“Even in relation to profound problems, over a longer period, you can make a huge difference”

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Geoff Mulgan interviewed by The Times’ Rachel Sylvester

Rachel Sylvester: We’re talking at a time of huge political volatility and changes in UK leadership. As someone who spent years working in Downing Street, what advice would you give the new prime minister about getting Number 10 and the Whitehall machine to work?

Geoff Mulgan: What has been striking about recent leadership campaigns is that there was almost no discussion of the big issues of the next 10 or 20 years, and therefore very little clarity about what the roadmap is. The great risk for any leader is to be pulled into the tyranny of the immediate, and therefore not give any roadmap to the government machine, let alone the country, about what they can achieve that will look like a great success from the vantage point of 2030 or 2040.

Since the financial crisis, horizons have shrunk for British leaders and leaders globally. As a result, there are surprisingly few fields where there is a clear 10-year strategy. The government needs a plan for productivity, hopefully aligned with net zero, which isn’t just rhetoric about cutting red tape and cutting taxes, which almost no one believes will fuel growth. It’s quite hard to be a plausible Conservative prime minister without some story about how you will grow the cake as well as how you will distribute it; we are in the extraordinary position where, for a large proportion of the population, incomes have not risen for 15 years and real earning power is declining faster than anyone can remember.

Sylvester: In your new book, Another World is Possible: How to Reignite Social and Political Imagination, you talk about taking a more optimistic approach to politics. Are people right to feel pessimistic?

Mulgan: The pessimism is partly grounded in realism and partly not. Obviously, if incomes are stagnant for long periods of time, people become pessimistic and it’s not surprising they think their kids will be worse off. And it is right to be deeply troubled about climate change. But I’m struck by how many people have no sense of a positive alternative, of what our welfare, our healthcare, our democracy could look like a generation or two from now. It is not obvious they have to be worse than in the past. Even many pretty well-informed people are unaware of the gains made and we’ve lost the calibration of realising that, even in relation to profound problems, over a longer period, you can make a huge difference.

I do a lot of work in Scandinavia, which has a different political culture from the UK, with leaders who are much more comfortable talking 20, 40 years into the future. They have ambitious net zero goals, want to reduce inequality and modernise democracy. We should be thinking about what we can take from those examples, and the key is to be more realistic about what our options are rather than embracing glib rhetoric or a misleading pessimistic fatalism.

Sylvester: What or who is driving this short-termism?

Mulgan: Both the Conservative and Labour parties, at various points in the past, had big teams in research departments whose job was to think ahead many years into the future. That’s almost completely gone. Parties around the world are hollowed out, only focused on immediate tactics and communications.

I also blame universities. For quite complicated multiple reasons it’s become almost career-threatening to work on designing possible options for a generation from now as opposed to either analysis of the present or the past, or critique. You can find fantastic analyses of history or the recent past, or diagnoses of what’s gone wrong in, for example, the British economy, but in terms of prescription, it’s much thinner gruel.

The media also play their part. For example, the BBC does every now and again try and have programmes looking at options for the future, but most media find it much more comfortable to talk about disaster than options.

Sylvester: Is social media creating this treadmill of short attention spans and divisive politics? It’s harder to make long-term decisions when politics is polarised.

Mulgan: Without doubt, social media has fed the sense of living in an eternal present, without either historical depth looking backwards or a sense of how the present relates to an unfolding future. We’ve chosen social media designs which exaggerate polarisation, emotion and anger, although there are alternative designs out there which help groups come closer to a consensus or ensure that they engage with facts and analysis as well as feelings and emotion.

Particular business models of dominant social media have distorted our public culture in unfortunate ways. I’ve had many discussions with teenage activists who were both very motivated and dynamic and yet also deeply pessimistic about the future. They couldn’t articulate what might a better world look like when they are 50 or 60. These students – and politicians I’ve spoken to about this – found it very easy to describe ecological disaster or technological futures of drones and robots and rampant AI and genomics. But ask them to describe a plausible welfare system and there was nothing there. That’s why I’ve concluded we have a profound crisis of imagination which, though we may be legitimately pessimistic about real factors like climate change and stagnant income, fuels an excessive negativity and fatalism about the world around us.

Sylvester: In your book, you draw a contrast between this pessimistic activism of young people now and the more optimistic idealism when you were growing up. One in six young people are suffering from a form of mental health disorder. Is that to do with this sense of anxiety about the world and, if so, what can we do to tackle that?

