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September 4, 2020   4 mins

As our politicians head back to Westminster, we ask: what should be on the Cabinet’s reading list? Which books might provide helpful insight for the challenges ahead? Polly Mackenzie recommends David Halpern’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations.

I am angry. And I’m pretty sure I am not alone.

The proximate cause of my anger is the ludicrous non-quarantine quarantine to which my family is currently subjected, after a brief trip to France. It’s not that I object to making a sacrifice for public health. It’s that I’m pretty sure, from the way they’ve gone about things, that the Government has absolutely no interest in whether I break the rules or not. There was no information or signage at the Channel crossing, and at no point has anyone told me what the rules are. I got more information from a twitter quiz in the Telegraph than I did from our government.

In this latest phase of Covid-restrictions, we’ve gone for full-throttle half-arsed-ness. Wear a face mask, but don’t worry, we won’t check and no one will enforce it. Go to school, and if you don’t we’ll fine you, except we probably won’t because headteachers won’t bother reporting you. Do a quarantine, but you can still go to the supermarket, only once, and don’t worry no one will check. Submit your details for Test and Trace, but we probably won’t get around to calling you or telling you what to do.

This is much more than a recipe for confusion. It’s a clear path towards growing resentment and division between citizens, who find themselves surrounded by Other People behaving badly and not being punished. And from there a collapse in trust between people the institutions they look to for guidance.

Before ministers take another step down this path, they should read The Hidden Wealth of Nations, by David Halpern, which argues that social trust is the essential foundation not just for wellbeing, but for economic growth.

Of course, Halpern is in many quarters persona non grata these days, because of the perceived failings of the Behavioural Insights Team, which he leads, during the early phases of the pandemic. He was on TV mid-March using the phrase “herd immunity” which gave him a passport to cancel-land.

But Halpern’s work on prosperity, published in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, is vital reading. He shows that “our ability to get on with our fellow citizens oils the working of markets, lowering the costs of transactions and speeding the flow of information on which economies rely”. Countries and regions with the highest levels of social trust tend to have not just the strongest growth, but the greatest levels of subjective wellbeing, too.

Halpern goes on to observe that: “The resilience of a community or nation to survive through economically difficult times rests heavily on its hidden wealth — not the money that its citizens have squirreled away under their mattresses, but the preparedness of citizens to help each other.”

Britain scored well on this metric in the early months of the pandemic. We volunteered in our hundreds of thousands. We suffered the hardships of isolation or overcrowding in lockdown for the sake of others. We cheered on our care workers. We had a single, simple set of rules that applied to everyone. Even those who disagreed could see that those rules were broadly and justly applied. But since rules got complicated, and attempts at enforcement were replaced by a vague plea to be sensible, that unity and solidarity is ebbing away. In Mid May, the ONS recorded that more than 60% of people believed Britain would be “very” united after Covid-19. By the end of June that was down to 28%.

Halpern’s book is a vital reminder that this division is not just a sideline issue, to be worried about by soggy social scientists. If we can’t find a way to get along, we can’t rescue our economy.

Our Treasury is now desperate for growth. To save town centre economies from collapse, the Government has unilaterally decided that workers are more productive in offices, and is trying to bully people back to them. The Prime Minister launched an all-out war on obesity, and then the Government spent a month subsidising fast food with Eat Out to Help Out. They will reach for anything, no matter how contradictory, to leverage up the economy, and with a wall of redundancies coming this autumn, I can’t blame them

They imagine that the best path to growth is complex public health rules, varied by postcode, age, ethnicity, risk factors, and a general sense of whether you can be bothered doing what the Government says. This is because their mathematical models show that complexity liberates the maximum number of people possible.

But their utilitarian calculation misses out the basic societal principle that all should be equal before the law. If you want a strong, trusting society, then fairness has to be a factor. Halpern’s book suggests to me that if public health strategy divides and discombobulates the population, stimulus will not thrive.

The Government should base its economic and health policies on the goal of rebuilding social capital. Covid-19 brought mass volunteering. It stopped millions from commuting, freeing up more time for family and neighbourhoods. It helped us see the networks and connections between people more clearly than ever. That social trust was not some fluffy distraction from the real business of the economy: it was a great foundation for recovery. We just need to hang on to it before it disappears.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.