As visitors to this page will know, back in the heady, carefree days of 2017 I was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to write a five-part drama imagining the UK plunging into a bloody civil war some time sort of now-ish.
This was to be no sci-fi melodrama but a tale of a Radio 4-style (i.e. middle-class) family’s battle for survival in the face of social and infrastructure collapse, set against a thoroughly researched and war-gamed political backstory.
I called it First World Problems. See what I did there?
To that end, I assembled an array of in-house BBC expertise, academics and parliamentary advisers and researchers – top people who mostly approached the task as a sort of dystopian parlour game, albeit often with a fair degree of wry amusement.
I sat down with one senior political analyst in the airy canteen at BBC Millbank. Well, for starters, we decided it would help if there was someone in the background of my scenario with the civil service in their sights. This was for the BBC so my hypothetical crisis had to work with governments of every hue. On the left that might be a fictional fixer in the image of, say, a Seamus Milne, and on the right it could be someone like, oh, I don’t know… Dominic Cummings?
How we laughed.
That was two years ago, and it seemed little more than a flight of darkly satirical fancy. When Cummings’s tenure was announced in July, my stomach turned.
Back in the canteen, my oracle postulated that with the civil service under attack, I’d now need an irreconcilable rift in the ruling superstructure to make my story credible. What if, following a chaotic Brexit, the infrastructure is cracking under the strain: Northern Ireland is subsumed into the Republic, Scotland bolts for the exit with an illegal IndyRef 2.0 resulting in a unilateral declaration of independence? There’s a scramble for control of the nukes at Faslane resulting in an armed and deadly conflagration. The border is closed, and Westminster goes nuts. MPs from all parties try to rein in the Executive, who in turn declares a state of emergency and prorogues Parliament, literally locking the MPs out of the building.
“I mean, I can’t really see it happening”, mused my adviser. Well, as Eric Morecambe might have said, “All the right notes, even if not necessarily in the right order”.
There have been rumbles about prorogation all summer, but commentator after commentator insisted it would never happen. It was staying safely fictional, until Wednesday morning.
Please God any resemblance to real events stops right here!
However, within minutes there was speculation that it would turbo charge Nicola Sturgeon’s drive for a second referendum. As to whether that would ever be granted, who knows? If Westminster tried to block it, it doesn’t feel out of the ball park to imagine an enraged Scotland doing it anyway. And if they did? There’s a creeping sense with the departure of Ruth Davidson that perhaps Mr Johnson (or Mr Cummings??) doesn’t really care if Scotland cuts loose. It would make it easier for the Tories to hold a majority at Westminster if they did, but a whiplash fracturing of the Union would, as in my drama, be dangerously destabilising.
My excluded fictional MPs form a Democratic Alliance, which sits in an alternative chamber across the city (today suggested by more than one political player in the real world).
The country splits across the middle, with the big metropolitan authorities – the northern cities – siding with the rogue DA, while the south sticks with the Government. The Royal Family is forced to take sides. We all expect Elizabeth to stay neutral but who knows what Charles or William would do faced with future decisions, especially if the democratic mandate is unclear. This, in turn, begs the question of the military and the police. To whom are they now accountable? To whom are they loyal? What happens if they are split?
Other advisers warned of food and medicine shortages (now being prepared for), not to mention the fragility of the National Grid with multi-generator cascade failures (tick) as the fine balance of our energy infrastructure is disrupted.
Never mind lightning strikes, imagine if Scotland stopped exporting its power across the border to England. In my dystopian Tomorrow, they who control the National Grid Control Centre at Wokingham don’t just control our ability to keep the lights on, they control the internet, the mobile phone network, our ability to get petrol out of the pumps at filling stations, and the BACS system so integral to our cashless world. They control the country.
Far fetched? Ridiculous? Hysterical?
That’s what I thought in 2017, and just look at how much of that has either come true or is creeping nearer to the front of the queue ready to be ticked off the list. Even worse, look at how much we have normalised these things, how quickly we ‘get used’ to them. That, for me, is the most dangerous part of this. Only yesterday I was conversing with one of my former advisers who seemed content that apathy and inertia would stop any major civil unrest happening as if he hadn’t noticed that we are already careering down the slide with no idea what’s at the bottom. Like the old joke about how an optimist is a person who falls out of a twenty storey window only to shout to an office worker on the tenth floor, ‘All right so far!’.
Just before I penned my radio epic I had delivered a first draft of a police procedural about a series of murders of gay men initially mistaken for terrorism but which ultimately turn out to be the work of a closeted muslim guy unable to resolve deep personal inner turmoil. I delivered it to my producer the day before the Orlando Club shootings about which there has been much similar (but as yet unproven) speculation. The BBC’s Editorial Policy team decreed I would have to rewrite the whole thing even though my script pre-dated reality. Last year I wrote another procedural about the murder of a man, thrown from the window of a Manchester Hotel. Pretty much exactly that happened almost exactly two months after I delivered the script. Although my hotel was absolutely fictional, the imaginative starting point had been the same building.
Of course, these are simply unsettling coincidences.
Or are they?
When First World Problems finally aired in 2018 I was accused by organised Twitter trolls of trying to ferment unrest, but whilst the causal accusation is ridiculous, as with all dystopian fiction, if you can construct a possible narrative from your imagination, no matter how seemingly implausible, then that narrative can become reality. A few years back Prof Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw wrote a book about quantum physics called, ‘Everything That Can Happen Will Happen’, but in the realm of human behaviour I’m increasingly inclined to think this is true, quantum or no quantum. If a person, or a group of people, can behave in a certain way, no matter how idiotic, then sooner or later someone will. Just ask anyone who has ever had to design a safety system.
A month after 9/11, two dozen Hollywood screenwriters were reputedly called in to the Pentagon hypothesise about ingenious and dastardly ways hostile agents could cause death and destruction across the US. I’m having difficulty verifying this, but if they weren’t, then perhaps they should have been. The dystopian and nihilistic imagination isn’t just the preserve of storytellers.
If we can imagine something bad coming, it’s worth taking our imaginations seriously – that’s what imagination is for after all – and then, hopefully, we can head our nightmares off at the pass before they become reality.
Having said that, my wife wants me to use my Pen Of Doom to write a drama about how the Amazon Rainforest is saved, or even better, some dialogue featuring a few winning lottery numbers.
And what about my fictional middle class Radio 4 family? Well you can still hear what happens to them here…
Suffice it to say when they flee the city to hide out in the now intensely nationalist North Wales, it doesn’t end well. They’re English after all.
Ethnic cleansing, anyone?
This image was the spark for First World Problems. Although not ethnic cleansing per se, I wanted to examine how my comfortable, white, English, Radio 4 loving family could end up in exactly this situation in our own green and pleasant land.
I’m still praying that my dystopian hypothetical stays precisely that.