Is the UK a failing state? - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

6 March 2012

Here’s one to consider while you thump the treadmill, commute to work or speed along at 38,000 feet – when is a state no longer a state? Is it when factions who are ideologically opposed draw arms hoping to dissect new borders? Is it when successive illegitimate governments lay waste to reserves and resources and anarchy reigns? Or is it an altogether less dramatic set of circumstances?

Perhaps this is too grand a topic to tackle in a three minute commentary and is best suited for a five-part TV documentary. Or better yet, a weighty tome to be digested over the summer holidays. While I’m also tempted to devote an entire issue of our magazine to the symptoms that confirm a state has well and truly failed, the matter is too urgent to wait for trees to be pulped and ink to dry.

Much might be made about the sorry state of Somalia, the turbulence in Afghanistan and the ongoing instability in Iraq. But there’s not nearly enough analysis about appalling lapses in governance and statehood closer to home.

Let’s start in our very own back yard. As we try to offer a broad view across the world on this service, we avoid doing too many stories that start with a London dateline. Nevertheless, recent events in the UK have us wondering if we’re now resident in a state that’s not just stumbling, but is on the brink of failing with flying colours. 

There are many ways to measure how poorly a state is performing – a rough checklist goes something like this: an inability to play nicely with others in the neighbourhood and the world stage – check. Economic stagnation or decline – check. Lack of proper stewardship to make collective decisions – check. Extreme disparity between rich and poor – check. An inability to provide basic public services – check.

It’s this last point that’s most relevant and timely. Over the past few days leaked documents have revealed that some police services in the UK are advocating outsourcing the most basic functions that have long been the preserve of the state – criminal investigations and basic beat police patrols among them. Having sold off rolling stock and rail lines, waterworks and power stations, conflicts are now fought by soldiers of fortune and there are proposals to have trade missions shuttered and offered up to private agents. Anyone care for an extra helping of conflict of interest?

In a nation where healthcare is failing, youth unemployment is soaring, its global broadcasting service is severely squeezed and state schools grossly underfunded, the proposal to start carving up its police force and offering portions up to the highest bidders raises serious questions about the competence of elected officials and their overpaid consultants.

When the story first hit pages on Friday evening there was the predictable ripple in other media outlets. Now, almost four days later, there’s not nearly the amount of debate and outcry one might expect in a liberal democracy. Of course, there have been editorials to accompany raised eyebrows. But is a nation not failing when it can’t manage the basics on its own? Those duties such as maintaining public safety and order, defending its realm, educating its young or caring for its elderly.

Only last week, in a column on the “wisdom” of privatising airlines, I argued that a state needs to remember there are some things that simply need protection – education, national security and infrastructure all being fundamental. Could it be that the greatest sign of failure in the UK is a collapse of public discourse or outlets prepared to challenge half-baked ideas. With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics the perfect distraction for the next few months, the current government should perhaps remember what became of others who ruled with bread and circuses.


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