The lesson this government ought to have learnt by the end of its first term is to expect the unexpected. While Labour has survived political hits such as the resignations of Peter Mandelson with barely a scratch, the things that have really produced a wobble were the ones that seemed to come out of the blue: the fuel tax protests, the panic over GM foods, the rail crisis, job losses at Britain’s biggest steelmaker, Corus, and in the car industry.
I believe there will be an increasing number of such unexpected events, and the only way for the government to be prepared is to have a minister whose eyes are firmly fixed on the horizon, scanning for unforeseen danger. We need a Minister for the Future on permanent lookout, like a sailor in the crow’s nest – someone whose thinking is at least two jumps ahead of the political cycle.
While the electoral cycle turns slowly, scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs continue at full pace, irreversibly changing the way we live: what we grow and eat, how we learn, keep healthy, entertain ourselves and even how we catch criminals. When we vote, we have to trust that our favoured politicians will make decisions that we would approve of in areas about which we ourselves know little or nothing.
A Ministry for the Future, therefore, would not only ensure that government was better prepared and equipped to tackle new problems; it would also generate discussion of issues not yet on the political radar and give the electorate some warning of how politicians planned to approach the unknown.
The Minister for the Future would not be responsible for solving every new issue, any more than the forward- planning sections of private sector organisations are expected to do so. Nor would he or she have a budget beyond one for research and information-gathering. The minister would thus stand apart from the constant fire-fighting duties of Cabinet colleagues and, with no departmental budget to defend, would be inured against the dreaded disease of departmentalitis.
There are disparate parts of government currently dabbling in futurism. The Department for Trade and Industry has a Future Unit and a Foresight programme and the Department of Health runs a Human Genetics Commission. The new Performance and Innovation Unit in the Cabinet Office adds to the wealth of Whitehall initiatives and programmes trying to anticipate change and shape specific policy areas. But hugely important issues are being dealt with in a fragmented, low-profile manner. Scientific and technological trends do not fit well into the departmental structure of government. Does the issue of genetically modified organisms “belong” to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or to Health? Would a British version of the Napster dispute be a problem for Stephen Byers at the DTI, or of Chris Smith at Culture, Media and Sport? As we increasingly confront issues that run the full gamut of regulatory, technical, scientific, social and ethical concerns, we need a focal point at the heart of government equipped to handle such complexity. The Ministry for the Future would be a visible champion and co-ordinator of all the existing good work being done within and without government.
The new ministry would also have an educational role. Recent polling by MORI shows that 70 per cent of the population feel they have too little information about controls on biological developments and 71 per cent have little or no confidence that rules and regulations are keeping pace with scientific developments.
There exists a good role model for this new ministry. A decade ago, the Finnish parliament established a cross-party Committee for the Future. It is credited with many successes, including steering that country to its position as a world leader in information and communications technology. While most countries, including the UK, are setting targets to expand e-government, the Finns are already dealing with the problems generated when 90 per cent of citizen-to-government activity happens online. As with many things, one suspects we’ll deal with that problem when we come to it, rather than building in solutions at an early stage.
The secret of the Finnish success has been a willingness to reach out to involve any part of society interested in helping the country to face the future: businesses (including Nokia), scientists, academics, charities and citizens. Interactive webcasts of committee proceedings make the body a model of transparent governance.
The composition of the British Cabinet has always changed to reflect contemporary concerns; the introduction of a minister for price controls and a minister for e-commerce were both products of their different times. Now, concern about what the future holds, how we will be affected, and what the government can do about it, warrants the introduction of a Ministry for the Future. And just think about how much competition there will be to become the first Minister for the Future – it’s got to be more fun than being in charge at Maff.
Beth Egan is the deputy director of Demos. This is the latest in a series of articles, prepared by the New Statesman and the Fabian Society, on ideas for a second Labour term