Rebooting Britain: 10 pundits, 10 solutions

Anyone can see the country's in a mess and that things have to change. 'Esquire' magazine asked 10 prominent Britons to give their suggestions for the way ahead
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Vince Cable Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman

Break up the banking system

The big debate that's opening up is about how long banks such as RBS and Lloyds should remain nationalised. Both Labour and the Tories, he says, want them sold off as quickly as possible.

"We're in there for quite a long haul. All the experience of other countries that have had this problem – Japan, Sweden and Israel – is that you're there for 10 years, and in the meantime the government has got to remake the banking system. And then, eventually, it will be sold off at a substantial profit to the taxpayer. But we've got to be patient."

Under governmental control the banking behemoths should be broken up so they are no longer "too big to fail". High-risk investment banking needs to be split from high street services. And while we need to develop international banking regulations along with the rest of the G20, "there is no reason why countries cannot get ahead and create their own market's clearing houses" to handle the credit default swaps and other financial instruments that are behind so much of the recent economic storm.

Sir Richard Branson Virgin boss

Entrepreneurs – meet the developing world

Smile and say: "The worse the crisis, the greater the opportunity." That's Sir Richard's view of the recession. It might be yours, too, if you were just finishing your lunch of chilled champagne and grilled lobster on your private, sun-washed beach. But then nobody offered the Virgin maestro his own Caribbean island. Nor the chef. Nor the masseuse waiting for him under the palm tree.

Sir Richard knows a thing or two about recessions – he reckons he's lived through a handful of them, and if he's sure of one thing, it's that recessions provide an abundance of opportunities.

"A good entrepreneur, very early in life, thinks of the world as one place," he maintains. Chase after the opportunity wherever it arises. With a wry smile, he nuances that old advice, saying you might do better yet to hop on a Virgin Atlantic plane. He shares the emerging consensus that developing countries will lead the world economy out of recession, and that returns on investments will be higher there for the foreseeable future. That's where to look for the next dawn.

Shai Agassi Alternative energy pioneer

End Britain's oil addiction

The Israeli former software entrepreneur identifies oil dependency as the root cause of conflict in the Middle East. "If you can run one country without oil, you can run the whole world without oil... If you can do it with car technologies, it could happen in 15 years," he says.

Deciding that all-electric cars were the answer, Agassi left his job at the German software giant SAP and in 2007 founded Better Place ( with more than $200m (£120m) in venture capital. Better Place applies the business model of mobile phones to cars: the customer buys or leases an electric vehicle (EV) from a partner car company, and then pays a per-mile rate for battery usage.

Gordon Brown's happy talk on electric cars has not been matched by a commitment to the infrastructure. Talk of white elephants makes Agassi throw up his hands.

"Take the Millennium Dome," he says. "Imagine somebody said to you: 'We're going to spend £800m on the off-chance that we'll get the entire country going without oil – oh, and £650m will go into creating green jobs tomorrow morning. Would you say it's worth a try?"

Chris Anderson Pop theorist

Reinvent business with digital economics

Chris Anderson is a big-idea man. His 2006 book The Long Tail explained the economic miracle of, illustrating how a company could make more money selling niche products than mass products thanks to the internet's infinite shelf space. It catapulted him into the A-list of bestselling pop-theorists.

His new book, Free, takes this idea even further, arguing that the near-zero marginal costs of digital distribution have created a new marketplace where free pricing is practically a force of economic gravity. Anderson argues that "every industry is either going to have to become free or compete with free" in the future.

Anderson says the most interesting new business models follow a "freemium" template: that is, free products that sell premium services. This is the model used with success by software applications such as Spotify, Skype, Wordpress and others.

"The old model for business was 'make something people will pay for'. The new model is something people will want and something they'll pay for."

Robert Peston BBC business editor

Reveal all the news

"If regulation was procyclical – encouraging banks to take risks at precisely the wrong moment in the economic cycle – arguably so too was much of the media. There was breathless commentary on the wonders of the housing market."

Reversing that trend of shallow, upbeat reporting is difficult, although Robert Peston admits that the public now has an increased "appetite" for what he sees as serious business news.

"One of the positives about the financial mess we're in is that millions and millions of people have suddenly woken up to the fact that the way the City runs, the way that businesses operate, is of material interest to them.

"What bankers called their new technology, as it were – this structured finance – was not an attempt to distribute risk in a more efficient way. That was propaganda.

"It was actually an attempt to, through complexity, obscure what was going on.

"So, in a curious way, the job of the journalist in those circumstances is to make the very simple point, which is: 'This is emperor's new clothes time.'"

