There are revolutionaries on the political right who crave this kind of upheaval. But their opportunism can end in disaster, says historian Andy Beckett
Genuine national crises, where everyday life is disrupted and the status quo buckles or crumbles, dont come along often in a usually stable, sometimes boring country like Britain. Over the last half century, there have arguably been less than half a dozen: the three-day week in 1974, the winter of discontent of 1978-9, the riots and recession of 1981, the financial crisis of 2007-8, and the current, accelerating meltdown constitutional, economic, and cultural around Brexit.
Such episodes are a nightmare for many people, but others yearn for them. Once, these catastrophists were mostly found on the revolutionary left. Now they increasingly come from the right.
During the long, often politically placid interlude between Thatcherisms triumph in the 1980s and its undoing by the financial crisis 25 years later, rightwing British newspapers sometimes seemed to be almost willing a national emergency into being. Awful but only temporarily disruptive events, such as the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001, were often reported in apocalyptic terms. The Daily Telegraph described this as one of the worst social and financial catastrophes to befall peacetime Britain. With Tony Blairs Labour government in office, that assessment by the voice of the Tory shires had a whiff of wishful thinking about it.
For the British state, national crises are both a curse and an opportunity. Many civil servants want to be consistent administrators or incremental social reformers, not crisis managers, and Whitehalls routines are disturbed by emergencies. During the three-day week, power cuts meant that staff at the Department of the Environment then an ambitious new ministry housed in a glassy, hard-to-heat complex with bare floors had to be issued with small squares of carpet to place under their desks to keep their feet warm. More recently, at the Department for Exiting the European Union, so many extra staff have been hastily recruited, a civil servant told me over the summer, that there are not enough toilets. The Brexit metaphor almost writes itself.
Yet national emergencies also enable the state to increase its power. In the early 1970s, Edward Heaths Conservative government secretly established the civil contingencies unit (CCU) a typically sly Whitehall euphemism to maintain essential amenities and supplies across the country whenever the next big crisis occurred. The CCU combined national and local politicians, civil servants, the military and the police into something approaching a shadow government. Sometimes it seemed to have its own agenda, beyond party politics. During the winter of discontent, when strikes overwhelmed Jim Callaghans Labour administration, the CCUs chairman, an urbane civil servant called Clive Rose, told the transport minister, Bill Rodgers, that its job was not to keep the government in office but to see the country isnt destabilised. A version of the CCU still exists, now known as the civil contingencies secretariat. If a chaotic no-deal Brexit comes, it is not hard to imagine it giving Boris Johnsons administration similar warnings.