The Politics of Fear

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t made up my mind yet how to vote on June 23rd.  I hopefully await some decisive game-changer to turn up in the debate.  I have this horrible feeling I’ll still be swithering as I enter the polling booth.  Yet on one thing I’m clear.  I’m becoming increasingly irritated by the corporate international harbingers of doom the Remain Campaign enlist to gloom us up with an apocalyptic vision of the consequences of leaving the EU.  President Obama said that if the UK left, it would join “the back of the queue” in terms of negotiating a trade deal with the USA.  Now I can’t stand that.  It reminds me – I’ve said this before – of the time the Archbishop of Canterbury said to King George VI, on his request that his speech therapist Lionel Logue be accommodated in the Royal Box, “Well of course I’ll see what I can do, but it will be very, very difficult.”  Humbug.  If there’s a political will, the broad outlines of an agreement can be drafted on the back of an envelope in ten minutes.  Christine Lagarde of the IMF said the economic consequences of leaving would be “somewhere between bad and very very bad”, Mark Carney of the Bank of England suggested leaving would create a recession.

It’s all uncannily reminiscent of the build-up to the referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014.  On that occasion, the apparatchiks of doom even gave an official name to the glooming-up process – Project Fear.  On that occasion, the fear that was being disseminated was that if Scotland left the UK she would become overnight an economic basket case.  This time round, over and above the economic threat is the security threat.  If the UK leaves the EU, both will be weakened, to the delight of President Putin, Middle East extremism, and an unpredictable and isolationist potential US President.

There is no doubt that in the settlement of any dispute Fear is a very powerful weapon.  That is why it is deployed.  In the contest between “He who hesitates is lost” and “Look before you leap”, the latter aphorism wins out. Better the devil you know.  It is salutary to consider the extent to which Fear dominates our lives.  Trident is the ultimate exemplar of the lengths a nation will go to when dominated by Fear.  Every second of every minute of every day, twenty four seven, a nuclear submarine is on patrol ready to unleash Armageddon at a moment’s notice.  Why?  Because of fear of attack.  Fear penetrates into every corner of our lives.  This week, the father of a child won a legal argument that justified his taking his child out of school during term time to go on a holiday.  The government response has been to change the law in order to close this loop hole.  But why do they want to do this?  It’s Fear.  It’s fear that if the next generation is out-performed by the Chinese, the UK will be demoted from a principal to a bit player on “the world’s stage”.  Hence they subject our children to an endless series of grotesque, stultifying, non-creative SATs tests that can only result in PTSD, para suicide, and bed-wetting.

My own generation was brought up on a diet of Fear.  Fear was utilised by the education system.  Of course corporal punishment was utilised as a means of maintaining discipline.  Only the most independent-minded, the most self-confident, and the most courageous among us dared challenge that system.  I recently had a conversation with a longstanding friend of mine who had frequently been chastised at school.  He was offering an apologia for the old days.  “I got the belt more times than I had hot dinners!  Never did me any harm!”  Poor soul.  He had no idea of the extent to which he was damaged.

The trouble with Fear as a political modus operandi is that it may appear to resolve a situation, but it can never settle a dispute for the long term.  The dispute does not go away.  The Scottish referendum demonstrated this.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the EU referendum result does something similar.  I can imagine the Remain Campaign winning by a significant but not overwhelming majority – say 55% to 45%.  Then UKIP start to get more support and middle England, whose motto is said to be “Mustn’t grumble”, carry on grumbling. There will be a call for another referendum when “a material change in circumstances” suggest that Brexit would be “the settled will of the people.”  Meanwhile we carry on exasperating mainland Europe with vetoes and opt-outs just the way you would expect an island race to be.  Detached.

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