A Minister for the Future might keep Britain on course

Published by The Independent (30th November, 2015)

Sweden is far from a nirvana, but it remains an innovative nation when it comes to politics and the problems confronting society. No one better exemplifies this than Kristina Persson, a cheerful 70-year-old with a long and varied record in public service. Last year this former trade union official, member of parliament and deputy governor of the central bank was given a new mission: to head up a ministry of the future.

The idea is brilliant in its simplicity: to force politicians to confront long-term issues facing their nation rather than focusing on short-term problems, driven by electoral calculations. As minister for strategic development, Persson has a brief to roam across the agenda regardless of normal department boundaries, operating almost like a government think-tank. ‘Policies need to change from within,’ she says. ‘There is a need to see any dangers in time and create a narrative that holds together.’

She has set up working parties of experts to examine three challenges: the threat to jobs from new technology, the transition to a green economy, and the impact of globalisation. These are tough issues with potentially unpopular solutions: after all, if unemployment rises thanks to robots and computers, can Western societies afford expensive welfare systems? Tackling climate change, meanwhile, demands policies peering half a century ahead from politicians more used to looking nervously at voters’ current utility bills.

What a sensible concept – especially after a spending review that raised more questions than it answered on big issues such as benefits, energy, health and social care. Just think about immigration: the influx powers our economy and props up the national health service, yet politicians stupidly focus on keeping numbers down. Or witness the myopic debate on health and social care, the fudging of infrastructure decisions and the minimal discussion of critical issues such as the future of the workplace.

As Persson says, politics must experiment with new solutions to retain support in a rapidly-changing world. So should Britain follow suit by appointing a pointy-headed political veteran such as Andrew Adonis or David Willetts to be our first minister for the future? Or perhaps we should mimic Finland, which for more than two decades has had a Committee for the Future in parliament to discuss trends and impact of new technologies, while also insisting governments deliver a detailed statement setting out how they see the future.

Certainly there can be no doubt short-termism bedevils British politics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the health arena with costs rising fast in an aging society, a system offering comparatively poor treatment record and social care provision on brink of collapse. Yet politicians shy away from fundamental debate over how to pay for services demanded by the public as they profess adoration of the system and respond to populism. And they duck difficult ethical issues, such as over the value of questionable end-of-life treatments.

Similar failures are evident on other long-term problems from energy security to pensions. ‘Unfortunately it is the classic political failure to only think about the next couple of years ahead,’ said one veteran Downing Street adviser. This is a core problem with democracy. Indeed, it is to the credit of politicians that despite the electoral straightjacket, many focus on future generations by backing costly infrastructure projects – although they also come up with silly solutions such as using Private Finance Initiative to build hospitals, storing up exorbitant future costs to resolve immediate political concerns.

The appointment of an official futurologist would be in keeping with current drift of politics. Both parties reacted to public distrust of Westminster by contracting out power to agencies and officials. Labour asked the Bank of England to set interest rates, the Coalition established the Office for Budget Responsibility to analyse public finances and the Tories have created a National Infrastructure Commission to advise on major projects.

Yet a solitary minister might be too easily ignored. Frank Field proved this when asked by Tony Blair to ‘think the unthinkable’ on welfare, only to have his reforms rejected – although. Blair later claimed the problem was ‘not so much that his thoughts were unthinkable as unfathomable’. So perhaps better to adopt the Finnish model with a powerful new select committee, made up from both houses of Parliament to derive maximum strength and draw from the widest expertise. Or maybe just create another powerful new Whitehall agency.

Such a move might ensure a focus on neglected issues. It could also provide valuable political cover for unpopular but necessary policies. Imagine a new chancellor wanting to confront the welfare bias towards pensioners, who have kept free television licences and bus passes amid austerity for fear of upsetting the section of society most likely to vote. How much easier if there was a report by the state future-gazers insisting this should be done? Or to permit housebuilding on green belt in order to unblock the planning logjam? Or to wriggle off the absurd aid target placed in law?

The Prime Minister is a fan of Nordic government as well as its drama. So what does he have to lose from importing this clever concept? It offers a potential tool to help restore trust in politics, recast the state, recalibrate misfiring policies and resolve the thorniest issues of our age. This focus on the future feels like an idea whose time has arrived.

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