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18 September 2000

Why politicians want to scare us

Crime, asylum-seekers, Brussels dictators, Frankenstein foods: fear has become part of the political

By Stefan Stern

How will we know when the political season has well and truly begun again? Answer: when the frighteners are put on us for real. If there has been a common theme, or tone, in recent political debate, it has been the scare, the fright, the menace and the threat. Asylum-seekers? – appalling. Crime? – blood- curdling. GM food? – life-threatening. Europe? – catastrophic.

Politicians have found their voice by accentuating the negative. They struggle to create a convincing, positive narrative for a sceptical audience; so they turn instead to black propaganda about their opponents or alleged challenges to policy. When asked just before the 1997 election what the Tories could do to try to win, one Central Office figure revealed the kind of sophisticated thinking that would be deployed in an attempt to appeal to voters. “We’re going to scare the shit out of them,” he said.

Sadly for the Conservatives, the M&C Saatchi “Demon Eyes” campaign did not quite deliver on the fear factor. But fear is certainly a powerful weapon in the hands of a politician prepared to use it. When leaders tell us that a forthcoming election represents a choice between hope and menace (hope being on the side of the good guys), provoking fear about the opponents is just as much part of the electoral game. “Don’t let Labour ruin it” proved a highly successful campaigning slogan for the Tories again and again over the past century.

Fear is, in fact, a quite rational response to a frightening, runaway world. Change batters away at us at such an increasing rate that only the supremely self-confident can look calmly into the future. Fear is many-faceted. It shows up in a variety of ways, driving political debate. It is written on the faces of Orangemen lining up at Drumcree. It trembles in the voices of overexcited Europhobes. It keeps pensioners indoors, shoppers away from the meat counter, and single mothers on the late shift. Fear is the spur. The modern world is closing in, and it arrives as a menacing stranger.

Can politicians lead us away from this climate of fear? Do they want to? When commuters pick up their copy of the Daily Scare in the morning, they look in vain for political figures offering a different, less fearful vision of the future. Mo Mowlam, who did offer chirpy optimism, couldn’t be tolerated: the rest are just plain scared.

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The European Union has had more scare- mongering nonsense written about it than any other issue. It is not just the endless stream of misinformation – the “cucumbers must be straight” story, or the “mushy peas to be banned” story. The English mindset towards the EU is one of profound, chronic inferiority, giving rise, in some circles, to something like paranoia. If football hooliganism is its least subtle – but most violent – form, extreme Euroscepticism (more properly, Europhobia) is its political equivalent. It is founded on the deep-seated fear that clever, deceitful foreigners are constantly out to get us, that we have nothing to gain and everything to lose from our membership of the EU.

Geoffrey Martin, the head of the European Commission’s representations in the UK, is on firefighting duty almost 24 hours a day, as the Europhobes do their worst with tales of imminent Eurodisaster.

“Many Eurosceptics still view the EU as a foreign body trying to impose its will on a UK that is powerless to resist,” Martin says. Fear of the popular reaction to any European story leaves the positive case for Europe almost unmade.

On crime, too, fear is the main focus of debate. Some politicians seem to believe that talking up the fear of crime, allowing them to look “tough”, is a good idea. There are lies, damned lies, and the crime statistics. But this approach makes a nonsense of our understanding of what crime is and what we should be doing about it.

“There is crime, which should frighten people, but it is specific to certain places and certain types of crime,” says Roger Graef, the award-winning documentary maker. “There are places where you don’t go and hours you don’t go, but this shouldn’t be generalised across all the safe places.”

In specific localities, Graef believes, the story is often better than is commonly understood. Local crime-reduction programmes are effective, with police and communities working in partnership. “The government is doing a lot better than people realise with longer-term measures, but it is letting the Tories make the running, very unwisely, with the short-term scares.”

The media are also complicit in this. Professor Howard Tumber of City University in London says that the lack of proper debate allows the scare stories to run and run; indeed, the press love to run them. “In the local media, for example, the papers read like a police bulletin,” Tumber says. “It’s not surprising: that’s where so many of their stories come from. Are the public right to be worried? Yes, but it’s rarely explained exactly what they should be frightened of.” Young men, not defenceless grannies, are the most likely victims. Tumber points to a similar level of inaccurate reporting that has fed into the “debate” on immigration and asylum-seekers. Again, the scare-story approach makes the political situation harder to deal with.

The modern world is a scary place. Globalisation brings with it greater inequality and an increased threat to people’s identity and sense of themselves. The individual is constantly challenged, left to question his or her place in the world. The pace of change, too, is unsettling. Whether we are unemployed and living on a sink estate, or a prime minister scribbling personal memos to one’s most trusted colleagues, the threat of disaster never seems far away. The crumbling of the postwar consensus and the return of the pre-welfare state mentality has produced a riskier, harsher society.

Few politicians can claim the rare combination of leadership qualities required to retain any mastery over events. Instead, we see “smaller and smaller men, strutting across narrower and narrower stages”. Aneurin Bevan summed up his political contemporaries with that crushing phrase in 1959, recorded by Geoffrey Goodman in The State of the Nation, his book on Bevan.

Bevan called for political boldness instead of timidity, for courage in place of fear. “Bevan criticised people for failing to take brave decisions,” Goodman says, “leaders who were unable to offer a more vivid, imaginative vision of the future.” It is nearly 50 years since the publication of Bevan’s In Place of Fear but, as Goodman points out, so many of his observations on the world of the early Fifties sound remarkably modern.

Bevan is not around today. But here’s the challenge to our bronzed, refreshed, returning politicians. Can we move beyond the politics of fear to begin a grown-up discussion about progress – what it might look like, and what it might cost? The answer lies not in the stars, nor in focus groups, but in ourselves.

The writer works for FTDynamo.com, a new internet-based management magazine