In February I spoke at an Ageing well event in Manchester. I was talking about how to age well and when we should start thinking about our third age. My answer was very simple. I quoted the late and great Professor Sir Kenneth Dodd Esq. “Happiness, happiness, the greatest that I possess. I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed with more than my share of happiness”. To preserve the happiness of my audience I didn’t actually spoil the event by singing it to them!
I’ve been thinking of that today as I’ve seen a new study that has been published which says that 60% of the population would prefer the Government to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth when the pandemic is dealt with. An even starker figure of 80% of the people want to put wellbeing before wealth creation in terms of measures to bring us out of the pandemic.
I think that one of the important things that is happening during the lock down is that people are reaching a new appreciation of what being rich actually means. Being rich isn’t about the amount of money or stuff that people have but the richness of their relations, communities, neighbourhoods, thinking, culture and families.
Although I have to admit that my office at home is full of stuff. This stuff isn’t worth much and most people would think it was rubbish but every bit of that stuff brings back to me a memory of when I acquired it, the circumstances I was in and in some cases the Country I was in. Or to quote another song from my childhood days, “memories are made of this!”
Of course there are links between money and happiness. You can’t be happy without a decent home. You can’t be happy if you are ill. You can’t be happy if you are hungry. What keeps us happy the most is having enough. What makes us most unhappy is the pursuit of ‘more than enough’. No one needs a house that has more than one bedroom more than the number of people who live in it. No one who lives in an urban area needs a four wheeled Chelsea Tractor. No one needs a £10,000 watch to tell the time.
People pursue these things because they equate expensive stuff with success. “Look at me”, they say, “I’ve got stuff that you haven’t!” The most successful countries in the World, as far as their citizens are concerned, are those where this lesson has either been learnt or has always been there.
There can be no doubt that Germany is the most successful economy in Europe. However, in Germany much of the private sector is part owned by state banks so that the profits flow back into neighbourhoods and communities so that all benefit from success. The gap between the highest paid and the lowest paid whilst large is nowhere near the size of the gap in the UK.
Yet we are told by successive Governments including Labour ones that we need to pay high wages if we are to attract the best brains to run our businesses. So why aren’t our businesses doing as well as those in Germany? High wages seem only to attract the testosterone charged male adventurer most of whom have the soul of a piece of granite.
This siren call for more money is always accompanied by a call for lower taxes. “They must be able to keep more of this wealth”, go the arguments. However, in Scandinavia there is far more satisfaction with their Countries than over here and they have far higher taxes than we do. They have realised that a tax is not some sort of fine on achievement but a way of cooperatively buying services that we all require. High quality provision for the young and old; safety; security; decent homes are all paid for out of taxation and everyone benefits.
One of my favourite poems is the Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats where the first stanza is:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And I live alone in the bee-loud glade.
Now to be honest I wouldn’t actually want to live on a small island – I’m a city boy! The only Lane I want to wander down is Penny Lane! But what this poem talks about, of course, is simplicity. It’s about the pleasure that can be had in simple things. Living in greater harmony with nature. Having the thrill of watching children and grandchildren growing up. Enjoying the Parks which I am fortunate enough to live near. Going to our magnificent museums and central library. Listening to the music at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic or getting free concerts from my very musical neighbours next door.
I still hope that the best thing to happen to me in 2020 will be attending my son’s wedding although that might be deferred to next year. My treasury is choc-full of memories and experiences that I just would not have had should I have had the misfortune to born wealthy. My bank account has all that I need to live on and just a little bit more saved for rainy days.
Increasingly, this is what the people of the UK want. How much of it will last when the pandemic dies down and we move back towards the old ‘normal I don’t know? What I do know is that now is the time for all of us to work together to achieve a new normal. We can achieve a society based on communitarian and ecological values if we choose to. A society in which the real chavs are the nouveau riche who ostentatiously show their wealth and are there to be pitied.
That Coronavirus might just do us some good after all.