When Radio 4 drama commissioner Jeremy Howe gave me the green light for First World Problems – a five part epic drama following the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the Fletcher family in an imagined civil war some time in the near future – it was on condition that I stress-tested the imaginative thinking behind it. This is Radio 4 – we don’t just make up any old nonsense.
Even if we never leave the sides of Ruth and Dave Fletcher (yes, your right, there is another Radio 4 series with central characters called David and Ruth…) and their struggle to survive, the political hypothetical underpinning the series needs to be credible and forensic, so before I wrote a word of the script I spent an intense month ear-holing everyone who would speak to me. Luckily for me, writing a major project for the world’s premier speech network also gets you access to the finest analysts and journalists in the business.
The following was constructed following discussions with Peter Barnes (Senior BBC Political Analyst), Louisa Brooke Holland (Senior Research Analyst, International Affairs and Defence, House of Commons Library), Rory Cellen Jones (BBC technology correspondent), Gabrielle Garton Grimwood (Senior Research Analyst in Emergency Planning, House of Commons Library), Tamara Kovacevic (Senior BBC journalist with first hand experience of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s), Mike Livingstone (Former Strategic Director of Children’s Services, Manchester City Council), Jonathan Marcus (BBC Defence and Diplomatic correspondent), Professor Bill McGuire (Emeritus Professor Geophysical & Climate Hazards, UCL) and Gemma Sou (Lecturer in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Conflict Response, Manchester University). Plus three advisors on civil contingency who asked not to be identified. I also referenced assorted defence and civil contingency briefings, and the brilliant BBC documentary series ‘The Death of Yugoslavia’ primarily compiled by Alan Little. I would like to thank them all here for their time, wisdom and intellectual generosity, although it should be stressed that the following is purely this writer’s imaginative extrapolation of a worst case scenario from the thoughts they shared with me.
Herewith, the core of the briefing document I put together as background for the project in November 2017. Whilst the reader may make their own judgements, and despite whatever personal opinions I have, this scenario is designed to work for a post-May right wing government or equally a post-Corbyn left wing administration:
A Ticking Clock to Civil War
The build up to armed civil conflict in First World Problems takes place over period of about three years… or conceivably shorter, because when things go wrong they can go wrong surprisingly fast. Like a physical hurricane, extreme socio-political turmoil is also about picking up heat, with that heat driving the disruptive forces ever faster to wreak their chaos. That’s why they call it the perfect storm. It’s a confluence of a lot of bad shit coming together at the same time – but historically, that is the nature of ‘bad shit’… shit breeds shit – it’s rarely just coincidence.
Therefore, the dramatic action of Episode 1 commences either in about five years time (circa 2022-3), or at an indeterminate date in a reality only slightly displaced from our own.
The Political Players – Real or Fictional?
Either way, the current well known political players have all moved on. Political turmoil has precipitated a changing of the guard several times over, with Brenda from Bristol given cause to swear at a number of inconclusive elections following in rapid succession, veering from left to right, Italian style.
Crucially, however, Queen Elizabeth II is no longer on the throne. She need not be dead – we need not say either way – but regardless, the UK now has a King for a monarch although we don’t need to say whether this is Charles III or William V. By referring to The King it tells the audience what they need to know, this drama isn’t happening ‘now’ – it’s in a time displaced, and given the Queen’s age, that will now feel reasonably immediate, but not in bad taste. Importantly, a new monarch may not take the neutral stance we’ve come to expect from Elizabeth.
Did I mention Brexit?
If we take the start of Episode 1 as Year Zero, then at some point around zero-minus-three, the UK unceremoniously crashes out of the EU. This happens for a variety of reasons:
- Negotiations never really gain solid ground and just collapse to a no-deal exit. Or…
- Things look as if they are going pretty well, but fail at the last hurdle. This is down to bad diplomacy; or the negotiating UK government abruptly collapsing for an unpredictable left-field reason – a sex/financial scandal; a minority government’s coalition partner jumping ship; a series of by-elections going the wrong way, forcing yet another a General Election…
In fact, any number of other scenarios. Like the man said: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ And/Or…
- Instability in Europe – a collapse of the Euro, the rise of extremist, nationalist or separatist movements disrupt the process beyond repair i.e. I’m not assuming that a failure to get a deal is solely down to the UK.
