What ideas will shape Britain and the world in the coming year? © David Ryle

The big ideas of 2015

The ideas which will shape the coming year from 'downward mobility' to the 'end of cash' and the 'new monogamy'
December 10, 2014

We live in extraordinary times. This makes a nonsense of the term “developed world”—implying that the story, in the countries of the west, is all told. That notion is confounded by the scale of the change through which we are living, in politics, economics and technology. Some of this has difficult consequences. It is a hard time to run a democracy now. Governments must confront voters with retrenchment; as we say below, politics has become “the management of disappointments.” Elected leaders have fewer levers to pull; their power is diminished by globalisation, technology and scepticism. It is harder for them to raise tax revenue, for a start; they have fewer ways to compensate those who have lost out from globalisation.

The management of disappointments

Who’d want to be a politician now? This is a tough time to run a government in a western democracy. Politics in the coming year amounts to the management of disappointments.

Politics goes local as economics goes global

It has been a cold climate for mainstream politics: falling turnout, declining share of the vote, shrivelling party organisations and now a haemorraghing of support to populist insurgents on right and left.

Falling costs

Everywhere, prices of goods that loom large in the economy are falling—food, communications, energy. Even a standard smartphone can fulfill almost all of the functions of a desktop computer.

Asset taxes

The decline in UK tax receipts illustrates how hard it is for modern democracies in a globalised world to collect taxes. The decline in corporation tax paid by Britain’s largest companies gives stark evidence of this.

Downward mobility

The idea that social mobility—ending up in a different occupational class or income group from one’s parents—is in decline or has ground to a halt has much currency in Britain today.

Friends in strange places

The turmoil in the Middle East and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have done strange things to alliances, not least to the ones that gelled—sort of—after the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago.

The year of two pivots

2015 will be a year of two pivots. Russia is performing the first, turning east towards China, away from Europe. Sanctions imposed by the west after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the plunging oil price, have hit the Russian economy hard.

The Chinese lake

China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is raising fears that it is bent on turning the maritime region into “a Chinese lake.”

The internet of things

Rushing out the door to work, you are stopped by an urgent beeping from the hatstand; it’s your umbrella, reminding you that it’s likely to rain later...

The end of cash

Cash still rules in the UK—but only just. Fifty-three per cent of transactions were made using notes and coins in 2013.

Transgender rights

Campaigns for transgender rights are in the ascendant, prompted partly by the visibility of trans personalities such as the writer and broadcaster Paris Lees and the boxing promoter Kelly Maloney.

The new monogamy

The new monogamy... isn’t monogamy. A new dating culture is on the rise, fuelled by smartphone-based apps. The stigma of online dating has gone, and attitudes to romance and relationships have shifted with that.

It is not surprising that voters’ response is to discard old party allegiances. Britain could now be entering an era of coalitions with which its parliamentary system may struggle to cope. Even though the United Kingdom has been one of the most stable countries in the European Union during the past seven years, it has narrowly avoided break-up through the referendum on Scotland, and may be heading for another on the EU where a vote to stay in is likely but not certain. The markets, particularly those for sterling, have been sanguine about the potential upheaval—arguably too much so.

But the refreshing side of this uncertainty is people’s willingness in many countries to question how they want to be governed—and to come up with new answers. In the UK, the Scottish vote has prompted a re-evaluation of every cog of the constitutional machinery, as our “Blueprint for Britain” series of articles and discussions has explored; you can read our conclusions in our April issue.

The return of growth in the United States and the UK, if patchy, has restored some confidence that the economic model is not entirely broken. Growth, even if fitful, has surprised many commentators; so has the rise in the number of those in work in the UK. Yet many of the faults that caused the 2008 financial crisis are not fully fixed, such as the regulation of bank capital, or the eurozone imbalances. Those concerns will overshadow 2015.

So will the potential for conflict between countries on many fronts. Allegiances are shifting across the Middle East; western governments lack a policy for intervention and in Syria appear ambivalent even about which side—or faction—they would like to win. Tension is rising in the South China Sea as countries look to curb China’s influence—but Russia wants to court Beijing. The Obama administration would prefer just to go home.

Yet the pace of technological change is reshaping people’s lives often for the better across the world. The continued increases in longevity are a phenomenon of our times. Innovations drawing on past improvements in microprocessing power are now becoming available. New technology is pushing down the cost of energy, of food, of communications, of financial services—even if it comes with new security and privacy concerns which the UK government, for one, too lightly dismisses.

People are using that connectivity to reshape their lives. The entrenchment of gay rights in major democracies is one of the liberal achievements of the past few decades; the cause of transgender rights, exploring who can define someone’s gender, and when, is a new front. And the “new monogamy”? The new dating mores aren’t monogamy, and aren’t particularly new, when you get down to it, but they do now have their own apps to show their time has come.