For the darkest hours in the fight against Adolf Hitler, the British Ministry of Information -- which existed for the duration of World War II -- had set aside a special poster. Intended to bring calm to the home front, it depicted the crown of King George VI against a red background, with the words "Keep Calm and Carry On" printed beneath the image.
The situation never became sufficiently desperate to justify using the poster, and the millions of copies that had been printed were stored away unused. Ten years ago, a bookseller discovered a single copy and hung it up in his shop. That may well have been the end of the poster's career, but then the country was suddenly faced with multiple crises: terrorist attacks, a banking debacle and, finally, the economic and credit crisis.
The bright-red poster now hangs in the offices of directors and members of parliament, in soldiers' barracks and student dormitories. Entire ministries are using it to boost morale, and framed versions of the posters are even said to grace the walls of No. 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.
If only keeping calm and carrying on were that easy this time around. The British pound is tottering. The economy finds itself in its worst crisis since 1931, and the country came within a hair's breadth of a deep recession. Speculators are betting against an upturn. Instability in the banking sector has had a more severe impact on government finances in Great Britain than in other industrialized countries. London's budget deficit will amount to £186 billion (€205 billion, or $280 billion) this year -- fully 12.9 percent of gross domestic product.
The country that was once referred to as "Cool Britannia" is in a serious crisis, with a hole in its budget even bigger than Greece's budget deficit, now at 12.2 percent. And nobody knows how to fix the problem.
Indeed, the problem has become so worrisome, that the European Commission told London on Wednesday to do more to tighten its budget, according to a draft report leaked to Reuters earlier this week. "The fiscal strategy outlined in the United Kingdom's convergence program does not foresee the correction of the excessive deficit by the fiscal year 2014/2015, as recommended by the Council," the European Commission said in a statement.
To complicate matters, Britons will go to the polls in a few weeks, probably on May 6. The next prime minister will have his work cut out for him: reducing the massive budget deficit, restructuring the banking industry and successfully reorienting the economy. And he'll have to do it all on a shoestring budget.
Both candidates provide voters with reason to question their qualifications for the tasks at hand. Incumbent Gordon Brown, 59, in his former position as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the government of his predecessor, Tony Blair, boasted of having put an end to the ups and downs of the economy once and for all. But he had hardly taken the reins from Blair before the economy plunged into the cellar.
Brown was ridiculed in the press, faced revolts within his party and encountered contempt from the people. But he was persistent. He swallowed the criticism and gradually acquired a reputation as a capable crisis manager, at least during the global economic crisis. Polls in recent weeks show that while few Britons like him, more and more are willing to vote for him anyway.