Two competing stories have dominated British politics in recent decades.
One is a triumphalist story that tells of how a long decline, accelerated by corporatism, was turned around by harsh measures in the 1980s, which then enabled the UK economy to become dynamic, global and open. In one version, Brexit was meant to allow this strategy to flower even more, freed from the shackles of Europe. This dream, in Boris Johnson’s words, died last weekend.
The alternative story also starts with decline but denies the turnaround, emphasising instead continued low investment and low productivity, exacerbated by over-centralisation in the state, excessive dominance of finance and resulting in relative decline compared to other countries. In this narrative, Brexit threatens a disaster.
At the weekend, FutureFest brought together thousands of people looking for a different story – one that is desirable and plausible and able to connect past, present and future. The majority of the speakers were women and there was room for voices of all kinds, from musicians to academics, social entrepreneurs to geeks, all united by a wish to connect ideas to action and ‘be the change’ they wanted to see in the world.
At the weekend, FutureFest brought together thousands of people looking for a different story – one that is desirable and plausible and able to connect past, present and future
We launched the first FutureFest in 2013 as an antidote to a mood of fatalism that seemed to have fallen over the country because of austerity, the failure to return to growth, and a lack of inspiration from political leaders and others. We wanted to create a space for more optimistic, critical, challenging and enlivening views of what might lie ahead.
We wanted to respond to the deeper desires for ‘taking back control’, for recognition and respect, that are present in contemporary politics, but so often are manifested in negative rather than positive ways.
Five years later the need is no less. The economy has recovered but many are no better off than a decade ago. If anything the mood is darker. The next generation expect to be worse off than their parents. Politics has become all consumed with Brexit to the exclusion of any other long-term projects. The big digital firms that liked to think of themselves as heroes are now more often cast as predatory villains. A more sullen, depressed mood is widespread.
The problem with this mood is that it can be self-fulfilling. In my last blog I shared some of the evidence on self-efficacy, which shows that peoples’ beliefs about their ability to shape or control their destiny strongly shapes whether they do in fact thrive and survive.
The same is true of societies. If you believe you’re a victim of forces beyond your control, and see everything through a lens of paranoid victimhood, then things may indeed pan out in ways that confirm that view.
FutureFest was an antidote, offering complexity and nuance, tension and struggle, as well as hope. As far as I could tell, everyone came away more hopeful, even when they had dived into the challenges of data sovereignty, the fragility of nature or the brokenness of politics.
FutureFest was an antidote, offering complexity and nuance, tension and struggle, as well as hope
Even more than at past FutureFests, a striking feature was the absence of the big parties. Nicola Sturgeon gave an assured speech on the role of government in shaping the future. But her very capability reinforced the sense that much of the rest of UK politics is treading water at best.
Quite a few leading figures in the big parties were invited to speak, but none accepted. This may be one of those periods when, with a few exceptions, they really struggle to articulate a vision of the future. No wonder some caricature British politics as a struggle between those wanting to return to the 1950s and those wanting to return to the 1970s - and not just because of a marked ageing of political leadership.
The newspapers confirm this sense, so full of fury about minor issues and so often silent on the big ones, and so often nostalgic rather than confident about the future. AI is a case in point, with the great majority of media coverage linking it to threats and fears rather than opportunities (reflected in our poll, which showed that 40 per cent of the UK population see it as a danger on a par with nuclear weapons).
The challenge, in other words, is that the traditional power centres in Westminster and the media are doing little to occupy the future. Horizons have shrunk in. Mental energies are consumed with surviving week to week, or month to month, and in both print and social media, outrage and anger substitute all too easily for thought. The old structures remain very powerful and crowd out the space for creative imagination. But the newer alternatives remain too weak to spark a truly mass conversation.
It’s easy to be despondent. But this context arguably makes it all the more important that the rest of us work even harder to imagine, shape, and show through practical examples that another world is possible.
Jeremy Heimans talked at FutureFest about how new power is like a current that flows, rather than a resource to be hoarded. Hopefully a few of those currents gained new force last weekend.
Replay key sessions from speakers at FutureFest 2018