Skip to content

Lord Layard

How arts and humanities can influence public policy

I’ve just been at a three-day seminar at the Institute for Government, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to help academics learn how to influence public policy. The seminar brought together 15 academics in disciplines ranging from literary criticism to design and urban planning.The IFG arranged an impressive line-up of Westminster big-wigs to talk to us, including senior civil servants, Matthew Taylor of the RSA,and Sir Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service. They gave us a fascinating look into how politics works, but also showed how hard it is for academics to influence policy.

As one civil servant told us, ministers are extremely busy and rarely get time to read a newspaper article, let alone a research paper. They want any ‘action points’ to be clearly expressed in a two-page document. Tony Blair apparently said that if you can’t express your idea in two sentences, you don’t understand it. All of this was quite off-putting for some of the academics, trained as they are to appreciate subtlety, nuance and multiple readings. One academic was particularly horrified by the idea of using an infograph to get their ideas across.

On their side, some policy-makers expressed frustration at how little useful advice they were getting for all the money they were putting into academic research. For example, the government somewhat controversially set aside a pot of money for academic research into the ‘Big Society’, but apparently, few practical recommendations have arisen from all that research. I think that shows a mistake in timing – there is a lag between ‘government time’ and ‘academic time’, and academics can best influence policy in the quieter years before government, when politicians are formulating their broader policy visions, rather than during government when any academic contributions risk being seen as entirely expedient.

American academics might be better at mass communication

Another policy-maker noted that American academics seemed to be better at influencing British policy than domestic thinkers: think of the ‘Nudge unit’ inspired by Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and Daniel Kahneman; or the impact of Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology on British policy. Why is the RSA’s schedule of public talks so full of visiting American intellectuals, with so few British intellectuals? Perhaps, one speaker speculated, American academics are better at selling themselves because they have a much bigger book market to sell into. That emphasis on mass communication makes them better able to deliver TED-style pitches to busy policy-makers.

However, it’s still the case in the US that arts and humanities scholars have little influence on public policy, with a few notable exceptions in history, law and ethics (Michael Sandel, Martha Nussbaum). English literature and cultural studies have little influence on policy, and perhaps that’s as it should be – novels and poetry thankfully resist the utilitarian bent of our times.

To be provocative: is it possible that the huge influence of critical theory, and particularly of Michel Foucault, on arts and humanities academics have, ironically, rendered them less capable of influencing power and changing the world? Doing an arts and humanities PhD sometimes reminds me of initiation into a cult – you go through a three-year period of social isolation, by the end of which you emerge fully inculcated in the radical doctrine of critical theory. This world-view puts you at odds not just with public policy, but also with mass society, including your friends, family and lovers. One academic told me that few relationships survive a humanities PhD, and that she herself had broken up with her boyfriend half-way through her studies (she’s now happily married to a Lacanian). The initiate in critical theory can end up so sceptical of power, they become incapable of influencing it. This limits their influence to the ‘in-culture’ of academia – a culture which is ironically very hierarchical.  I say this as an ‘outsider’ – someone without a PhD who came into academia through journalism (so perhaps I’m just insecure about my lack of qualifications!)

 Four ways that arts and humanities influence public policy

The bard has always played a central, if controversial, role in politics

Let me end on four positive ways that arts and humanities research can and do influence public policy. Firstly, through investigating stories and their impact on our emotions. The arts and humanities are right at the centre of public policy because political communication is to a large extent about stories, words, symbols and how they move us. The scop, the bard, the story-weaver, has always been an important part of court politics. The most obvious way that the arts and humanities could influence public policy, then, is through the exploration of rhetoric, narrative and its effect on the emotions. This exploration would include the recent work of social scientists and psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and George Lakoff into values and metaphor and how they move us.