Reshma Sohoni Seed fund manager

Nurture start-up culture

If you want to attract the visionary nerds who drive innovation, pay close attention to how start-up culture in your country is financed.

In Silicon Valley, many of the celebrity programmers who made fortunes from the internet's early incarnations are now moving their expertise and capital into seeding start-up culture. Their money has launched companies such as Facebook, Yelp, Slide and Tesla. As with the hip-hop moguls who usher in the next generation of stars, tech entrepreneurs are rarely able to reach the limelight without support.

Seedcamp ( is trying to fill that gap in the UK, running a lean £3m fund to seed early-stage technology companies in the UK and Europe. Seedcamp not only provides small amounts of capital, it also mentors companies, connects them with industry heavyweights and introduces them to London's venture capitalists.

Reshma sees the emerging London firms as having advantages over Silicon Valley: the city has powerful, traditional industries such as energy, financial services, the creative sector and pharmaceuticals that could feed into emergent tech companies.

Niall Ferguson Historian and author

Reduce the national debt

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that the UK national deficit will rise to 14 per cent in 2010 – the highest in the Western world.

Ferguson argues that the scale of this debt burden will cause interest rates on government bonds to rise, making long-term inflation (which he has described as "King Kong") likely. Inflation would see those with pensions and savings suffer, unless the Government raises taxes and makes big cuts in public spending.

While he doesn't expect Gordon Brown to survive the next election – "the financial tide went out and it's clear he was swimming naked" – Ferguson believes the next Chancellor's priority must be to reduce the national deficit, or else Britain risks following in the footsteps of debt-defaulting nations such as Argentina.

"The new government will have to show how it proposes to stabilise British public finances before we face a major crisis of confidence in our institutions and our currency," he says.

"They have no alternative. You can't sit and wait for the day the IMF comes to call."

Paul Krugman Nobel Prize-winning economist

Revive the export economy

The prospects for Britain, where manufacturing has withered in the face of unsustainable housing and credit booms, are bleak, unless we can make major structural changes to the economy. "Gordon Brown was selling the economic successes of Britain in the past 15 years on false pretences," Krugman says. The medicine? "Britain will have to go back to producing manufactured goods."

Krugman offers some ideas of how this could happen. Using "economic geography", the study of the processes that make economic activity cluster in particular locations, the British government could follow in the footsteps of Silicon Valley and develop new industrial sectors to revive its economy.

The trick for governments is to spot these innovation hotspots early on and facilitate their growth with an injection of investment.

Innovation hotspots that occur accidentally can fizzle if they are not incubated. By spotting the spillover elements that give rise to such sectors, and helping them with tax breaks and targeted funding, the British government could seed many industrial communities for relatively little outlay.

Robert Greene Strategist and author

Become a nation of hustlers

"If you're the corner hustler, you're dealing with crack fiends who are wildly erratic, but they're your source of income," Robert Greene says at a café in Silverlake, Los Angeles. "You could be dealing with a police crackdown. Then you're dealing with the other hustlers trying to take what you have – to get your corner and customers. This kind of warfare is total chaos and requires a new mentality."

The chaos Greene describes is the modern condition, which affects the drug dealer, office worker and nation alike: the internet has led to a disintegration of traditional institutions and power structures, life spins towards ever-greater complexity. To succeed in such a disordered battlefield, our thinking must become more fluid, spontaneous and entrepreneurial.

"Britain can only reinvent itself if it stops thinking in a certain way: as a 'great nation', as privileged. Maybe it should not focus on the world stage, but on how it could become the leading country in Europe." To rise from the ashes, Greene feels Britain will need to return to Victorian values of self-reliance and once again become "a country of hustlers".

Dave Brailsford Visionary sports manager

Manage from the bottom up

The performance director who delivered total dominance of Olympic track cycling, bringing home eight gold medals for Britain from Beijing 2008, Dave Brailsford is a proponent of "the aggregation of marginal gains" – trying to extract 1 per cent extra from everything you do.

Key to Brailsford's philosophy has been his work with Steve Peters, a former forensic psychologist. Together, they created a model for managing "human excellence", which was then applied to the discipline of cycling. The decision-making framework encouraged athletes to dictate their training programmes and negotiate selection criteria, all within a climate of honesty and accountability. Mentoring was prioritised over directing, as "no human being enjoys being shouted at".

He describes the banking collapse as a classic vertical-management failure. "There were people waving red flags in the middle or lower echelons of organisations, and they didn't listen." He similarly sees potential going begging on Britain's streets: "How do you give those lads chances that chime with them, and are useful to society? Work on that and you'll solve a major problem."