Britain in 2021

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Britain in 2021

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Debts, a disintegrating Union, an awkward King? Or more growth, more privacy and oil under the Isle of Wight? Prospect asks how the country would look ten years from now

The future is not what it was: this 1960s advert for Motorola by the US artist Charles Schridde was one of a series depicting futuristic homes

Andrew Roberts

Hansard, Monday 13th December 2021:

The Prime Minister: “Mr Speaker, in this, my last speech as premier before I have a final audience with HM The King, I would like to tell the House how much I have enjoyed my chance to serve England, Wales and Ulster over the past 11 and a half years. Having just a few days ago beaten the late Lady Thatcher’s record in office, I am told that I am now the longest continuously-serving prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1827, and so I think it the right moment to pass on the baton to my old friend and close colleague, the Rt Hon member for Northwich (Sir George Osborne.)

I hand over a country that is, I believe, in far better shape than the one that I inherited from Lord Brown of Kirkcaldy back in May 2010. (Opposition members: No! No!) At that time, the banking crisis and economic downturn, and especially our public debt, made the world wonder whether Britain could be trusted to pull herself around. Even with the stern austerity measures that the then coalition imposed, we were condemned to over half a decade of anaemic growth, until the upturn finally came in the second quarter of 2016. We could not at that time have predicted the long-term consequences of the collapse of the euro and sudden reappearance of the Deutsche Mark after the electoral defeat of Mrs Merkel, but in retrospect the close co-operation of George Osborne and Lord King was invaluable in seeing sterling through that crisis, to becoming what it is today, a popular reserve currency on the world markets.

I shall always regret the decision of Scotland to become independent, something that we in the Conservative party had long campaigned against. At 52 per cent to 48 per cent, the endorsement was hardly a ringing one, but as Winston Churchill said of another vote long ago: “One is enough.” The international legal hearings over the ownership of North Sea oil have been going on for over eight years now, and I hope we shall see resolution before too long. Scotland’s decisions to stay in the EU—such as it is today—as well as Nato and the Commonwealth, and to swear allegiance to King William V, are statesmanlike and welcome. The loss of our seat on the UN Security Council as a result of the splitting up of the UK was sad, but predictable.

Similarly predictable is the news that China’s GDP has outstripped that of the United States in the last three quarters. Likewise, its effective expulsion of the American Sixth Fleet from the South China Sea last year was, to be frank, always likely, considering its naval, military and especially airforce expansion, and thank God it was done peacefully. We must all now prepare ourselves better for the post-American world as best we can.

On that note, I would also like to take this opportunity to thank President Bush, with whom I have worked closely over the past five years. Needless to say, there have been ups and downs, particularly when the United States and Canada decided to withdraw from Nato over what they described as the “chronic European underfunding” of that body. It was quite true that our contributions had dropped to 1.6 per cent of GDP, and in the light of what President Medvedev did in Ukraine last year, that was probably too low, but it was still a precipitate and dangerous step to take, despite four years of increasingly loud warnings from the Pentagon. On non-defence related matters, however, Jeb and I have worked closely, especially over the Falkland Islands joint-sovereignty arrangement with Argentina, which I’m delighted to say is working well, and was necessary to implement.”

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): “Not if we’d had had an aircraft carrier, it wouldn’t have been.”

The Prime Minister: “The past is the past. On education policy, free schools—or what seem universally nowadays to be called Gove schools—have been an unqualified success. (Government MPs: Hear, hear.) The process by which each successive education secretary allowed testing standards to dumb down in order to make results look better year-on-year was ended, with fine results. Today, British children stand eighth in the world league tables for maths and science, when in 2010 they were 16th.

Of course I feel some regrets over the past: the fact that our brave troops are still having to fight against vicious insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Syria; the complete eclipse of the Liberal Democrat party as a significant force in British politics after their electoral debacle in 2014, after I had worked so closely with Lord Clegg; the disgraceful election of Charlie Gilmour in the recent Tottenham by-election. But as I look ahead for our country, I think we are set very fair for the future.”

Andrew Roberts is a historian and journalist


Bryan Appleyard

Temperate instincts—and climate—will help

Britain is simultaneously ancient and modern, European and American. But unlike the US we have no manifest destiny to inspire us and unlike France we have no cohesive sense of statehood to guide us. Our default mode is uncertainty and disarray, anxiety or riots.

This, in itself, is a kind of destiny. Another, more consoling way of describing our default mode is to say we are a “trading nation.” Most legacies of empire—institutional solidity, military might, national purpose—have long gone. Only our openness to and dependence on the tides of international trade and migration remain. Britain, sponge-like, absorbs the world.

The next decade will test this to the limit. Thanks to a right wing Labour government, financialisation and a property bubble, inequality over the past ten to 15 years has increased to dangerous levels. The new rich have happily expropriated the old poor, creating a middle-class poor in the process. Politicians are paralysed by the spectacle, and if this paralysis continues, then the riots of August will become the next decade’s harbinger.

One way of overcoming that would be to embrace the existence of a poorly paid, mobile workforce and turn ourselves into a haven for inward investment—Britain as an emerging market. This may be wise now that economic power is slipping away from the US; the Indians and the Chinese might need more European manufacturing bases. But it is scarcely an attractive prospect.

Meanwhile, Britain will remain an early adopter of new gadgetry. After lobbyists, journalists and corporate interests, Google seems to be the lunch date of choice for the government. Nearly a year ago in the Telegraph, George Osborne co-wrote a piece with Google’s Eric Schmidt on the virtues of the internet. For Osborne, Googleworld—or, perhaps in a decade, Appleland—is a happy place. But to an uncertain nation, it is potentially a nightmare, an atomised dystopia of connectivity and virtuality. If you don’t know who you are to start with, the machines will decide for you the instant you log on. Who they want you to be, of course, is consumers, another word for, when the going gets tough, rioters.

But everything that makes Britain’s future scary also makes it exhilarating. Despite the cathedrals and culture, we are a modern country precisely because we continuously import so many ways of life. Years ago Martin Amis said he was drawn to America because it was experimenting with the near future. That seems less true now that the east is rising and the US, its global military reach compromised, is gripped by various ideological frenzies. It is better, perhaps, to be in Britain if we can be sure we can surf on rather than drown in the global tides.

In ten years, Britain will still be an open, liberal society and, perhaps, a freer one. This assumes that we will become wiser, with a political class that regards the great offices of state as more than the next line on a CV. We will have found a way of containing the cult of turbo-capitalism that nearly destroyed us in 2008 and a way of educating our young into a kind of identity that will prevent them becoming passive consumers.

For Britain, as elsewhere, technology will be crucial. Capitalism was boosted in the 1990s by the fantasy of markets made perfect by computers and, in the 2000s by the further fantasy of a politics made perfect by internet and cellular connectivity. The next state will—or should be—not a machine dream augmented by humans but a human reality augmented by machines.

Even global warming will have a silver lining for Britain. If, in the next ten years the continent continues to warm, then we will find ourselves with the last temperate climate in Europe. With wisdom and weather at our backs, 2021 should be free and cool.

Bryan Appleyard is a journalist and author


Juliet Gardiner

The problems of the 1930s—and a new one

The spectre of the 1930s still hovers over Britain. A decade in which politicians were found incapable of dealing with crushing economic and social problems, including intractable unemployment; an international situation where “liberal intervention” was constantly contested and seen to bring a slew of unwelcome commitments; a people largely out of love with their government, suspicious of the impotence and contumely of politicians. The parallels seem stark.

What might the attempted solutions of the 1930s suggest for project 2021? Disdain for politicians might usher in the end of politics as we know it. After all, Belgium, which has been without a government for well over a year, has seen a far greater rise in GDP than Britain, the eurozone, France and even tightly-regulated Germany. Will 2021 see the end of politicians’ flailing initiatives and a relaxation into market forces?

The bifurcation of society in the 1930s will, sadly, probably be repeated acutely over the next decade. But the north/south, class, and racial tensions will be overlaid with a new fissure: a generational one. A battle for resources between a growing and longer-living older generation with an expectation of entitlement at the end of a long working life, pitted against a massive cohort of young people worried about job security, housing and their ability to shape the future that is rightfully theirs.

Juliet Gardiner is a writer and social historian


Simon Jenkins

Privacy and liberty will return

Futurology exaggerates, because reality is boring. After great events, pundits cry: “things will never be the same.” The death of Diana in 1997 and the crash of 2008 were both hailed as turning points in history.

The death of Diana is now a historical incident. In ten years’ time, the consequence of the 2008 credit crunch will have passed. The simplest lesson, do not borrow more than you can repay, will have been learned, slowly, painfully and at a huge cost in economic disruption. Those responsible, among bankers and their regulators, will be writing their memoirs. The capitalist economy will again be moving forward.

On the other hand, a decade ago an event occurred that should not have changed the world but did. September 11th was the attack of a criminal gang and was in no way a political threat to the west. Why it was treated as such is buried deep in the psychology of democratic leadership. It led to a decade of war, paranoia and security hysteria, granting al-Qaeda a global importance out of proportion to its threat. Tens of thousands died and billions of dollars were spent in retaliation. Governments retreated to acts of torture and curbs on liberty. As Osama bin Laden hoped, a great divide was driven between the west and Islam. Western security unquestionably worsened.

The 9/11 attack showed the west’s liberties as vulnerable to self-abuse. An American president and a British prime minister allowed a criminal to prescribe the rules of the security game. It was a victory for the principle of terrorism: that it is not the act that has power, but the aftermath. It is not the bomb that echoes round the world but the scream of pain. Wise counter-terrorism deadens the scream. America amplified it, and it still echoes. Security remains obsessive and privacy is abused. A global industry embracing defence, police and private security firms opposes all attempts to reduce “vigilance.” Promises by the British government to reduce identity databases and detention without trial have proved empty.

Orwell observed that people become used to controls and accept that oppression is necessary for their safety, as they once bought into the thesis that social regulation was necessary for their welfare. Right-wing securocrats and left-wing control freaks unite against the freedom of the individual, assisted by the fusion of private computing with the public realm.

I believe the next ten years will see a reaction against this. The concept of privacy will reassert itself, and with it a tighter definition of the boundary between the personal and the public. Social networks will be seen less as liberating and more as organs of state control. They will specialise and personalise in the process. There will be a rebuilding of the dignity of individual space.

This will be reflected in more sophisticated management of state and public risk, the central political concept of the coming century. At one extreme, we will gradually learn how to calibrate a community’s vulnerability to violence, and shift some risk onto groups and individuals. Governments will withdraw from a neurotic fixation on absolute security, if only because it cannot be afforded. At the other extreme, people will demand the right to make their own decisions on “health and safety”. They will resist the cult of “we cannot be too safe” so appealing to politicians.

The balance between freedom and security can only resolve itself in a judgment of risk. It affects equally whether I must view every Arab with suspicion, whether I must go naked onto a plane, or whether I must wear a helmet on every car journey. Where does the state stop and mature responsibility begin? The battle of the next decade will be to recover this concept of human risk, indeed of free will, from the horror of 9/11. It will be a hard one.

Simon Jenkins is a columnist for the Guardian and the Sunday Times


Samuel Brittan

Standoff on the economy and the countryside

Looking through a small file marked “future” that I keep on the subject, the best quote I can find is: “The future is not what it was.” Prospect has made it difficult by asking me to look ahead ten years. Most futurologists like much longer periods, say a century, when they no longer will be alive to be proved wrong. HG Wells (below)wrote a fantasy at the beginning of the 20th century in which Martians in giant tripods land near Woking, in Surrey. But the area is still a mixture of suburbia and heathlands with not a Martian in sight. In the Wells fantasy, the Martians eventually succumbed to a terrestrial infection. But before that, France offered generous hospitality to millions of fleeing Britons and that I fear is the most unrealistic part of the whole story.

More recently Martin Rees, astronomer royal and master of Trinity College Cambridge, listed the threats facing mankind—global wars, asteroids, climate change—and concluded that there was a less than 50 per cent chance of the human race surviving the 21st century. But he did not pretend that he had found a mathematical way of aggregating the threats. In a different mood he might have concluded that we would just get through.

The big obstacle to historical prophecy was outlined by the philosopher Karl Popper. He remarked that the future depends among other things, on the growth of knowledge, which by its nature is unpredictable. And if we regressed either to a condition of savagery or to a new theocracy we could have a society in which new knowledge was neither sought nor found.

But in Britain, fundamentals change very slowly. It is a reasonable bet that in 2021, the prime minister will be Labour or Conservative. He may even be called David Cameron. It is more uncertain whether his party will rule by itself or need the support of the Lib Dems or another party. By 2021 enough time will have elapsed since the bungled referendum on the alternative vote for electoral reform to reappear on the agenda. Scotland will have drawn nearer to independence, but will not have taken the plunge. The country will be by and large law-abiding. But there will be enough social disturbance for the familiar debate between those who take a law-and-order approach and those who seek fundamental causes to continue.

The economy will not have collapsed, but economic growth will be less and unemployment higher than many commentators would like or consider possible. The argument between sound money men, who give priority to low inflation and balanced budgets and those who would prefer expansionary fiscal policies to boost growth will continue unabated, as it has done since the 1930s. The advance of economic techniques will not have made the subject into hard science. These arguments will leave the ordinary voter cold. He or she will still worry about jobs, but will unfortunately focus on immigration, where policy will continue to be like the present botched compromise.

My candidate for a surprisingly virulent debate: the struggle between those who want to develop and those who want to preserve England’s green and pleasant land. The controversy is already visible in embryonic form in the argument over official plans for a new rail link from London to the Midlands.

My first insight into futurology came decades ago in a chapter of a French textbook designed to teach the future tense. The only specific prediction I remember was that there would be moving pavements to help us on our way. Even now these only exist in airports. But the wisest words came at the end of the chapter: “Qui vivra verra” (he who lives will see).

Samuel Brittan is an FT columnist and is an honorary fellow of Jesus College Cambridge


Maria Misra

A lost decade for Britain; worse for Europe

Barring a miracle (the discovery of oil beneath the Isle of Wight?) the next ten years will likely be Britain’s Japanese-style lost decade. For all the talk of green banks and state-led investment in technology, the recovery effort has been paltry, and it is unlikely that a Miliband government elected in 2015 would do better. Our politicians suffer from a collective loss of nerve, and there is little sign of this changing. The British will get used to stiffening their upper lips as they embark on the Puritan course of paying down debt and there will be an unseemly scrap over who, or rather which class, will do most of the paying.

The hope is that there will be gain in the pain. History shows that recessions can be innovative times for business and science. Patents tend to spike during recessions: the slowdown of the 1870s and 1880s produced the steam turbine and incandescent light. The great depression of the 1930s, meanwhile, brought significantly higher productivity than the roaring twenties.

In ten years there will be less familiarity with credit derivatives, swaps and leveraged buyouts among the Radio 4-listening classes and more chatter about green technologies and sustainability. Recent graduates have begun the long-needed turn away from finance and this summer, take-up of hard science and maths among A-level students rose for the first time in decades.

I doubt the coming end of our property-owning democracy is such a bad thing. People live perfectly civilised and fulfilling lives on the continent without lumbering themselves with improbably large mortgages. The English home has become a millstone, and freed of it we could become more mobile. With more investment in the rental sector we might, like our continental neighbours, get to like rented urban apartments rather than the cramped and expensive new-builds that litter the country.

Straitened times tend to trigger a cultural flight to quality. While good times produce bad art—French rococo—hard times can force a refining of the artistic temperament and a sharpening of scientific minds. We can expect the monstrous regiment of “starchitects” who have strewn crass monuments to their own narcissism across our cities to embrace a more sober, elegant and functional style as clients take back the driving seat.

Life for many will be more difficult, and politics will be more fraught. The multi-culti social liberalism of the last 20 years will be a casualty of the downturn. As people feel threatened—by war or economic uncertainty—they seek solace in comforting old hierarchies of nation, ethnicity and gender.

History suggests that Britain will remain a stable society. The elites have always been successful in deploying what Gramsci called hegemony. This is the aura of legitimacy and authority bestowed on institutions and governing groups, regardless of their competence. Remember the 1930s: the Nazis used repression and crude propaganda; the British developed the BBC.

So pace recent events, which have provoked a flood of over-reaction, ten tough years will not produce an unravelling of British democracy. We may not be as placid as the Japanese, but we are more likely to follow their path than any other. Continental Europe—with its precarious banks, dysfunctional currency and far-right electoral challenge—is the real worry.

Maria Misra is a fellow of Keble College, Oxford


Tom Ravenscroft

Can punk save us from Mick Jagger—again?

Commercial music will have finally simmered itself down to a handful of unlistenable super groups by 2021, most involving Mick Jagger and others of his generation. They’ll use their millions to ensure it is almost impossible for you to hear any sounds other than their own. There will be no record shops and music will be transferred from artist to customer digitally and directly, in an attempt to foil music piracy and guarantee revenues. Bono will have bought the internet; many global leaders will try to persuade him to share it, but he won’t. Elsewhere, underground musicians will be rehashing musical genres at such a rate that fashions will begin to revolve ever faster. In the end we’ll have to wear all the clothes from each period at the same time. It will be hot. Everyone will be good looking.

In 2021, the term “world music” will refer to any music made outside London or Brooklyn and everyone will have their own independent record label, which they will use to put out a daily album of everything they have said in the last 24 hours. These will be put into a chart, which will become the main focus of the evening news, with some celebrities paying vast teams of script writers to make sure that their mutterings get into the top ten. At one point Madonna stays on the top of the chart for a full two weeks for not saying a word. When she does finally say a word it is “child”; the world weeps and she goes straight back to the number one spot.

Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Beyoncé Knowles will have opened academies named after themselves where they’ll grow musical stars. These offspring will eventually take over from the “super groups.” Ultimately, everyone is desperate for punk to come along again and wipe the slate clean; but we have already had “post-punk” and “post-post-punk” sounds too stupid.

Tom Ravenscroft is a BBC 6 Music radio DJ


Simon Baron-Cohen

The science of empathy sheds light on morality

Who would have thought scientists could study something as fuzzy as empathy? When we empathise, we enter the mind of the other person, experiencing an emotion triggered by the other person’s state of mind. Surely this couldn’t be the stuff of science?

It turns out that neuroscience has been making great strides in understanding this process, and I expect this to continue. By 2021 we will understand more about the causes of individual differences in empathy. We already know that biological factors (genes, hormones, neurotransmitters) and environmental factors (parenting) have an influence on empathy levels in later life. With the increasing research efforts in genetics and developmental cognitive neuroscience, empathy will reveal more of its secrets.

We know the brain regions involved in empathy. Brain scanning (fMRI) has enabled the process of empathy to be observed in action. By 2021 we will be able to image how the workings of these brain regions are changed by both our experience and our biology.

We are beginning to understand different kinds of empathy difficulties. Psychopaths for example can imagine what someone else thinks or feels (“cognitive empathy”), but lack the emotional reaction to these (“affective empathy”). People with Asperger Syndrome show the opposite pattern: they struggle to understand what someone else might think or feel, but do react emotionally to someone else’s distress. By 2021 we will better understand the importance of affective empathy in the development of morality, and how the absence of affective empathy can leave an individual capable of hurting others.

Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of developmental psychopathology and director of the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University. His latest book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, is published by Penguin


Lucy Prebble

Prepare to become both artist and audience

A century ago, those attending the theatre paid to sit in a box. Their view of the stage was obscured, but their view of others—and others’ of them—was enhanced. Art has always seeped into the social fabric. Now, we display ourselves online as our own work of art; while also being an audience for others. However, we engage with the screen individually. In ten years there’ll be a further move towards creating an illusion of community while consuming art solitarily.

A new artistic form may spin itself out of the web. The human urge to create and build will combine entertainment with communication. Gaming will become a recognised art form, and will go in search of a wider audience in order to generate the revenues it will need to flourish.