At the moment, as far as I’m aware, there is only one centre for the study of rhetoric in the UK, which was opened in Royal Holloway’s classics department in 2010 – though I note that Philip Gould left money in his will for a ‘visiting professorship in rhetoric and the art of public persuasion’ at Oxford. There’s room for much more research in this area, and it would have the benefit of being very interesting and (dare I say it ) useful to politicians and their speech-writers. What are Shakespeare’s history plays if not explorations of the rhetoric, narratives and myths of political power? Winston Churchill was able to ‘mobilize the English language and put it to battle’ (as JFK put it) by studying rhetoric, by reading Shakespeare. Our political culture would be greatly improved if more politicians followed his example. Politicians improve or debase our political culture through their language.

Sir Adam Roberts

Secondly, history has an obvious role to play in public policy. We heard, for example, how the History and Policy project helped the policy-makers working on pension reform in the mid-noughties to unearth the history of the existing pension legislation and see how it had grown anachronistic. History helps us see how aspects of our culture that we might take as natural and eternal are in fact recent and constructed. It also gives us useful historical scenarios to think about where we are and where we’re going (think of Paul Kennedy’s work on imperial over-reach, for example, which might have been usefully read by the Bush government). Sir Adam Roberts is an example of a historian who has frequently contributed memoranda to parliamentary debates.

Thirdly, applied ethics has usefully engaged in public policy for several decades, from Baroness Warnock and others’ work on euthanasia, to the contribution of academic philosophers to the Leveson Inquiry’s debate on balancing press freedom with the right to privacy.

Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum: a good example of cooperation between the humanities and social sciences

Finally, arts and humanities scholars have a clear contribution to make to the politics of well-being. This new movement in politics has so far been dominated by economists and psychologists – the Office of National Statistics’ committee to define ‘national well-being’, for example, didn’t contain a single representative from the arts and humanities. Now, well-being economists and psychologists like Richard Layard and Amartya Sen are increasingly engaging with the humanities, particularly with philosophy. They are engaging with the history and plurality of philosophical definitions of well-being. This is good news, as it means well-being policy will become less top-down and dogmatic and more democratic. For example, I hope to work with Layard’s Action for Happiness to design a ‘well-being course’ for adults, which won’t try to shoe-horn everyone into one pre-fabricated definition of well-being, but will instead enable people to consider the scientific evidence, while also debating and forming their own idea of the good life.

At the moment, there are two main Centres for Well-Being in English academia – Richard Layard’s team at the LSE, which is mainly economists; and Felicia Huppert’s Well-Being Institute at Cambridge, which is mainly psychologists. Hopefully we can get the Well-Being Project at Queen Mary started up in earnest this year, to bring thinkers and practitioners from the arts and humanities more into the conversation.


In other news:

Jonathan Rowson of the RSA’s Social Brain project has published a thoughtful new report applying Iain McGilchrist’s thinking on neuroscience to public policy.

MPs will finally get access to therapy at the House of Commons. It would be great if they also received personal training on how to cope with becoming a minister – I was surprised to hear from the IFG that they are thrown into top positions without any training.

Disgraced science journalist Jonah Lehrer, who was exposed for plagiarism and fabricated quotes last year, broke his silence to give a speech to the Knight Foundation – for which he was paid $20,000. Cue much public indignation from other journalists, and this apology from the Knight Foundation.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) published its first recommendations for the treatment of psychosis in young people, deciding that anti-psychotics should only be used when absolutely necessary, and that CBT often works better. Another report highlighted that the popular association of psychosis with violence is not entirely a myth.

RIP Ronald Dworkin, the pre-eminent philosopher of law.

The London Philosophy Club is about to become the biggest philosophy club in the world! We’re poised to overtake our friends / rivals in New York. Join up and come see Clare Carlisle talk about Kierkegaard on the 27th, or Stephen Cave talk about immortality on March 13th.

Also, come to the free workshop on Epicurean philosophy and how we can use it in modern life, which I’m running this Tuesday evening at Queen Mary in London. Email me if you need details etc.

