What this country needs is...

by Brian Eno

During Great Britain's 1997 election campaign, New Statesman asked thinkers to suggest their own manifestoes: "In 1920 the US vice-president, TR Marshall said: 'What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.' As a political prescription it is appealingly lateral (though of doubtful efficacy). Below are the first two in our own series of five-cent solutions." This is Brian Eno's contribution, from the 21 March 1997 issue. [The other one was by Fay Weldon].

A minister of true social costs

Rethink the taxation system. You still pay taxes, but a rising percentage of what you pay can be directed: ie, instead of 100 per cent going to the government to spend as it will, each taxpayer gets to stipulate where, say, 25 per cent of his or her payment shall be allocated. This directable percentage should rise annually. Good effects: elections would be fought not on the miserly and demeaning basis of how much tax you pay exactly to the penny, but on the far more interesting basis of how much of what you pay will be directable to the causes and ministries of your choice. Another good effect: ministers would be obliged to plead their cause to the public, to tell them why their particular ministry should be supported, and generally to make a convincing case for themselves.

Appoint Chris Morris (The Day Today, Brass Eye) as minister for media literacy. His job would be to point out to people, over and over again, how easy they are to manipulate, how easy it is to create "issues" out of absolutely nothing, and how public opinion can be channelled in any direction that suits the interests of the powers-that-be.

Rather than abolishing the House of Lords, keep it as an independent advisory body with the power to veto and instigate legislation - but change the basis of selection. What's wrong with the Lords is not that its membership is too arbitrary, but that it's nowhere near arbitrary enough. Accordingly, parties would no longer have the right to appoint peers, but instead a life-peerage will become the first prize of the National Lottery: so you win a guaranteed £50,000 a year for life, plus the right to sit in the House of Lords, contribute to its discussions and vote. (If you also get the bonus number, the peerage becomes hereditary.)

This may be just one of the many measures considered by Nicholas Albery (Institute of Social Inventions) in his new post as minister for social participation. He should be appointed to this job in order to bring his wealth of good ideas to bear on the problem of how to attract more intelligence into the process of governance.

A minister of true social costs: someone whose job it is to determine what, for example, your car costs the whole of the rest of society in terms of "side effects" - roads, pollution, destruction of city centres, steel-plants, accidents, less public transport and so on. The minister's job is to put a cash value on such social costs and pass them back to the car-users, either as a tax on fuel or as an additional licence charge, and to transfer some of the money thus collected as a reward to people who cycle and as a subsidy to public transport. Other jobs for this Ministry: true cost of alcohol and tobacco production, true costs of defence, true costs of privatisations.

Issue sizeable rewards to families living in certain areas with high crime rates if they succeed in raising kids who are not criminals (i.e., for every year your family doesn't offend, you receive a rising bonus - like a no-claims bonus).

Five years of women: from £2000, for five years, all government posts will be held by women. At the end of the five years, there will once again be free voting (with any of those women free to re-register as candidates).

Brian Eno is a composer, artist and professor of technology.

© Brian Eno 1997