Almost any combination of these could sink negotiations.
Following Brexit, the EU is seriously destabilised. The Euro goes through another crisis – with Europe increasingly isolated from an isolationist USA and under pressure from new waves of migration from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa driven by conflict and climate change.
The on-going problems in Catalonia not only spread to other nationalist/separatist movements (eg the Walloons, and in our context, the Scots and Ireland) – but ask irresolvable questions of Brussels, and when things get nasty whose side is the EU on? Will they recognise an independent Catalonia?
Wherever people stand on the Catalan issue, an EU under new pressure is unable to make the best decision, and this puts stress on other fault lines. What on earth should they do? Recognise Catalonia, and undermine Spanish Sovereign authority? Grant Catalonia immediate EU membership? How will Scotland feel? Deny Catalonia recognition and lose the support of swathes of the left across the continent, who tend to a default support of Catalan separatists/nationalists, regardless of any finer nationalist nuances there may be.
After Merkel moves on/is forced out, Germany enters a period of instability with increasing influence from the far right AFD; in Austria The Freedom Party gets an even tighter hold on power; spreading to France which prematurely thought it had seen off Le Pen. With Turkey dealing with its own cycle of problems, Greece comes under renewed pressure from migration, a fractured and impoverished EU is unable to help, and the recovering Greek economy falters again, as Golden Dawn starts gathering new momentum. Italy becomes a similar pinch point, increasingly resentful of the weight it bears in receiving migrants and refugees from across the Mediterranean.
Inevitably, there are moves within the remaining EU major players for their own exit referendums. The EU is at breaking point – and these new movements, for whom accruing weaponry is less problematic than in the UK, find common cause with ever-angrier factions in England – for whom they are prepared to smuggle in arms, seeing populist uprising in the UK as totemic for their own causes.
Cross border co-operation in a range of fields – trade, of course, but academia, science, security might grind on for a bit, but the pistons of UK/EU relations are seizing up.
The Yanks Are Coming… Or Not.
The US political establishment is imploding. Effectively what’s going on is a coup – albeit a bloodless one happening behind the White House doors. The process eviscerates the already eviscerated mechanisms of state. The US isn’t looking anywhere but at itself.
Meanwhile isolationist trade practices are further grinding the world economy to a halt.
The Russians Are Coming… (…or Should That be Lurking?)
Russia already has a proven record of using soft power, propaganda, social media to destabilise western powers. They are already making merry hell in Europe, but anything to undermine the workings of NATO suits them just fine. If there’s a fault line to lubricate there will be someone from Russian intelligence nearby having a sniff around to see how it can be exploited. This may sound like crazy cold war paranoia, but Putin doesn’t have the economy or armed forces to be a major military power any more, and it is widely accepted that he’s learned that there are plenty of other ways of making mischief and therefore allowing what force he does have to work to best advantage.
Russia is scampering around sowing as much disinformation as they can to destabilise the UK, and weaken their role in NATO while the US is barely paying attention. It serves them well as they incrementally seek to claw back power, influence and territory in Eastern Europe, without challenge from the EU, NATO or the US.
This isn’t a geo-thriller, but only the very naive ignore the role climate is playing in our politics. Heat, drought and coastal flood variously drive the impoverished of the global South to the temperate North…
…but in the world of First World Problems, Western Europe itself is being increasingly hit by punishing, hot summers, which cause power shortages (from French nuclear power stations unable to operate in hot conditions), ruin crops, and kill poor and vulnerable people who can’t afford air conditioning.
