Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.
John F. Kennedy

In the introduction to the book 99%, I briefly explained how analysing the causes of the Arab Spring led me to study mass impoverishment in the US and the UK and ultimately to write the book. But I didn’t give much detail of that analysis.

But now there seems to be a kind of Global Spring: there have been riots this year in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, France, Haiti, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Peru, Syria, and probably others. So perhaps it is a good time to explain a little more fully what it was that so intrigued and concerned me.

In essence, the analysis is extremely simple: if you know where your country sits on the doughnuts below, you have a good idea how peaceful and stable you are likely to be today and where you may be going tomorrow – and this applies as much to the UK as to the countries listed above:

• Four key factors determine country stability
• The doughnut helps explain likely transitions
• The UK is not immune from these concerns.

Four key factors determine country stability

Using the analogy of a pressure cooker is helpful in thinking about what makes a country explode. With a pressure cooker, an explosion is most likely if there is strong heat under the cooker, if the lid is on firmly, if there is no safety valve and if the liquid inside is volatile.

The analogy with a country is set out below.

Pressure cooker Country
Strong heat Poverty affecting many of the population
Lid is on firmly The police and/or the military have control of the streets – ‘the rule of law’
No safety valve Lack of effective democracy
Volatile liquid A population divided along racial, religious, tribal or class lines

These four factors combine to form a maximum of 16 possible states that a country could be in. In the diagram below, we have grouped some of those, so there are only 13 separate states.

There is one green cell in the diagram: Thriving Democracy. In this cell there is an effective democratic safety valve, there is little poverty, the population is united, and the rule of law is maintained. This is the most peaceful and stable state.

There are several amber cells: some of them are amber because the country’s citizens are suffering significantly from poverty; others because although there is little poverty there are problems with the operation of democracy or the rule of law which mean that it is unlikely that the population will continue to thrive.

And there are six red cells in which the population is already suffering and there are problems with lack of democracy or the rule of law. These are the least stable states.

The countries which have suffered riots, revolutions and coups tend to be those in the red cells. In the case of the Arab Spring, many of the countries were Ready To Explode or Ready for Revolution when in December 2010 the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi committed suicide in the town square of Sidi Bouzid after being harassed and publicly humiliated by the police. A similar event in a thriving democracy would almost certainly not have produced a rebellion.

So the model gives a simple indication of the propensity of a country to erupt in violent conflict of some kind.

The doughnut helps explain likely transitions

And the model has a second function: countries do not remain in one place on the diagram, they move around. In principle, a country could move from any cell to any other cell, but in practice they tend not to do so. To move to an adjacent cell means only one of the four factors needs to change. To move to a cell which is not adjacent (subject to the comment about the doughnut, below) requires two, three or even all four factors to change simultaneously, which is of course less likely. It is therefore more common for countries to move to a cell adjacent to the one in which they are currently sitting.

If you are very alert, you will have noticed that, in the diagram above, that is not quite true. For example to move from Contained Conflict to Ready To Explode only requires one factor to change: the extent of poverty among the population. To make it quite true that all such transitions are two adjacent cells, we have to wrap the diagram around the doughnut so that the left- and right-hand edges meet each other and the top and bottom edges also meet.

Once this is done, the model gives useful hints not just about the propensity for violent uprising, but also about possible future states of the country.

The UK is not immune from these concerns

If we look at the recent history of the UK, we can get a sense of movement. Although the UK’s electoral system is not perfect, and the election winner has not always been the party with the largest share of the votes, there is nevertheless a sense that general elections have, by and large, been free and fair. We have a safety valve.

Until the Global Financial Crisis, almost every year, the majority of the population got slightly richer than they had been the year before. The UK was more unequal than some countries, and had higher rates of poverty, but poverty was not widespread and it was not increasing over time. Since 2010, this has begun to change.

Like all countries, the UK has always had some racial tension and in places religious tension. With the advent of mass impoverishment, people naturally look for someone to blame and this has increased tensions within the population. Some politicians have taken pains to blame the problems of society on “uncontrolled immigration.” And since the Brexit vote, there are tensions between Brexiters and Remainers.

There seems little question that the rule of law applies in the UK.

So, as the diagram suggests, the UK has a history as a thriving democracy.

In recent years, because of mass impoverishment, the UK has started to move towards the Failing Democracy cell, and there is a risk that if mass impoverishment continues, divisions within the population will increase so that we may move lower down in that cell.

Furthermore, irregularities with the Brexit campaign, the malign role of social media – in particular Facebook – and serious suggestions of Russian meddling are beginning to cause concern about the quality of the UK’s safety valve.

Where will we go next? The three most likely possibilities seem to be:

1. that increased spending and investment by either the Tory or the Labour Party will, in the short term at least, mask the tensions;
2. that the UK may fragment – with Scotland and Northern Ireland as obvious candidates for separation;
3. that sufficiently serious flaws in the electoral system emerge that people no longer believe that a safety valve exists, and the UK may become Ready To Explode.

The most likely of these is the first. And that is a cause for real celebration – it is only a single step from Tensions Masked back to being a Thriving Democracy. And, as 99% argues, despite the seriousness of the problems it takes only five relatively simple actions to resolve them.