Finally, Alain de Botton, one philosopher not afraid of public engagement, declared in Metro newspaper that the Arts Council should be closed and arts engagement should focus on celebrities with millions of Twitter followers, like One Direction’s Harry Styles. Cue this tweet from Harry.

47,000 re-tweets for Socrates. Impressive. Although not quite as many retweets as Harry’s previous tweet:

See you next week,


Set the controls for the heart of happiness

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed there was no newsletter last weekend. Apologies. The reason for this is I have journeyed deep into the warm, pulsating heart of the happiness movement. Last Thursday I took part in a conference on Positive Psychology at Wellington College (the pioneer of well-being classes), and then I went down to Dartington, in Totnes, Devon, to take part in an Action for Happiness two-day happiness festival.  I left Dartington, I kid you not, while a choir stood on the misty lawn singing ‘happy, happy, happy clappy!’ I felt like a rehab patient leaving the Priory.

Anyway, abandoning my usual dour demeanour, I admit that both events were great fun, and encouraging. My sense is that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is becoming less positivistic (in other words, less dogmatic in its claims to objectivity and scientific truth) and more responsive to the role of philosophy and ethical reasoning in the search for the good life. (On that point, it’s sad that Christopher Peterson, one of the more philosophical voices within Positive Psychology, died this week. Here’s his beautiful last blog post).

I organised a philosophy discussion circle at Dartington – the first time I’ve facilitated one – and I think everyone involved really felt the benefit of that sort of open Socratic inquiry into what the good life means for us. As the Quakers well knew, there’s something very egalitarian and democratic about a discussion circle – there’s no expert or priest or higher authority ‘up there’ while the masses kneel beneath them. Everyone is equally at the front or at the centre. And facilitating a circle discussion seemed to involve letting go of control and letting silences happen – both quite difficult for me!

I also came away from the events hopeful that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is aware of the risk that, in deifying certain emotional states or personality types as ideal, you pathologise their opposites. If you say that happiness is ideal, there’s a risk that sadness becomes an unacceptable failure. If extroversion is absolutely good, then introversion could be deemed absolutely bad. If optimism is always healthy, then pessimism becomes toxic. That sort of thinking is far too black-and-white, and I believe it actually causes suffering rather than mitigating it, by making introverts or pessimists feel worse about themselves. After all, introverts and pessimists have important social roles to play too, particularly in chronically optimistic short-term societies like ours.

We have many different moods and dispositions, and sometimes the best way to transform the difficult ones is to accept them rather than demonise them. In the words of Rumi, in what I think might be my favourite poem:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know: the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief.

I’ve given a lot of talks in the last month or so on the relationship between ancient philosophy and CBT,  and often someone in the audience criticises CBT for being shallow, simplistic, mechanistic, capitalist and ‘not dealing with root causes’. Usually such critics are therapists or counsellors in other traditions, annoyed that they didn’t get any public money. My answer is typically that I expect other forms of therapy to get public funding in the future – it’s already happening for approaches like mindfulness therapy – but you can’t expect to get any government funding without a convincing evidence base. Anecdotal case studies by psychologists simply won’t cut it anymore. As Freud proved, they’re too easy to fake.

It is also clear to me, however, that CBT is not for everyone and the research still has a long way to go to work out how to help more people. But what saddens me is that some therapists fail to find anything to celebrate in the government’s new support for talking therapies. Nor do many lay-people see the young national mental health service as something to fight for. The Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT) policy is still very young, and vulnerable (as Paul Burstow MP, former minister for care services, recently emphasised). We shouldn’t assume it will stay in existence without our protection.

Richard Layard, the economist who more than anyone helped get IAPT funding, warned at Dartington that not all allocated funding is coming through and that as much as half of all children’s therapy services are being closed (I’ve asked him for stats to back up that claim). It is a very recent phenomenon for government to take mental illnesses like depression and anxiety seriously. If you believe in talking therapies, not just CBT but any talking therapies, then please support IAPT. I am all for expanding the range of therapies available on the NHS, as long as they are evidence-based.

