Britain is stuck. Sewage flows almost freely into our rivers. Our most productive regions and those with the greatest potential are held back by restrictive planning rules and bureaucratic government. Frontier, public-interest technologies are blocked from realising their impact by under-resourced regulators. From infrastructure projects and passport offices, to hospital waiting lists and clinical trials, little seems safe from an increasingly sclerotic state.
Every month, as delays and backlogs stack up, the temptation to give in to a declinist narrative gets stronger. We are ensnared in a web of our own making, with seemingly little real interest in solving these problems.
But this is a dangerous place for a country to be, psychologically. It is all too easy for concern about decline to morph into self-fulfilling prophecy, to reach for knee-jerk responses to profound problems. In the process, we fail to acknowledge progress when it does happen: when passport timelines return to days not weeks, when new transport lines open, or when renewable energy allows us to shut down every last coal power station. And while demand for lab space is high, this is more a sign of potential than stagnation.
Whatever malaise Britain finds itself in, we must not let a declinist narrative snuff out any space for optimism, ambition and agency. As marginal losses accumulate and the pressure for radicalism grows, this can lead to deep political entrenchment which dissuades action. So we need a “whatever it takes” approach to escape the downward spiral, and there are flickers of hope to inspire us.
A new movement around science, technology and economic progress is evolving – particularly in the US – and offers a way forward. It champions abundance, not scarcity; state capacity, not decline; and supply-side action alongside demand-side subsidy. Above all, it is proudly solutionist. It recognises that golden ages don’t happen by accident: they are made by political choices.
In the UK, this movement is taking form in the energy of young, emerging, frontier talents who share a frustration at the squandering of Britain’s enormous opportunity. When Keir Starmer promises planning reform and to back the builders over the blockers, or when Michael Gove outlines his plans for a beautiful, ambitious expansion to Cambridge, they are tapping into a nascent, energetic coalition that crosses traditional party lines.
But there are still many barriers to these efforts going mainstream. When the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) and the Frontier AI Taskforce can entice rising scientists and technologists to work in the public interest, they remind us that the UK can remain at the frontier and secure its stake in the future. But these new institutions can thrive only because they are cleaved from the wider system they interact with.
The next government cannot afford to be complacent. A new hand on the rudder will need to be more than steady; it will need to change our course. Now, ahead of a general election, we need to fill the pipeline of ideas and talent with those who can wield technology and policy in pursuit of progress. This is key for the economy and for society: a Britain out of its rut can be one of greater equality, and also of opportunity.
To that end, we are excited to announce the Progress Prize, organised by TxP in partnership with Civic Future and New Statesman Spotlight. The prize exists to identify antidotes to Britain’s malaise and provide a platform for emerging and frontier individuals who can go on to make these solutions real.
We want to hear from emerging scientists and students, technologists and technocrats. Anyone with no more than ten years of professional or postgraduate experience is invited to enter before the deadline on 7 January 2024. A prize of £5,000 will be awarded to the best response to the most urgent question there is: “Britain is stuck. How can we get the country moving again?”
The progress prize is in partnership with TxP, Civic Future, and New Statesman Spotlight and supported by Emergent Ventures. To find out more, visit: txp.fyi