Mulgan: The Lancet did a brilliant study earlier this year showing how well-informed – globally – young people are about the threat of climate change, but how pessimistic they are about the prospect of action, their lack of confidence in the key institutions being able to do the right thing, and their sense that the older generation don’t really ‘get it’.

There is a parallel shift going on, which is very important to political imagination, which is how we think about health. Back at the dawn of the welfare state, it was assumed the job of the state was to deal with our material realities and physical needs, while mental health and wellbeing was a job for the family or the community. Now, majorities in every part of the world put mental health on an equal footing to physical health in terms of its priority. Yet we spend vastly less on it, have far less systematic evidence about what works or what is to be done.

Sylvester: I did an interesting interview with Salman Khan of Khan Academy, who thinks one of the explanations for the mental health crisis among the young is that there’s very little personalisation in education and that children feel very disempowered at school. He thinks the solution is to give children and young people more agency over their lives.

Mulgan: Yes, agency is as crucial as cash or economic prospects. That is true in all our lives. If we feel we’re just passive victims of external forces, then it’s not surprising we become depressed and pessimistic.

In terms of agency in schools, I would rather that children from a very early age were experiencing the exercise of power, ideally embedded into the curriculum. In Paris, a part of their very large participatory budget goes to schoolkids to allocate the cash. They’re learning democracy from a very early age and democracy in the sense of taking responsibility for decisions, not just telling a government what to do differently.

I’m sure that the rhetoric around taking back control, which fuelled Brexit and politics around the world, is a response to this sense of lost agency. There’s very striking research in many countries into how isolation fuels fatalism or authoritarianism, and a pathological loop of lost agency, which then leads you to project agency onto a distant leader, hoping that they will fix everything for you. A sense of mutuality, agency and optimism are all closely connected. We thrive best with others, with the sense of possibility in the future, and not just being passive recipients of others’ commands.

We’ve lost the capacity to think both radically and imaginatively, and in many ways the competence of everyday systems has significantly deteriorated.

Sylvester: You chose to use the word ‘imagination’ in your book. Is there a danger that it ends up feeling fantastical?

Mulgan: I deliberately used it. That may be, paradoxically, because I’m now in an engineering department, so I spend much of my life surrounded by people working on technology, where (as in the sciences) it’s taken for granted that you need imagination about what could be possible, and you need extreme competence and efficiency in implementation. The same is true in politics and in society. You need creative, expansive imagination, which is willing to think about things which aren’t possible now, and that must be allied to rigorous, efficient implementation.

In those parts of the world which are more comfortable with the long term, which includes Scandinavia and East Asia, imagination and implementation are twins rather than alternatives. The sad thing about the UK is we’ve lost both at the same time. We’ve lost the capacity to think both radically and imaginatively, and in many ways the competence of everyday systems has significantly deteriorated in the last 10 years, whether it’s the Whitehall civil service machine, our railways, or parts of the NHS.

Sylvester: Is it partly that politicians seem so powerless compared with large corporations?

Politicians have a lot of power. What they haven’t often got is good thinking about how to use it.

Mulgan: Certainly, the tech giants have had the space to think radically and imaginatively and have completely reconfigured whole fields in ways politicians haven’t. But I don’t buy the argument that all power has gone from governments to business. Every time there’s a crisis, you see how wrong that is. We saw that in 2007/8, when governments moved incredibly dynamically to fix the crisis of the market – which the banks and Google and Facebook certainly didn’t have the capacity to fix – and we saw it during the pandemic, when so many governments moved with extraordinary speed to create new payment systems, lockdowns and fund vaccines.

Politicians have a lot of power. What they haven’t often got is good thinking about how to use it. They need to be smarter about how they use their power and about collaborating, because almost all the big issues of the next generation or two are transnational issues, and the nation state on its own won’t be able to do very much; they will have to band with others.

Sylvester: Using your imagination, how do you think the world is going to look different in the future? Let’s start with the NHS.

Mulgan: It probably will still exist. Britain is very much an institutional society, whether that’s the Royal Family, or Parliament, or the BBC or the NHS, and I hope the Prime Minister realises that. It’s been very unfortunate that in recent years the Conservatives have set themselves against so many of those institutions.

My imagination of health in 20 years’ time would be in some ways a much broader, richer one, where we look at almost everything through a health lens. While our culture has gone in that direction, our policies and our institutions are still a generation or so behind. My vision of a healthy, thriving health service is a ‘whole of society’ approach to health, from primary schools to the design of city centres and streets and transport, to dealing with food.

