A Reckoning?

There’s been a lot of talk in the media, and on discussion forums, on the potential outcome of the forthcoming General Election. A lot of ink has been spilled, and electrons hurled, by every side voicing their belief that a win for their political opponents would mean “disaster” for Britain. I’ve been wondering though: what form would this so-called “disaster” take? We’ve all seen businesses fail due to incompetent leadership, poor decisions or just plain bad luck, but can government in an affluent western democracy like the United Kingdom actually fail so much as to be considered a “disaster”.

It’s a question I’ve pondered before after reading a news story about one of the Scottish Councils on the verge of collapsing through mismanagement. Unfortunately I can’t remember which council it was so I’ve been unable to find the article, but I’m sure it was in the central belt somewhere. Now I assume, perhaps wrongly, that should a local authority “fail” either through bankruptcy, or inability to deliver basic government services, that central government would step in and institute some form of take over. It seems a reasonable assumption as the various UK councils are the representation of the national government at a local level. It’s highly unlikely that a council would be allowed to fail to the extent that the bins go un-emptied and the junkies un-methadone-ed for months on end.

If a person’s finances go up the spout the can be declared bankrupt and the state protects them from further financial harm. There’s consequences of course, but they’re still relatively secure. If a company fails they can make similar moves by calling in receivers to try and restructure, or at least salvage some of their creditor’s money. It’s likely, as I’ve already said, that a failing local council or public body would be bailed out and “restructured” by the national government with all the usual fallout that accompanies such actions.

The discussions online and in the media however are busy painting a picture of the United Kingdom in danger of becoming a failed state. As I’ve said, for lesser institutions there’s always a safety net of some kind, but there’s nothing like that for a government.

With western governments increasingly appearing to follow business lines in their operations what happens if the government can’t pay its debts. Sure there may be a revolution, and those in government might be strung up from lampposts, but it seems unlikely. It equally seems unlikely that a nation would quickly descend into anarchy

Weimar Germany provides a partial model of what might happen to a liberal democracy crippled by untenable debt, weak government and internal political divisions.The buying power of the German Reichsmark quickly collapsed leading her creditors amongst the Allied Nations to seek reparations in kind rather than cash or goods, France in particular was very quick to annex the Ruhr Valley by force when Germany proved unwilling and unable to pay what it owed. The model isn’t perfect of course. The Weimar Republic’s debts weren’t the result of rampant government spending or mismanagement, but punishments levied against them by the victorious Allied Powers through the Treaty of Versailles. We also know how that turned out in the end. Is it possible though that the new government could get things so wrong that that it’s forced to hand the country over to her creditors. It’s equally possible that the UK could disintegrate into her component nations leaving all three adrift and burdened with their predecessor’s debts. Maybe they’ll run it so far into the ground that the UK will finally achieve it’s unconscious desire to be the 51st member of the United States of America.

Of course I know that I’m pondering on the shaky foundations of hyperbole and tabloid journalism. I’m well aware that the government of the United Kingdom has weathered far worse crises than the current economic recession, but the intellectual exercise is an interesting.

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