Meanwhile, out in the North Atlantic, the increase in cold fresh water from the ever greater polar melts (especially from Greenland) is disrupting the major Atlantic currents, risking the gulf stream itself and threatening to plunge north West Europe into a period of freezing winters and cool summers for which our battered economies are ill prepared, while Southern Europe continues to fry… and that’s not even mentioning an upcoming Maunder Minimum.
The End of the Union
Year Zero-minus-three, the UK crashes out of the EU. There’s no good way to spin this, it’s a disaster. Much as many on the liberal left and indeed the populist right say they would happily wave goodbye to ‘The Bankers’, the financial sector makes up 20% of UK GDP, and 29% of our exports – not to mention £67 billion in tax revenues. A mass exodus of financial services – for purely practical reasons – not political ones – not only means the economy takes a massive hit, but the effect is cumulative. As crucial players move out, others are forced to follow.
Manufacturing industry is a patchier picture – some sectors do ok – but the vast rump of our industry is reliant on cross European agreements and these all just went up in smoke. It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on any more. If you can’t afford to trade, or be part of a pan European manufacturing chain, you’re stuffed. The corporations move production overseas, deciding that in a fracturing world, the centres of production need to be closer together, because it no longer works to make stuff in little bits across a wider union with the ever increasing risks of European fragmentation. The UK government looks across the Atlantic, only to find an isolationist administration slamming the trade door in our face.
The pound sinks, which ameliorates the worst effects of WTO rules to some degree regarding exports, but the Euro is sinking too so the positives of that are knocked out, and imports soar in price.
Month by month the range of goods available in our supermarkets starts to change, shrink…
…retail patterns adjusting to the new economic reality. Inflation rockets, just as manufacturing crashes. It’s ‘stagflation max’ – like of which we haven’t seen for decades, if ever.
With the crash in tax revenues, public services, already bruised from years of austerity, start to fall apart in a way never seen before – with local authorities thrown into complete paralysis. Minimum standards of health care, social care, child protection, law and order, health and safety – statutory obligations – can no longer be met.
The minority government collapses. It’s all change politically, and a new government is elected answerable to the extreme Left or Right – either works – because we still have debts to pay in Europe but neither a Right nor a Left government wants to settle with an increasingly autocratic and defensive EU. The left dislikes the EU as much as the right – especially when they back the Spanish Government over Catalonia…
A Right government tries to impose ever tighter public spending. A Left government finds it can’t borrow because the UK credit rating renders our bonds little more than junk. Either way – the country is fast running out of cash, and unlike 2008, there isn’t the underlying industrial foundation and financial sector waiting to be revived and standing as collateral against the kind of borrowing needed to revive the economy.
A Left Government goes to the country with a vamped up version of the Social Contract from the 1970s. Trade unionism has been revived due to liberalising legislation regarding organised labour. The government asks unions to agree to wage restraint in exchange for national stability and sharing what we have. But this agreement is perilously fragile. Charismatic Union Leaders have power again and they want to use it.
A Right government imposes pay caps from the top down. Industrial dissent is faced down, legislated against, crushed. Civil Liberties are chipped away at an alarming speed.
Either way – ordinary people are getting poorer. And it’s impossible to renew an ageing infrastructure, struggling to support a population knocking on 70 million. The PFIs of the 1990s are still costing shitloads, but they’re starting to look at bit tired.
Over the next two years there are several changes of government, with small majorities or minority agreements but the situation is unresolvable. Charismatic figures on the Left and/or Right decide that the problem lies in the inability of state mechanisms to adapt to New Realities – and when they say state mechanisms, they’re talking about The Civil Service. Thousands of knowledgeable civil servants are side-lined, sacked or choose to resign. Managers from politics and industry are brought in, as blue-sky political thinkers, Trump style, but they haven’t a clue how to manage a crumbling arcane state machine of gargantuan Heath Robinson proportions.
Civil unrest becomes ever more frequent – strikes, rioting, and because of the failure of infrastructure, there are more Grenfell like crises that leave the poor and disenfranchised as martyrs of a new anger.
