The last refuge of the populist – the politics of fear – is being shamelessly deployed by both Priti Patel and Boris Johnson
The home secretary told me this week that I faced a terrorist threat that was “severe” and an incident that was “highly likely”. I should be “alert”, she said.
What is the difference between likely and highly likely? Should I fear to leave home? Should I run for my life if I see a man with a backpack? Priti Patel also tells me to be “not alarmed”. So why does she try to scare me? Is she on the terrorists’ side?
If I were able to ask the recent murderers in France and Austria what they hoped to gain, I know what they would say. They would want their blood-curdling killings to spread fear among the French and Austrians, to instil antipathy towards Muslims and inspire more acts of terror. Above all they would want their deeds publicised and politicised, to seem heroic to their kind. President Macron duly obliged. Now Patel has given them a bonus. She has offered to make Britons equally afraid.
There is nothing an ordinary citizen can do about terrorism – except not be terrorised. Patel is just blowing a trumpet for her department and for MI5 which recently boasted of foiling 27 late-stage terrorist attack plots. The implication was that without the Home Office, hundreds would have died. I don’t need to know that. I pay the government to make me feel secure, not to be reminded that assassination lurks round every corner. I am left suspecting my fear is merely being exploited by the home secretary to squeeze more cash from the Treasury.
The politics of fear is famously the most cynical politics of all. It is now rampant on both sides of the Atlantic. As the sociologist Frank Furedi has written, spreading fear is the “politics of denial … a manipulative project to immobilise public debate”. It has long lain at the origins of populism.
With Covid-19, Boris Johnson, very reasonably, initially opposed a return to the blanket lockdown policy. But when his scientists had him in a corner last week he had to turn to fear to justify his U-turn. He threatened that “several thousand people a day would die” – 4,000 was widely quoted – if he did not proceed to a lockdown across England. This worst-case scenario figure was subsequently shown to be based on a projection inflated by a factor of more than four. The Oxford professor of evidence-based medicine Carl Heneghan, speaking on the BBC on Monday, as good as called it a lie, since modelling “beyond two weeks carries a huge margin of error”. On Tuesday the government chief scientist, Sir Patrick Vallance, retreated and regretted the figure, slashing it by four. He denied he was trying to scare people and drew a distinction between a “reasonable worst case scenario”, a model and forecast – a distinction lost on the public when threatened with thousands of dead bodies.