Knee-jerk decisions are increasingly made over taking evidence-based advice. Photo: Getty
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Collective panic over ebola is just one example of the politics of fear gripping our leaders

Our experts are being drowned out by baying, panicked mobs, and in this increasingly voter-pleasing landscape, it’s the loudest who wins.

A government's job should be to educate and enlighten the people it serves, quelling its electorate’s fears by calling on the best information they have – and hire – for that very task.

However in recent weeks and months, with an ever increasing lurch towards populism and short-term electioneering, we’ve started to see our leaders pandering to – and therefore reinforcing – the public’s fears and hysteria, and in doing so, ignoring those inconvenient truths they are being told by experts.

The most recent example of this has been ebola, which, with cases of the virus reaching beyond West Africa, has understandably gripped the globe in a state of collective panic.

While it is undoubtedly a serious virus, Public Health England, a body nominated to advise the government, announced there were no plans to introduce screening for those arriving in the UK, explaining that this would mean screening “huge numbers of low-risk people”. This was supported by eminent scientists such as Professor David Mabey, who described it as a “pointless exercise with no meaningful impact on the risk of importing ebola into the UK”.

However, within days of the official guidance, and following a slew of panic-inducing headlines, it was announced that screening would be implemented at several border points, with the Labour MP and home affairs select committee chair Keith Vaz saying: “We can’t just accept what is being said by Public Health England. Of course it’s right that we should take medical advice but we need to be satisfied that the public feels enough is being done at our borders."

His language highlights the sole motivation, to make the public feel better, because after all, once its efficacy has been debunked by doctors, such measures are just illusion – a sop to an expectant public who want their temperatures taken to allay their fears, regardless of the evidence. Furthermore, while of course it is the government’s responsibility to provide reassurance, as virologist Professor Andrew Easton points out, it “can have the effect of confirming in the population the idea that there is an emergency, which is not the case.” Ultimately, this panic prevention does more harm than good.

That such knee-jerk policies are being formed under pressure from the most vociferous members of the electorate, media and opposition parties rather than in response to reasoned and evidence-based advice is becoming increasingly symptomatic of a wider problem across government, and depressingly, it’s not necessary to go that far back to find the last example.

Earlier this month, the Conservatives announced vague plans to scrap the human rights act, as well as a re-evaluation of our relationship with the ECHR, prompting consternation from legal spheres – not least of all its own former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, the MP who, up until July, was responsible for providing legal advice to the cabinet.

Interpreted as a reactionary measure to quell public concerns around the UK’s relationship with Europe, Grieve warned: “These proposals threaten to create domestic constitutional difficulties and to undermine our international reputation and influence for entirely illusory benefits.” Again, as with criticism of ebola screening, we have experts warning that such changes will have no discernible benefits. Similarly, Ken Clarke, another senior Conservative, also criticised the proposals, saying: “it is unthinkable to leave the European convention on human rights.” These are compelling arguments from the closest thing the government had to legal experts and yet it saw fit to dispense of their services in a reshuffle, instead kowtowing to scaremongering headlines influenced by a Ukip narrative.

If our politicians cannot – or choose not to – defer to those bodies that are in place to advise them, and their informed recommendations are dismissed at the drop of a media-induced maelstrom of fear, then what is the point in their existence and who is really in charge?

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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.