We don’t want to worry you, but….The politics of panic

When he said that The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2nd edition) had the words Don’t Panic inscribed on the cover in large friendly letters, Douglas Adams perfectly nailed the unsettling effect of an injunction not to panic on a population that had, hitherto, been unaware of any necessity to do so.

The English like nothing better than a good crisis, or at least the possibility of one, just so that they can show how stoical they are about these matters. The myth of the Blitz spirit remains deeply embedded in the national consciousness, or at least the fantasies of a certain type of politician. Not for us the undignified protests of hot-tempered Continentals, or the unedifying spectacle of brandishing firearms in queues for dwindling petrol supplies. Scratch a Tory and you soon find the reassuring image of stiff-upper-lipped Londoners proceeding to their Anderson shelters in an orderly fashion and the occasional, “Oh, I say,” or “Please, after you, old chap” as the bombs rain down upon them.

Panic is a particularly useful weapon if it can be turned against a common enemy. Hitler was ideal, but the trade unions will do equally well, particularly if the possibility of industrial action threatens holiday plans. We all know about those beastly French air traffic controllers going on strike in August, but no true Brit would be so un-sporting. Let us all unite against the Red Menace, and remember the dark days of the 1970s when rubbish piled up in the streets. Never again!

The politics of panic, however, need careful management. Obviously you want to give people the opportunity to show how calm and sensible real patriots are. However, get it wrong, imply that any genuine threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of fossil fuels exists, and people might – well – panic. And we wouldn’t want that, now, would we?

The Government apparently decided they’d miscalculated when, early in the Second World War, they quietly pulped supplies of the poster “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Now that very poster and its modern cousin, “Now Panic and Freak Out,” have become a ubiquitous cultural meme. It’s a neat example of our conflicted responses to such occasions.

Cabinet Minister Francis Maude has got it spectacularly wrong. Yesterday, having recently emerged from a COBRA meeting called to work out how to stop a threatened tanker drivers’ strike paralysing the nation, he told hitherto-unworried Brits to be sensible, fill up at every possible opportunity (you’d need deep pockets to do that, these days) and maybe keep a jerry-can or two of petrol in the garage just in case.

This advice seems calculated to ensure long queues at every garage in the UK, thus fanning the flames (an unfortunate metaphor) of the very thing it was apparently intended to avoid – panic buying. It is also based on a couple of fundamentally outdated assumptions about the world we live in. First, that a jerry-can is about the size of a watering can. Not so – apparently they hold about 20 litres, more than enough to set something sizeable on fire, inadvertently or otherwise. Secondly, that your average Brit lives in a spacious property with its own garden and, at a safe distance from the house, garage where combustible fuels can be safely stored. I hate to say it, but assumptions like this do seem to be particularly common among senior Tories

So, take that, you unions! We will fight you at the jerry-cans! We will defend our forecourts! We will never surrender!

I’m not panicking – yet – about running out of fuel and having to go to the shops on foot every day like our parents had to do. But the thought of people in cramped council flats stockpiling petrol when it’s unseasonably warm and dry, there’s a long public holiday coming up and last summer Britain’s cities erupted in street rioting…now that sounds like a sensible thing to freak out about. Maybe I should make plans to leave the country?

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One thought on “We don’t want to worry you, but….The politics of panic

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