Idealistic champions of adult education like RH Tawney are long gone.

Meanwhile, one thing that struck me as we discussed various ‘happiness policies’ at Dartington, was how little anyone spoke of adult education. Likewise, not one political party mentioned adult education at their conference. Schools, academies, universities – they’re all in the news constantly. But adult education is completely off the political radar at the moment. Adult education was a central part of the socialist vision for thinkers like RH Tawney. But no one in parliament cares about it now, none think it worth fighting for. At least Action for Happiness is trying to do something for adult education, albeit in a rather informal and unstructured way. It is a noble attempt to spread ideas about the good life and the good society – inspired, I believe, by Richard Layard’s experience of attending a Quaker reading group for many years.

The Octagon Room at Queen Mary, University of London

Talking of reviving adult education, we had a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London yesterday evening, in the beautiful Octagon Room, which was once a library for East End workers back in the 19th century when Queen Mary was known as the People’s Palace. We had a great group of participants come and talk about their work – including Philosophy Now, Philosophy In the Pub, Skeptics In the Pub, Pub Psychology, Sapere (a charity that does a lot of work with Philosophy 4 Children), Niki Barbery Bleyleben (good name!) who runs discussion groups for mums, and many others. We videoed the presentations and will put them up soon, along with the report I’m writing on philosophy clubs, and the website,, which will finally launch next week, I promise!

One of the things I suggest in the report is that the contemporary grassroots philosophy movement is in part a product of the 1960s, and that decade’s radical reformation of academia and demand that it ‘look beyond the campus’ (in the words of the Port Huron Statement). In that spirit, here is a 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary by Nick Fraser on ‘1968: Philosophy in the streets’, with contributions from philosophers including Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou.

One of the participants at our seminar was Paul Hains, who together with his wife Brigid recently launched the excellent online magazine Aeon. I’m not just saying that because he occasionally sponsors our philosophy club events – the essays it publishes are really very good. Check out this one by Ross Andersen (whose Atlantic articles on philosophy are typically excellent) on dendrochronology and the threats facing the oldest trees in the world

Here, from the Futility Closet blog, is some advice from 1820 on how to fight ‘low spirits’, in a letter from Sidney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth:

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith

Did you see the BBC 2 series on the history of the stiff upper lip? It was excellent, and managed to get the history of emotions onto mainstream TV. Well done to my supervisor, Thomas Dixon, for contributing to the programme (he’s now a leading historian of public crying, or a ‘sobbing guru’ as someone put it on Twitter). Check out the blog posts he wrote about the research behind the show.

Talking of stiff upper lips, a fortnight ago I participated in an excellent seminar on Stoicism and CBT at Exeter University. Here’s a blog on Stoicism and its uses today that came out of it – expect some very good posts in the future from some of the seminar participants.

I admire Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of the University of Roehampton for their pioneering work over the last decade on reading groups and book clubs. Their latest project is taking reading groups into prisons. They have expanded the number of such groups from 4 to 30. Great work.

Here’s a BBC radio programme about the fast-developing science of hallucinations.

From 3 Quarks Daily, here’s communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor in an hour-long discussion with Confucian philosopher Tu Weiming, asking if we’re leaving the secular age.

And here’s an essay with Tu Weiming explains why he thinks we’re moving beyond the Enlightenment and philosophy is taking a ‘spiritual turn’.

I’ve had some wonderful emails from people who have read the book over the last fortnight – thank you very much. It means a huge amount to me and makes me feel the hard work is worth it. You can help me in my work by buying the book for yourself or others, spreading the word, or writing a review on Amazon or Good Reads. We finally got an offer from the US (hooray! thanks for your support on that). There’s still a lot of work to be done, so your help in promoting the book is hugely appreciated.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the nominees for this year’s Booker Prize, with Will Self at the back showing how to do book promotion.

See you next week,