this, I think, was summarised beautifully a year or two ago as ‘the bank account of the brain’, but it is to do with the way we nurture our children and young people, to do with education, the safety of their brains, lack of damage from alcohol and so on. So it is like a bank account that we take through life that we nurture or we deplete, and it matters just as much to the government, the economy and the population as current wellbeing.

So my question, really, is for a plea to bring this in as the ONS thinks and debates and develops these measures. Thank you.

Prime Minister

I will certainly take the plea on board, and I think, actually, in the realm of mental health is an excellent example of a whole area that if you just look at economic growth, you are missing out a huge part of wellbeing in terms of people’s mental health, in terms of problems of depression. These are all issues that we need to think about properly as a country, rather than just sweep under the carpet.

Published 25 November 2010