Politicians around the world have condemned the storming of the Capitol building in Washington by far-right terrorists, and there has been an implicit sense of relief that it was happening in the US rather than in their own countries.
But are leaders outside the US right to feel relief, or should they be saying, “there but for the grace of God goes [insert name of country]”?
In many cases, there are no grounds for complacency. Specifically, the UK runs a real risk of political violence:
- The four factors which are the root causes of the US violence are also present in the UK;
- The government is wittingly or unwittingly exacerbating them;
- Without policy change, we run an increasing risk of going down the same road as the US.
The Four Root Causes
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.
|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 them, 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 after being harassed and publicly humiliated by the police. A similar event in a thriving democracy would 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.
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 requires only 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 a torus (doughnut-shape) 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.
We used this model in November to show that there was a real risk of an explosion of violence in the US – and sadly, that has turned out to be the case.
And if we compare the state of the UK, we can see that there are no grounds for complacency here.
|Issue||The UK today||Verdict|
|Strong heat / Poverty||Like the US, the UK has a problem of mass impoverishment – and this has been exacerbated by COVID-19. It is estimated that child poverty in the UK is now running at around 35% (more than 1 in three children).||Mass impoverishment is a major issue in UK|
|Lid is on firmly / Rule of Law||Unlike the US, UK right-wingers have not been permitted to storm parliament, and the PM has condemned their ‘thuggery.’ But the House of Lords has voiced strong concerns.||Rule of law remains intact but is under threat|
|No safety valve /
|Democracy in the UK is considered broadly fair by international standards, but critically, most in the UK are no longer satisfied with our democracy – this is worse than the US.||Dissatisfaction with democracy in UK is higher than US|
|Volatile liquid / Divided population||The UK population has become far more polarised since the Brexit campaign: both between Brexiters and Remainers and racially.||Population is becoming more divided, though probably less so than in the US|
How the Government is Exacerbating Them
The government has, wittingly or unwittingly exacerbated several of the problems:
- Poverty becomes worse during recessions and when benefits do not rise in line with needs:
- The government’s decision to pursue a hard Brexit has predictably – according to the government’s own analysis – weakened the economy;
- Its handling of COVID-19 has not only caused needless loss of life, but also unnecessary economic harm;
- It has chosen to raise benefits by only 0.5% despite the enormous hardship caused by the events of 2020 – especially to the poorest;
- It has brought the rule of law into question through the apparent impunity of the rich and powerful;
- It continues to attempt to dismantle democratic safeguards;
- The government has continued to pursue policies which can be predicted to divide the population:
The Risks for the UK
So when we look at the position of the UK, what trajectory do we see?
Up to 2008 – i.e. before the Great Recession which followed the Global Financial Crisis – average wages were rising and poverty was falling. The UK was, by and large, a thriving democracy.
Since then, those trends have reversed. Most people are poorer today – 12 years later – than they were then, a period of mass impoverishment unknown to living memory.
Polarisation of the population is hard to measure, but it seems at least plausible that it has increased since Brexit.
That gives a picture like this.
This is not quite a serious as the American situation, but it is a long way from where most people would want the UK to be – a thriving democracy. And as we have seen, the trends are currently taking us away from that area. If we do not act, the UK could very plausibly end up in one of the red zones – most likely Fragmentation or Ready to explode.
More positively, as we have discussed elsewhere, there is a clear path for the UK back to being a thriving democracy – and it requires just five common-sense actions.
If you would like to help us make sure that the UK takes the path back to sanity, please sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.