First World Problems and waiting for Hitler

Spoilers for a recent Radio 4 drama follow.

Radio 4’s drama First World Problems, part of their ‘Dangerous Visions’ season, was a useful insight into what one might call mainstream eschatology. It envisions a future civil war in the United Kingdom, at some point in the mid-2020s following a financial crash. Scotland secedes and civil order breaks down. Republicans kick off – again – in Northern Ireland. Over the intervening months full-scale war breaks out: the drama follows the Fletcher family as they are pushed unceremoniously from their home in Manchester to Wales to Bristol to Birmingham while dealing with familial strife along the way. It’s a pretty smart piece of drama, if laden down with rather shrieky dialogue, an excruciating reference to Game of Thrones, and more than a few visits from Basil Exposition. The problems of dealing with a disabled child and an elderly grandmother are handled sensitively and without cliché, in probably the strongest character-driven parts of the drama.

The trouble is, though, that it is demonstrates a persistent habit among the creative classes in dealing with dystopia. David Runciman once referred to this tendency as “waiting for Hitler”: an excessive fondness for 20th-century models of dystopia, and a lack of imagination in how society and democracy might – will, eventually – collapse. First World Problems suffers a bit from the very thing that makes it compelling, namely the involvement of journalists from the Yugoslav wars in the writing process. The largest military power is called Greater England, without any explication of an irredentist ideology driving it (for example, it makes no effort to retake the secessionist Scotland except for the nuclear weapons at Faslane). Manchester, de facto capital of the Free English Territories, is laid under siege. Wales engages in severe ethnic cleansing of English residents (episode 4, which follows the family as they are forced to march out of Wales on foot, is the most grimly visceral and best-written episode of the series). By the time a nurse talks about an “incident” of mass war rape somewhere in the North, it begins to feel a little bit forced – not because these things don’t happen, but because the programme gave the impression of working from a Yugoslav checklist.

A more serious gap in the programme’s imagination is its failure to push the ethnic conflict as far as it could be taken. The British Civil War is a tremendously white ethnic conflict. The Serb-Bosnian model is used for the traditional South vs the traditional North, which simply is not a comparable situation. It is noticeable how much more chilling the ethnic cleansing of Wales is, partly because of the very well-handled linguistic barrier. The programme assumes that vague internal divisions resolve themselves into ethnic warfare, which pushes the model to breaking point and misunderstands the history of the Balkans.

By Episode 5, England’s substantial ethnic minorities finally get a look in, with the reappearance of the Croatian cleaner from Episode 1 and safe haven finally found – temporarily – in a substantial part of Birmingham seized by Islamic militias. Yet this idea is not handled very well: the notion that ‘Greater England’, an implicitly fascist military junta, is headquartered from London (White British population of around 45% at the last census), imagines that our civil war is taking place in the 1950s rather than the 2020s. A deep engagement with the consequences of a UK civil war might be unbroadcastable for reasons of sheer complexity, given the enormous diversity of British cities compared to their surroundings. An Islamic militia seizing large parts of Birmingham is one thing, but how would the Greater English ‘London’ cope with (for example) the secession of Tower Hamlets? What happens to the gangs in Northern cities, largely organised along ethnic lines and relatively well-armed?

It’s only a radio drama. And it’s well done. But a really ‘Dangerous Vision’ of a UK civil war would be as confusing and as all-over-the-place as the Balkan conflicts which inspired this one. As the UK becomes more diverse and ethnic relations become more complex, fiction serves an important role in elaborating the challenges society faces in simply staying together. To write out an eighth or so of the population in pursuit of a white North vs white South dynamic isn’t the science fiction we need. We cannot keep waiting for Hitler, because whatever comes in his place will completely blindside us if we do.

P.S. My favourite dystopia of recent years is Jack Womack’s tremendous 1994 novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which handles ethnic tension in cities (New York, in this one) very well.

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