When Left policies – however well intentioned – can’t solve things, voters peel off to the right; when the Right fails the reverse happens. Politics is simultaneously volatile, fractured, fickle and tribal – a huge shoal of fish darting this way and that, as a dark shark-like shadow looms over them.
A Right government imposes ever more draconian restrictions on civil liberties. ID cards are back in the frame; restrictions on the freedom of assembly, trade unions, freedom of speech; the definition of terrorism or sedition is widened; tighter restrictions on migration along ethnic lines…
A Left government becomes paranoid in its own way, embattled and divisive. It tries to pacify the re-emboldened unions and swathes of the angry and impoverished. It starts to requisition and sequester wealth. Strict new rules are imposed on inheritance and pensions; a raid on property wealth that makes the botched 2017 Tory manifesto look like a hiccup; top-down rationing of resources, housing, health etc that seemingly turns socialist idealism into autocracy. Unions see a Left government as an easier target than a right one. Plus ça change.
Either way you go, the third minority government in two and half years, left or right, is desperately trying to stop the country falling apart in front of them – and gets nothing but anger in return, making them ever more embattled and defensive and controlling.
Throw into this a major economic collapse. There’s a run on the banks, and ATMs stop paying out. This time the exchequer isn’t in any position to bail them out.
Some councils, refusing to abandon their statutory obligations, ask workers to go without pay. Cast your mind back to the Hatton Council in Liverpool in the 1980s. A friend of mine was working for them and wasn’t paid for three months.
Racial tensions increase outside of the socially liberal conurbations. There is more racial violence and hate crime – feeding the far right and stoking tensions between left and right – and post EU the flow of migrant workers dries up, causing skill shortages that start to impact on daily life. The NHS of course, struggles to staff itself, while in agriculture and other sectors some producers simply can’t function.
Jokes about quinoa and smoked salmon shortages in North London turn into sporadic shortages of staple items, causing violence in branches of Tesco…
Either colour of government becomes wary of the way volatility is stirred even faster by social media – and either colour is aware to differing degrees that foreign players (eg Russia) are in the virtual environment making as much mischief as they can. The government draws up plans (if such plans don’t already exist – I would be surprised if they don’t), to bring the Internet under state control – leaving the network intact but only for government-approved use. The Internet relies on physical hubs, and fibre optic highways. If the government have strategic plans to protect it in the case of physical attack, they can build into those physical plans the means to control what flows through it and who has access to it, as well. But they don’t do anything yet.
At Buck House the Queen who has reigned for the best part of seventy years is no longer on the throne. Republican or monarchist, living under Elizabeth has been the single common defining quality of being a UK citizen for the entire lifespan of the vast majority of the population. Whatever you thought of her, being an Elizabethan was a badge of identity that told us who we were, where we stood in modern history.
You can brush it off as no more than a triangulation point, but without triangulation… we’re all lost.
Never has UK national identity felt so fragile… as if everyone, stressed by economic disaster and political instability, is desperately trying to find out who they are!! Old loyalties are melting away like friends you have when you suddenly realise you can’t remember why you ever thought it was a good idea to spend time with them.
And when the resources for ‘getting by’ are scarce, it means that many are prepared for others ‘not to get by’. Whilst a crisis can bring out the best in people – it also can bring out the worst.
This isn’t the Blitz – where plucky Brits faced a common enemy, against whom we could unite – this is a crisis of our own making, and so the only people we can blame are each other.
Ok… so am I ever going to actually talk about the English Civil War? As I said, this is about a confluence of events, and the surrounding context is the hot ocean feeding our particular storm. But to see how things play out when the black clouds of civil conflict finally burst…
…you’ll have to wait for the next jolly episode, First World Problems: How To Build a Civil War, Part 2, coming to a website near you, very soon.
First World Problems is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 11th-15th June 2017 and on the BBC Radio iPlayer for a month. Click here to catch up from Episode One.