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25 March 2020

Why we are fatally unprepared when crises strike

Oliver Letwin’s Apocalypse How? Explains why we fail to anticipate catastrophe

By Oscar Williams

It’s midnight on 31 December 2037 and Bill Donoghue is sitting at his desk in the Bank of England, filling out online time sheets. Suddenly, the lights go out, his phone loses signal and the internet connection drops. He soon learns that Britain has been plunged into a digital blackout and is on the brink of an unprecedented crisis.

Switching between nonfiction analysis and speculative fiction in alternate chapters, Oliver Letwin’s new book, Apocalypse How?, charts the impact of a solar electromagnetic pulse (EMP) on the National Grid. In the nearly two decades that have passed since the present day, our telecoms, transport and financial networks have become ever more tightly intertwined, leaving society acutely vulnerable to disturbances in the power grid that underpins it.

The Britain of Letwin’s hypothetical future is cashless; vehicles are battery-powered and public services are hosted in cloud-computing servers. In scenes that may be familiar to those living through the coronavirus outbreak, citizens struggle to travel, buy food or contact loved ones. The consequences for industry and the public sector are even more severe. Financial markets grind to a halt, news broadcasts cease and the emergency services are immobilised.

The irony that Letwin, who for six years served as the minister responsible for national resilience, has published a book about one international crisis at the time of another, will not be lost on his readers. But Apocalypse How? is timely in the sense that it provides an insight into the mindsets that prevent politicians and civil servants from properly preparing for catastrophes.

According to Letwin, the seemingly endless list of urgent tasks facing ministers and mandarins means that planning for more distant “black swan” events – an unforeseen crisis such as a grid failure or a global pandemic – often falls to the wayside. Letwin describes this as the “doctrine of the more pressing question”. “In any country,” he writes, “it is incredibly difficult to raise sustained interested in the highest reaches of government about risks that seem far off”.

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But the “doctrine of the more pressing question” is just the first of five “doctrines of delay” set out by Letwin; with each, the prospect of mitigating action being taken diminishes. Letwin elegantly explains the “doctrine of the reality of certainty”. It is, he writes, the distinction between “the things you can be sure will happen and the things that only might happen”:

The proposition that, at some unknown date, we might be exposed to some unknown form of attack or natural event that will have some… effect on our lives sounds very much like speculation rather than a fact. The natural response of the system is to leave such speculation to people in some basement or backroom and to concentrate the time and effort of senior officials (and the money that only they can be mobilise) on more immediate, more certain challenges.

As the New Statesman recently reported, the UK carried out a three-day exercise to simulate a flu pandemic in 2016. According to Sally Davies, the chief medical officer at the time, it revealed that the country “could not cope with the excess bodies” and that the crisis was exacerbated by a shortage of ventilators. It took more than three years and a global pandemic for the government to act. Ministers are now turning to digger manufacturers and jet engine developers to get equipped. The UK is not the only country whose political leaders have failed to heed such warnings. Donald Trump took the decision in 2018 to close a White House directorate tasked with preparing the country for a pandemic.

While Apocalypse How? describes a different kind of catastrophe, Letwin acknowledges that power failure would exacerbate a pandemic. “Disease, natural disasters, economic crises and failures of technology… constitute serious threats,” he writes. “And network failures can make all of these kinds of threats either more likely, or more severe in their impacts.”

The space weather phenomenon at the centre of Letwin’s parable might sound far-fetched, but solar electromagnetic pulses are not uncommon. A pulse missed Earth by just a few days in 2012 and scientists at Harvard have predicted that a solar storm as powerful as the Carrington event of 1859, the first to have been recorded, would cost the global economy several trillion dollars.

Solar storms are just one of the ways a digital blackout of the kind described in Apocalypse How? could be triggered. The cyber attacks – allegedly originating in Russia – on the Ukrainian power grid in 2015 and 2016 sent large areas of the post-Soviet state into darkness for hours at a time. Physical terrorism also poses a potent threat to energy networks around the world.

The UK has attempted to reinforce the country’s cyber defences in the last few years. Founded in 2016, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has to date defended the UK against more than 1,800 major cyber incidents, the majority of which are believed to have been orchestrated by hostile nation states. While the NCSC model is admired by Britain’s allies, Letwin contends that the strengthening of network defences is only one part of the puzzle. In this book the former minister makes the case for the development of analogue fallback options, to minimise the chaos an event such as an EMP might unleash.

The key to “black swan” planning, argues Letwin, is to assign responsibility for national resilience to an individual, who, in turn, can develop a small, focused team of experts to implement the various fallback options required to ensure that if the complex “network of networks” fails, life can continue.
Letwin is unlikely to win awards for his fiction writing. With the demise of one of the central characters playing out over just four paragraphs, the book’s pacing can be jarring. In the analytical chapters, meanwhile, Letwin devotes pages and pages to technical description, demonstrating the depth of his knowledge in a way that feels self-indulgent at times.

His ability to anticipate and plan for certain scenarios is much more impressive. But the judgement of the former minister, who has made a number of controversial remarks in the past, deserves scrutiny. In recent months, the row over Huawei has reignited fears about the dependence of British infrastructure on high-risk foreign suppliers. As minister for government policy, Letwin visited Imperial College London in 2013 to celebrate plans for a research partnership with the Chinese tech giant. “This particular venture is exactly what the government wants to see,” he said at the time. 

The UK has since taken steps to limit its reliance on Huawei equipment, but telecoms is only one sector in which the UK is heavily dependent on overseas firms, which own a high proportion of our key industries and assets.

The book’s tragic conclusion is softened by his claim that the UK is better prepared than most countries to deal with the aftermath of network failure. This may be true. But, while readers may feel frustrated that the book does not provide a greater insight into the current crisis facing the world, a more reasonable criticism might be that it fails to address another key point: that decisions taken by the governments in which Letwin served may have put critical networks at greater risk of the kinds of incidents that Apocalypse How? describes. 

Oscar Williams is editor of NS Tech

Apocalypse How?: Technology and the Threat of Disaster
Oliver Letwin
Atlantic, 256pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor