The best line on 2021 comes from Samuel Brittan. “Looking through a small file marked ‘future’ that I keep on the subject,” he writes, in an elegant riposte to the Prospect request to contemplate life in Britain ten years from now. Bryan Appleyard captures the cautious tone of many responses: “Britain is a nation whose near future is always in doubt,” he writes. “Our default mode is uncertainty and disarray, anxiety or riots. This in itself is a kind of destiny.”
Debt, the decline of influence even with America, the separation of Scotland, and an awkwardly ambitious King Charles III—those are part of the picture sketched by our writers. No surprise; they extrapolate from a difficult present. But there is also a resilient cheerfulness, from Andrew Roberts’s sunny pastiche, to Tom Ravenscroft’s visions of Madonna. Elsewhere in this issue, the enthusiastic materialism of hip hop is an antidote to the retro celebration of Alice in Wonderland. Myself, I’ve never quite taken to the whimsy of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, but concede entirely the claim of Richard Jenkyns—and the Tate Gallery—for its influence on the national imagination.
Some of the most optimistic projections are from those running businesses, such as Martin Sorrell, although it would help, as Richard Lambert argues strongly, if government developed a coherent policy on encouraging companies. Over decades, it has failed.
Many argue that liberal values underpin British life: above all, a commitment to individual rights and liberties. David Goodhart argues that the age of liberalism is over, extinguished by riots and banking excesses. I’d regret that, and doubt it. As Simon Jenkins writes, the next decade is likely to see a battle to reassert the privacy and freedom of the individual. But it is a battle, and where Boris Johnson goes from here (see “The Boris dilemma”) will show not just whether charisma trumps all other political assets, but whether liberal policies that play well in London could carry him to No 10—or are so repellent to his party that the question is irrelevant. James Macintyre’s interview with Chris Huhne (a short part of which, released online, made headlines worldwide) shows that Lib Dems are confident in challenging their coalition partners; less so in devising a united party voice on markets, pay and tax.
This year, Prospect has devoted a lot of energy to the clashes over how Britain should run itself in the 21st century—on the monarchy, the Supreme Court, Scotland, immigration, the media, the police, the banks. As Appleyard writes, “we are the most modern country precisely because we seem to be in a continuous experimentation with so many imported ways of life.” This month’s issue, overall, makes the case that for all the gloom of the past decade, Britain has not lost its sense of direction or its hope for the next one.