Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Broken Britain: A Conflict Assessment

Terrorism in London Bridge and Finsbury Park. Fire and fury in North Kensington. Race hate and bigotry in the wake of the Brexit Referendum. Is Britain broken, and if so do we understand how broken and what to do about it? I thought it was time to measure ourselves against a peacebuilding framework. The conclusion is that, while our institutions are relatively strong, the underlying currents of marginalisation, exclusion and widespread injustice leaves us in a dangerous place. 

Measuring peace 

I thought the five Peacebuilding and Stability Goals (PSGs) of the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States (New Deal) was a good place to start.

The New Deal was exciting because it was developed and designed jointly between fragile states and richer donor governments. It’s not a panacea, and I wrote here about its inherent flaws. But it’s a useful framework, and one which I hope gives food for thought.

The PSGs, which are intended to guide all work in fragile and conflict affected states, are:
  1. Legitimate politics: Foster inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution.  
  2. Security: Establish and strengthen people’s security. 
  3. Justice: Address injustices and increase people’s access to justice. 
  4. Economic Foundations: Generate employment and improve livelihoods. 
  5. Revenues & Services: Manage revenue and build capacity for accountable and fair service delivery.
So these are the internationally agreed principles for how we should measure and seek to improve the health of a state from a peace and conflict perspective. How does Britain measure up?  

Legitimate politics 

Radical preacher
On one level Britain’s politics measure up well. Turnout, particularly among young people in the last election, was high. Our democratic institutions are generally well regarded and corruption is measured as being low. Our press is free and journalists are not attacked.

But on a more fundamental level do the political elites still command the confidence of the people? I would argue that the vote to leave the European Union had less to do with the merits of Britain’s membership of the EU (not least because that was hardly discussed in the referendum campaign in favour of immigration) and more to do with widespread disenchantment with the political classes. This was exploited by a populist party, UKIP, using slogans and tactics reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. That is not a healthy place to be. Just how unhealthy could perhaps be seen by this week's attack on a Muslim community leaving Ramadan prayers by a man raving about "killing all the muslims".


Britain is generally a safe place to be. Crime is not for most people a daily experience. The attacks on London Bridge and Finsbury Park are horrific yes, but notable mainly for their rarity.

But are we really as safe as we think we are? Hundreds of women die at the hands of their partners in Britain. And our violent crime levels are actually among the worst in the European Union. Young black men are dying from stabbings and knife crime at an alarming rate, with a morbid annual tally reported on every year. This is the same part of the population that is significantly over represented in the criminal justice system. If we are serious about establishing and strengthening people’s security, we have a long way to go. We could learn, perhaps, from other fragile States who themselves have made more progress in reforming their police that we appear to have to date.  


If you are arrested and charged in Britain you can reasonably expect to receive a fair trial. Our institutions are among the best in the world and, largely because of imperial history, are replicated throughout the English speaking globe.

But what do we mean by justice? Beyond the institutions do people really feel that this is a just country? On Thursday morning I woke up to a fire in a tower in the area of London where I live. A few days on and it is now clear that nearly 100 people died in the most appalling circumstances. Their story, and the culpability of officialdom who repeatedly ignored them in life, while continuing to fail their families in the wake of their deaths stands as a dark indictment of our society. I find it almost beyond comprehension.

And why were they living there? Poor people live in tower blocks in this country because there is, and has been for decades, a massive housing shortage. Yet while social housing is not built, local authorities do permit developers to construct large luxury accommodation which is often bought as an investment and left to stand empty. 

If you are poor in today’s Britain, this is how the system can and will treat you. That, in nobody’s eyes, can be called just.

Economic foundations 

Britain’s economic foundations are arguably weak. A country that forged its way based on manufacturing is now almost completely reliant on the services sector. And that too is largely reliant on access to markets, the largest of which this Government through Brexit is intent on leaving. Economic opportunities are centred on London and the South East, leaving large parts of the population in the former manufacturing areas, without much to go on. In fairness this Government has in the past demonstrated sincerity in attempting to develop a “Northern Powerhouse” of growth, but this is likely to take decades and will be vulnerable to external shocks.

The residents of Grenfell Tower lived in prosperous London too, however. The contrasts in this city between some of the richest real estate on planet Earth placed right next to some of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom, with widespread poverty and higher levels of crime, is a permanent reminder both of injustice and the insecurity that that injustice breeds.

Revenues and services 

The ability to manage revenue and deliver services accountably and fairly is fundamental. On the surface Britain does have the basics right. A health service that is the envy of the world, for example. But this is now a country in which a local authority can completely fail its citizens, leading many of them to lose their lives as a result, and then fail them again to such an extent that the national government has had to step in. And nobody has resigned. Kensington Town Hall was stormed by those citizens last week, who felt they had no other way of holding anybody accountable.  

So what?

Britain is hardly the only European rich country to be marked by glaring inequalities and injustice. But at some point we have to decide whether our generations are going to just pass that along to the next. As we look at ourselves in the mirror in the weeks ahead, we have some serious questions to answer.