What is really fuelling Britain’s petrol panic?

This panic shows we're now governed by scared mongers rather than scaremongers, by people whose own fears drive the culture of fear.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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Since the publication of my book Culture of Fear in 1997, I have often been asked the question: who benefits from the promotion of scaremongering and panics? The premise to this question is usually the belief that there must be some hidden interest behind fear campaigns, behind the global panics over everything from the Millennium Bug to the swine flu epidemic, Frankenstein Food, the Icelandic ash cloud or international paedophile rings.

The answer I give usually disappoints my audience, since most of them expect me to expose the dark forces of scaremongers who thrive on the climate of fear that they slyly induce. When I respond by saying that, most of the time, it is fear itself that drives scaremongering campaigns, rather than a situation where political actors consciously construct a feeling of fear, my audience looks bemused. And then they ask another question: ‘But surely there must be more to it than that?’

Of course, every society has its fear entrepreneurs who profit from our anxieties and moral crusaders who believe they have the right to scare us into adopting healthier lifestyles. But most of the time, it is usually an anxious rather than a Machiavellian clique that is responsible for promoting a climate of fear. Last week’s fuel panic in Britain is a very good example of how a disoriented and indecisive government can destabilise society through communicating its own fears and confusions.

Understandably, some critics have claimed that, in advising people to stock up on petrol, the Cameron government was using the threat of a possible fuel-drivers’ strike to score some political points. They claim the government was trying to distract attention from its own mistakes, from the numerous problems it has created over the past few months, by artificially making a big issue of the threatened truck-drivers’ strike and encouraging us all to panic about it.

Of course, it is possible that the Cameron government’s now infamous call on motorists to ‘top up’ their tanks, which was made last Wednesday, was indeed an attempt to regain the political initiative. However, the very manner in which this advice was put into the public domain suggests that it was the thinking of people who lack an elementary grasp of how the world works.

So in the first instance, the fuel panic started amongst a small clique of political leaders and their advisers, who confused their own insecurities with those of wider society. No doubt some government officials recalled the difficulties faced by the Labour government in September 2000, when there were similar protests which led to fuel shortages. But the unfortunate lesson that the current government seems to have learned from that past experience is that it has to be seen to be doing something. And history tells us that when governments become more concerned with impression management than anything else, obsessed with sending a message about themselves, they lose sight of the potential consequences of their actions.

British people would have far less to worry about if the government really had played the fear card, manipulating public opinion to distract our attention from political problems. That would simply have revealed that we live under a cynical political regime. However, what really motored Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s call to store petrol in jerry cans was not so much cynicism as something far more frightening – the kind of governmental incompetence that comes from deep self-doubt and insecurity.

A government which can so casually transform a routine industrial problem into a national crisis is far more of a problem than a government that is merely cynical and self-regarding. One question worth asking is this: if this government has managed to create a panic when it didn’t even face a credible threat, how is it going to deal with a significant challenge to national security?

Of course any government can mess up its communication strategy and get things wrong. However, it appears that, even following unruly scenes of anti-social behaviour in Britain’s fuel stations, the government has sought to make a bad situation worse by pretending that everything ‘went to plan’. Health secretary Andrew Lansley has gone so far as to argue that through taking a proactive approach to a non-existent fuel shortage, the government has helped to ‘build resilience’.

He told an interviewer that ‘it’s important for people to prepare’ and ‘we’ve got to build resilience in the system and that is what we are doing’. Lansley’s fundamental confusion between building resilience and cultivating vulnerability exposes the scale of political illiteracy that reigns in Westminster today. And when he offers the tip ‘There is no need for anybody to panic’ because ‘there is more resilience in the system’, it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

When is there a ‘need for anybody to panic’? The very attempt to reassure the public by advising us that there is no need to panic because there’s currently enough fuel to go around has the perverse effect of cultivating public insecurity. Lansley’s statement legitimates the irrational idea that in some circumstances there is a need to panic. But panicking is never necessary and is never an effective response to a real threat. So why do otherwise intelligent public figures make such inappropriate statements? Is it because they simply cannot contain their own fears, and are actually more scared mongers than accomplished scaremongers?

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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