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Columnists

Futures market

James Cary

Cary

2371 AD. London. They thought about changing the name to Londonopolis when the population reached 20 million, but decided against it because it sounded stupid. London in 2371 is a cosmopolitan place, home to members of every race but they haven't been flooding in because of the free state healthcare, since there is no state healthcare. The last government hospital closed in 2187. All healthcare is now organized locally, or privately and some fly abroad to places where certain operations are done professionally and cheaply. (Try India for teeth, Malawi for hips and, yes, North Korea for hearts.)

In fact, the government no longer provides services of any kind - except for the odd bridge or underground station (the Piccadilly line stretches to Penzance).
All this explains why income tax is 6%. All help of the poor, unemployed, sick or elderley is done locally, much of it by churches and Christian organizations.

Church attendance is about 87% (plus 7% of other faiths), most of whom would describe themselves as Evangelical, Presbyterian or Pentecostal.
It's hardly utopia. There is still some crime, fraud and violence. There are many people who want to centralize power again, like it was in the late 20th century, so that no one falls through the net. But the people of 2371 AD don't much care for change and can't really imagine things being different.

Okay, enough futurology. Whenever you paint vivid pictures of the future, you normally sound foolish - either insanely optimistic, unduly pessimistic or like you're trying to make an important point about how civilization will end (mainly through some social problem we're not taking seriously now). Some futurologists zero in on how technology will change the way we live and interact. Others predict seismic political upheaval. But most just don't want to sound dumb and state the relatively obvious.

This 2371 scenario would sound preposterous to many, and yet the future of Britain seems to be as likely to be that as anything else. The fact is, the picture painted isn't all that different from how things used to be in, say, 1649 (2010 is halfway between 1649 and 2371). Britain was unthinkably different back then. The nation had just endured an all-out civil war fought on the principle of kingship and, yes, the role of bishops, ending in the King being executed. People were imprisoned for espousing views that now seem commonplace. People were promoted for espousing views that seem totalitarian. Our world would be as foreign to them as theirs is to us.

Yet, even within our own lifetimes, radical changes in thinking take place. In the 1970s, it was self-evident that the state should run telecoms. Privatising them seemed as illogical as privatising nitrogen or the concept of birthdays. You just couldn't do it. Within 30 years, people thought differently. But we believe contradictory things (or 'hold many things in tension'). The Post Office, many believe, should remain in the hands of the state. So making a phone call and sending an email is okay for private companies to make money from, but not letters.

Public attitudes can shift dramatically in half a lifetime over really important things too. Look at the difference in attitudes to abortion between 1950 and 1990; or the environment between 1960 and 2000; or homosexuality over the same period; or slavery between 1790 and 1830.

So why should there not be a huge resurgence in Christian belief? If you believe that God is real, powerful and willing to bring salvation to the earth, why would he not cause hundreds of thousands to turn back to him? And wouldn't society change as a result?

A second Great Awakening could take place through the ministry of a handful of men as it did before. Who knows? The future is wildly unpredictable. A small number of people can turn global history and politics. What would Western politics look like today if 9/11 had not happened? A few dozen highly motivated men have had more impact on our way of thinking than a Boxing Day tsunami that wiped away hundreds of thousands of lives. Who would dare to predict the future?

LP Hartley's quotation that the past is a foreign country is equally true of the future. Foreign countries do things quite differently. Places like Japan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea are very different from the UK. The only question is which, if any, of those countries is living in the past or the future.