There’s a fuel tank in Scotland and it’s close to running out: it’s the one called Hope.
It’s true to say it’s seldom filled to the brim. But we’re now dangerously close to running on empty – drained by an unfailing capacity to talk ourselves into a state of comatose despair.
And despair seems to fit us like a worn-out pair of battered slippers. We can blame the weather. Or the dark nights. And we have a commentariat for whom hopelessness and depression have long been default conditions.
It excels in gloom. It has raised it to a state of art.
Most of our most prominent writers and thinkers seem to have staggered with wails and wringing hands out of a performance of the Wagner Ring.
And anyway, why take the risk of anything as fore-doomed to failure as hope? To adapt the remark of H. L. Mencken, no-one ever went broke under-estimating how bad things might get.
Today the grim doctors of despair are ten a penny. Brexit will bury us in uncertainty. The economy is slowing. The outlook is for worse. Business confidence is on the slide. Poverty is on the rise. We’re choking in debt. Budgets are being slashed. Public services are under attack. Yet more austerity is on the way.
Ahead of the Holyrood budget on Thursday the sky has darkened with warnings of cuts ahead. Audit Scotland says council budgets are under increasing pressure from a long-term decline in funding, rising demand for services and increasing costs.
And the latest Fraser of Allander assessment provides even less comfort: frontline services, it says, could be facing cuts running to hundreds of millions of pounds as further financial pressures take their toll on council budgets. – And this on top of more than £1 billion of cuts over the past five years.
All this is unfolding against some of the bleakest economic forecasts seen in years: Fraser of Allander has been forecasting growth will slow to a barely perceptible 0.5 per cent next year. Accountancy giant PwC predicts even worse – growth of just 0.3 per cent.
The danger of all this is that it is self-fulfilling: if you talk down your prospects loud enough and long enough, the outcome will be close to the very misery being prophesised. The greatest prop to public and private endeavour is confidence. Keep bashing it and don’t be surprised if it buckles, bringing the roof down with it.
The reality for now – miserable though it may be for the commentariat to admit – is that unemployment is at its lowest for years, numbers in work at a near record, household spending continues to rise, across the UK the economy rose by 0.5 per cent in the July-September quarter – notably faster than official and private predictions.
And as for Brexit most businesses large and small don’t have the luxury of waiting for Article 50 or the deliberations of judges: they are now in a mood to just get on with it.
As for government spending, it continues to rise even if the hungriest departments never get enough of what they insist they need.
Brave is the soul who challenges the methodology of the forecasts that have proved too pessimistic to date. And woe betide those whose who dare to suggest that there is life – perhaps even a more prosperous life – after Brexit.
But the fact is that there has been no recession, no investment collapse, no yawning trade deficit (in fact, it’s shrinking), no stock market collapse (it’s been rising), no upward spiral in food prices (they’ve been coming down).
Now here I must confess to a long period of denying the existence of sunny uplands. You don’t tend to see them much in economics. It is, after all, well known as the dismal science.
But for the first time I’m beginning to look more sympathetically at the work of well-being economists and the writings of Professor Richard Layard of the LSE among others.
Most human misery, he writes, is due not to economic factors but to failed relationships and physical and mental illness. Eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20 per cent while eliminating poverty would reduce it by five per cent. And on top of that, reducing mental illness would involve no net cost to the public purse.
These are among the findings being discussed at a landmark conference on wellbeing that’s being held at the LSE. It started yesterday and carries on into today. Experts from around the world are assessing the research evidence on wellbeing over the life course across four countries – and the policy implications for how best to reduce misery and promote wellbeing.
Among the findings of Layard and his LSE team on the key determinants of life satisfaction are that income inequality explains only one per cent of the variation in happiness in the community, while mental health differences explain over four per cent.
And when people evaluate their income or education, they generally measure it against the locally prevailing norm. As a result, overall increases in income or education have little effect on the overall happiness of the population.
So here is the dangerous ScotBuzz Heresy this week: what a good idea it would be if in Scotland we were to promote an institute for the study of well-being or even hold a conference on the discovery of Hope.
The Left-leaning commentariat would rather walk on hot coals than attend. But here’s a scary prophecy when it comes to the search for hope in Scotland now, I truly believe that legions would flock to attend.