Sylvester: What about education? I’ve spent the last year chairing The Times Education Commission, and what’s so clear is the system currently is stuck really in the 20th or even – in some ways – the 19th century.

Mulgan: Any profound shift of paradigm takes a long time, as so many people are embedded in a previous model of doing things. I’d love to see schools change in that direction, and universities perhaps even more, so they can be part of solving the problems of the future rather than just analysing or commenting from a distance. One version of that I call ‘exploratory social science’, where, as a matter of course, a big university would have, as part of its work, a focus on future designs. This could be like what Cardiff launched back in June this year, which is a social science park situated between the university and the outside world, in which you have people from the government, from the city, charities, campaigners, as well as academics, working together on big, long-term problems, like policy for disability or race. Every big city should have something like that.

This is perhaps the heart of the task of political leadership and imagination: it has to offer a roadmap to a better future, but also to acknowledge and have respect for the things of the past.

Sylvester: You write about how there is this sense that we are in a pivot moment, both in terms of the balance of power in the world, but also the shift in the need to change on green technologies and the rise of AI. This is inevitably anxiety-inducing.

Mulgan: Absolutely, and we will have to say goodbye to many things. I’ve always loved Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire, which shows a beautiful old sailing ship being pulled in by the ugly little steam tug to be broken up. That was a period of profound transition in Britain, from its great era of oaken ships to the Industrial Revolution, and that involved huge pain, huge suffering and a huge loss of meaning as well as loss of jobs and livelihoods. The transition from a carbon economy is just like that. Saying goodbye to any of that is difficult and painful. This is perhaps the heart of the task of political leadership and imagination: it has to offer a roadmap to a better future, but also to acknowledge and have respect for the things of the past and not to dismiss them. To have a roadmap for that transition where the losers – and there will be losers – are compensated for their loss, because in aggregate we will all benefit.

The worst response is just nostalgia, to promise to go back and make Britain great again. That is a complete dereliction of duty.

Sylvester: How optimistic are you about the political system grasping this mettle and understanding the scale of the challenge and really harnessing the idea of imagination?

Mulgan: Our democratic institutions in Britain, as in most of the mature democracies, are still 19th- or 18th-century creations. It’s just not a logical way to run democracy now, either in terms of expressing the multitude of complex wishes and needs people have, or in terms of mobilising the knowledge of the world to help guide those decisions. A lot of innovation is happening around democracy all over the world, but the old democracies are still very resistant to change, including in Britain, and this fuels a profound secular decline of confidence in democracy, particularly amongst young people. It’s not just that they see it as ineffectual, but it just looks so different from what they take for granted in the world of work or retail or relationships or travel or entertainment, all these other fields which have been revolutionised in the last generation.

Sylvester: What would you do about the political parties? Because that old Left/Right grouping feels completely archaic and not able to deal with any of these modern issues.

Mulgan: A few years ago, I held some events where we brought together the new political parties of the last 15 years from around the world and the UK’s old ones. Many of [the new parties] use completely different organising methods, and I naively thought the old parties would at least try to copy their best methods. But they copied literally nothing. That is really striking. I’m not a great fan of electoral reform but, at least in other countries, having a more open electoral system makes it easier to create new parties, new models and to put a bit of competitive pressure on the old ones.

Sylvester: Would you ever stand for Parliament yourself, or want to be a Minister?

Mulgan: I don’t think I’d be very good as the front-of-house person. Essentially, my career has been a mixture of top–down (working in governments in Singapore, Australia, UK) and bottom–up (working on campaigns or setting up NGOs or social innovation), and I still think the best change comes when there is a kind of pull between the top–down and the bottom–up. This is a very simple shift where on every issue you look at how the top–down and the bottom–up combine. But it is one that is still alien to our London/Westminster political culture, but not to organisations like the RSA, which is full of people who live their lives in that everyday social innovation world.

Geoff Mulgan CBE is a professor at University College London and a former CEO of Nesta, Director of the government’s Strategy Unit and Head of Policy in the Prime Minister’s office. He is also the author of many books, including Another World is Possible: How to Reignite Social and Political Imagination

Rachel Sylvester is a political columnist and interviewer at The Times and chair of The Times Education Commission. She is also a co-presenter of the Times Radio podcast Past Imperfect

Follow Geoff Mulgan and Rachel Sylvester on Twitter here: @geoffmulgan @RSylvesterTimes

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2022.

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