At school, I always loved the moment in language lessons when you had to learn how to list your siblings. Thanks to my parents’ divorce and remarriages, I have a brother, a sister, a half-sister and three step sisters, which meant I got to show off my mastery of complicated words like stiefschwestern and hermanastras. I pitied the children with boring families and boring things to say like “je suis enfant unique.” What surprised me, though, was that even my best friends could never quite remember which of my sisters belonged to which step parent. We have infinite ability to understand the complexity of our own lives. But when we think about other people? The details get blurred, like the background in a Zoom video.
I was reminded of this very human weakness as I listened to Dominic Cummings exhaustively describe the “complicated, tricky situation” that had led him to drive his family to Durham at the end of March. He seemed to think that “complicated” and “tricky” were evidence that his circumstances were exceptional. Because, like my school friends, he was blind to the complexity of others’ lives — the thousands upon thousands of other parents who also had little children, sick spouses and important jobs.
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The government wrote a lockdown policy that was radically different to the norm in our common law system. Under common law, everything is legal unless prohibited by law. During the lockdown the default was the opposite: it was illegal to leave your home unless you had a good excuse. That shift puts an impossible burden on those who draft the law, to think of every single good reason that could arise, in the infinite variety of human experience.
They missed a few. Of course they did. They deluded themselves that a short list of legal exemptions would be enough. They deluded themselves that tricky and complicated were rare.
This is an affliction that runs right through the heart of policymaking. We build models and spreadsheets to establish what the impact of a policy might be. To fit into those spreadsheets, the people have to be grouped into categories of similar people, and then all the inconvenient and incompatible details of their lives have to be stripped away. And that’s when we’re doing things properly. Half the time, we simply make an assumption that everyone in the population is very much like us.
In the 2005 General Election, my job was to research and advocate for the Liberal Democrat plan to replace Council Tax with a local income tax. I spent weeks poring over data about household composition: who lives in what family groups. I remember being astonished by how few families met the model I had in my head for normal — in other words the model I had grown up with — two full-time working parents with children. At the time, less than one in 10 households had two parents working full time, and children at home.
It didn’t stop the media writing up reports about the terrible impact of the Lib Dems’ proposals that were almost always based on the calculation of two full time workers on the average income. I counted it a victory for common sense on the rare occasions they bothered to put the mother on the average female income, as it brought the total down by several thousand pounds. But even then single parents, retired people, disabled people, students, working people who lived on their own: the impact on them was obliterated by the urgent yearning for simplicity among the people who designed infographics.
That yearning for simplicity is at the root of countless policy failures. Take Universal Credit. It was designed to radically simplify the welfare system, which everyone agreed was far too complicated. Wouldn’t it be easier, we asked ourselves, if people got a single, simple payment to meet all of their needs? If all the benefits were rolled into one, and you could apply via a single online portal?
I fell for this delusion myself. I watched experts draw graphs on whiteboards in meetings, and say things like “smooth taper” and I found myself seduced. This would be so much better than what I’d described in speeches as the “rollercoaster of tax credit overpayments”. I failed to fully understand that tax credits had become chaotic for claimants primarily because their lives were chaotic. Their incomes were unstable. They could get more hours one week, and lose them the next. Their childcare could fall through. They could be booted out of their home. They could be victims of fraud.
Of course, I knew these things were possible. But I didn’t recognise that they were normal — more likely to happen than not, for the people who would use UC. The welfare system shouldn’t be built for the average person. It has to be built for the extreme cases — or at least for the average claimant. And the average claimant is more likely to have a mental health problem than not, so making the system accessible for people with mental illness isn’t a luxury. It has to be your starting point.
The sad truth is that not even treatment pathways for people with mental health problems have been designed to suit the needs of the people they serve. They send appointment letters to people’s homes, not recognising that half of people with a mental health problem report they struggle with opening the post. I’ve heard stories of people blacklisted from treatment because they didn’t turn up for appointments they didn’t know they had.
Take sentencing policy. It is almost always written by people who’ve never committed a crime, and assume they understand the way to deter people who have from doing it again. They imagine that a long sentence will be a better deterrent, because they themselves would hate to go to prison. They rarely stop to think about the complex interplay of forces that drives kids to carry knives or join a gang: fear, status, opportunity.
A benefits adviser I met a couple of years ago told me about a single mum who’d got into debt to buy a 52-inch flat screen TV. No matter how bad things got, she wouldn’t get rid of the TV. It was the biggest on the estate. Plenty of people would be quick to judge her. But she kept the TV because it was status for her teenage son: he and his friends would stay indoors and play video games. It kept him out of a gang.
No one is going to suggest a national programme to buy large TVs for teenagers at risk, and I wouldn’t want them to. Only a parent could possibly know that this was the one thing that would make a difference for their child.
But we have to stop with the cookie cutter policies, imposed on everyone as if we were all identical. This is about so much more than lockdown. Complicated and tricky is everywhere you look. One-size fits all policies designed in Whitehall can’t possibly accommodate the infinite diversity of human experience. Central policy makers need to develop the humility to understand that other people’s lives are just as multi-coloured as their own. We must stop blurring out the background, and give people who can see the problem for what it is, the power to fix it. That means more flexibility — whether for benefits advisers, youth workers, therapists, community groups or local councils. One size fits no one.