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If things fall apart

Radio 4’s five-part drama, First World Problems, imagines a (dis-)United Kingdom sinking into a bloody civil war some time in the near future. Martin Jameson tells the story from the point of view of one family, using detailed research to make the background detail as credible as possible. Here he reveals what he discovered about how the pillars of our complex modern infrastructure would stand up to a nation collapsing all around it.

Who turned out the lights?

We all assume the lights will come on when we flick that switch on the wall, and anyone who has endured a power outage will know how irksome that can be, even for a just few hours. The days of the local power station simply supplying the adjacent area are long gone, and the National Grid now manages a mind-boggling network of coal, gas, nuclear and renewable generation, with a net flow of power from North to South, and notably from Scotland into England and Wales – not to mention the electricity piped in from the Nuclear Power plants in Northern France. If Scotland stopped sending electricity south of the border, and parts of England and Wales weren’t co-operating with each other, the system could be thrown into serious imbalance causing power stations to go into automatic shut down, and what’s known as “cascade failure”. Many power stations need the grid to restart themselves. If the country was at war with itself it could be nigh on impossible to get any kind of reliable power network up and running again.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
The Second Coming - W.B. Yeats

Is anyone there?

Comms and computers are at the heart of everything we do, and neither of those can function without electricity. Unlike the old landline system, mobile phone networks run off mains electricity – and while the emergency services have dedicated bandwidth to overcome network overload in the case of a major public crisis (such as the Manchester Arena attack or the 7/7 bombings), there appears to be little provision for a complete failure of the mobile network as a whole. Satellite phones aren’t dependent on the mains powered mobile network, but a civil contingencies officer I spoke to told me he didn’t know where theirs were. It is just assumed the mobile network will always be there for them.

What about the internet?

In First World Problems, not only has the National Power Grid collapsed, but the data highways that keep our information flowing have taken hits. The internet in the UK is dependent on a series of complex exchanges in cities all around the country. If these are attacked it’s not just a case of twisting a few bits of copper wire together to fix a phone line. We’re talking about fibre optic superhighways carrying thousands of streams of data at any one moment potentially reduced to blasted goo. Can we fix it? No we can’t. Not easily.

Where's my money?

Without a functioning computer network, most of us can’t get paid or access our bank accounts, and if you think the local ATM will be working... It won’t. I asked advisers at local and national level if there are contingencies in place for a complete breakdown of the electronic banking system. They had no answers.

How can I get around?

Without electricity not only will our largely electrified rail network grind to a halt, but even if the refineries are able to go on producing fuel, you could struggle to fill your car, because modern petrol pumps only work with mains power. As for that electric car you bought...

Even if we assume Air Traffic Control has its own power supply, airports in the North of England are reliant on NATS in Southampton to ensure air safety for the whole of England and Wales. If the country divided into multiple warring territories, you might not fancy hopping on a plane any time soon, especially if whoever held Southampton wanted to close down the rest of the country.

What's for dinner?

Supermarkets are run on a “just in time” ordering system, so disruption to transport and supply chains could result in empty shelves within days. With our high streets dominated by the supermarket giants, and fewer and fewer independently-run outlets, we would be reliant on the big multinationals staying in the game to ensure that people were able to feed themselves in this new high-risk environment with no corporate commitment to local communities.

Rural communities might become self-sufficient, but they would soon become strategically vulnerable and be forced to defend themselves against starving urban raiders from the far-from-self-sufficient, densely populated conurbations. Things could get very nasty, very quickly.

What about my prescription?

Many hospitals have around six weeks of independent power – but after that, who knows? Then there’s the small matter of medical supplies, in a country without a functioning economy or supply chains. We’ve all see this on the television.

It’s not just about medical emergencies. How many of us are reliant on the availability of drugs to keep us healthy? Insulin, warfarin, statins, hormone therapies, cancer treatments and the ever-growing list of medication we take for granted to keep us functioning, especially if we suffer from chronic conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis, hypertension etc. The phrase “survival of the fittest” could take on a whole new sinister meaning.

Who will protect us?

Without power, communications, money, food, transport it’s hard to see how accountable government could reassert itself – and without accountable government the notion of policing by consent would start to feel like a distant dream. Control goes to whoever has the weaponry, the muscle power or a stranglehold on the staples of life people need to survive. Welcome to the age of the warlord and local militias, UK style.

The list goes on... and on...

We live in a wonderful, modern, industrialised, socially-conscious country – wonderful because it meets so many of our needs through its multiplicity of interconnected systems – systems we barely think about day to day. However, it is this very complexity that is its vulnerability. A society like the one we enjoy in the UK has taken centuries to build, but, it could tumble down in an instant.