In ten years, TV boxsets will continue to hold couples together, but rather than being shown on television, each season of a TV show might be launched in its entirety, like a new novel, and gifted as a thing of beauty, like vinyl, or an antique book. The divide between high-quality drama, and lighter, episodic fare will grow even wider. Only news and big reality entertainment will be broadcast at set times. Everything else will be downloaded at the start of each week.

Television companies will try to fix a bridle on social networking. Onscreen events will be accompanied by a running textual or audio commentary by people of our choice; our own Twitter friends, celebrities paid to comment, or satirists mocking the whole affair, creating shows within shows.

As America, our biggest English-speaking market, declines, our film industry will suffer, while music and dance, both with cross-cultural appeal, will flourish. Radio will wither, as podcasts and shared playlists allow direct communication between artist and audience, who can then swap places easily. Theatre will soldier on, but the passing of a generation of blue-rinsed stalwarts will make it hard without continued government investment.

Large amounts of immediately-available criticism online may see those more sensitive or undeluded about their talents mould their work to suit audience demand, or quit before they learn their craft properly. This would lead to the bullish and ambitious producing most mainstream work.

In short, we’ll all be artist, audience and art itself—and consequently, critic too. And that could be a glorious age, if it’s a supportive one. Let’s hope 2021 has authors still, not just commentators. Oh and BBC Four.

Lucy Prebble is an award-winning playwright. Her works include The Sugar Syndrome and Enron


Martin Sorrell

Emulate Thatcher to save us from China

The west is weakening. China, India, Brazil, Russia and others may soon dominate. In the 1980s, many thought Japan would take over, but Reagan and Thatcher introduced stimulative economic policies, and the story turned out differently. In Britain, the coalition must do likewise. It has made a good start—which is encouraging since they should be in office for almost half of the coming decade. Cameron may well lead for all of it. We need to balance the budget. Government spending—not cut, but rising less quickly—will increase from £700bn to £750bn between 2010 and 2015.

Once the deficit is contained, government must focus on education, technology, infrastructure, incentives and immigration. Britain’s strengths are primarily in the service sectors, financial included. These must be encouraged. We need increased focus on education, from primary schools to elite universities (nothing wrong with elites). Technological centres should be encouraged. Infrastructure must be improved and taxes lightened. Immigrants must be regarded as a source of strength. As a second-generation immigrant, it is disconcerting to know that my father’s Ukrainian grandparents may not have had sufficient points. We have to build manufacturing capabilities and stimulate the small and medium-sized firms that provide so much growth in the US.

The money will come through confronting waste and through growth. Otherwise Britain in 2021 will have fallen behind the rest.

Sir Martin Sorrell is CEO of WPP, the global marketing company


Giles Andrews

Consumers want the real thing

By 2021, business in Britain will look quite different from today. Not totally different, as consolidation among the old guard of major corporations will leave much of the landscape inhabited by the “big boys.” But even they will have to evolve to keep up with consumers, who are more aware of the choices they face and whose needs and preferences are being better met by innovative new businesses. Consumers will expect more control and transparency. Evolving technology and increasing internet and mobile bandwidths will make it easier for innovators and entrepreneurs to jump ahead of old models and satisfy customers in new ways.

Authenticity continues to grow in importance to consumers. From where and how we holiday, to what we read and even who and what we believe, authenticity is sought and scrutinised ever more intensely. The own goals of old guard businesses seeking to be “cool and trendy” with horribly corporate Twitter feeds, are already the stuff of legend.

Where are tomorrow’s winners? Some are almost too obvious, like Facebook and Google. But good old eBay and Amazon qualify in spades and newer creations like Spotify, Dropbox and others are equal parts of the new jigsaw. One common characteristic of the winners would be encouraging collaboration between users to improve offerings to consumers.

In finance, where banks still appear to compete most aggressively to be the least popular part of capitalism, new alternatives with narrowly defined products will pick off chunks of banks’ market share and drive down their margins—the “utility” banks won’t be among the winners. Their time has rightly passed.

Giles Andrews is founder and CEO, Zopa, the online lender

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