Who isn’t exploiting the politics of fear?

Blair's one-eyed critics are making the same mistake as Bush's opponents.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Suddenly it seems that everybody in British politics is talking about the ‘politics of fear’. But I fear that most are doing so for the wrong reasons.

We have been debating the rise of a new culture of fear since spiked launched in March 2001. Indeed, some of us were discussing the problem long before that. spiked contributor Professor Frank Furedi published his seminal book Culture of Fear back in 1997 (updated and republished in 2002).

Throughout that time, we have often been criticised for emphasising the importance of the culture of fear rather than more conventional political issues. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, for example, we argued on spiked that they had to be understood, not through the left’s traditional analysis of imperialism and anti-imperialism, but within the context of the culture of fear. In short, spiked writers argued that it was the pre-existing atmosphere of anxiety and insecurity within Western societies that both encouraged such an attack, and more importantly allowed the impact of 9/11 to be so massively exaggerated (see Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill; After the attack on America, by Mick Hume). This put us at odds with most other critical commentators, who sought to project their own preoccupations on to 9/11 by variously claiming that it was about Islam, Wall Street or Palestine.

Now, however, more than three years on, arguments about the post-9/11 politics of fear are suddenly shaping public debate on both sides of the Atlantic. During the US election campaign, opponents of President George W Bush repeatedly claimed that the Republicans were exploiting fears about terrorism and security to scare Americans into voting for him. This week, similar allegations have been levelled against British Prime Minister Tony Blair, after the New Labour government’s legislative programme for the run-up to the general election was announced in the Queen’s Speech, with a heavy emphasis on anti-terrorist and law and order measures.

‘You’re playing George Bush’s game!’ snorted Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow at New Labour minister Peter Hain, alleging that the government was trying to ‘frighten people into voting for you’. (For a liberal-left journalist such as Snow, the merest mention of Bush is now seen as a winning moral argument.) When Hain was later foolish enough to tell BBC News that the proposed laws meant ‘Britain will be safer under Labour’, he was attacked by opposition Tories for ‘trying to create a climate of fear in this country’, while the Liberal Democrats called it ‘disgusting’ and said that a Bush-style campaign on the politics of fear ‘will not go down well in Britain’ (1).

Some in the New Labour leadership may have fantasies about running a pale imitation of the victorious Bush campaign; Hain’s crass remarks about Britain being safer under Labour indicate that the government is certainly not averse to playing the fear card. But what is equally certain is that many of Blair’s critics are making the same mistake as Bush’s American opponents in misunderstanding the politics of fear.

During the US presidential election campaign, Frank Furedi wrote an article on spiked that began by noting, ‘Today, we seem to recognise the politics of fear only in its most grotesque caricatured form’. He pointed out that, contrary to the impression given by the anti-Bush lobby, governments of all persuasions had used fear many times in the past. While the Republicans were being heavily criticised for scaremongering in their 2004 campaign, their opponents were just as guilty of exploiting the politics of fear. Indeed, Furedi explained, the problem went far beyond the electoral machinations of political party machines. In societies such as America and Britain, ‘fear has become a powerful force that dominates the public imagination. This was the case for some time before 9/11, and its ascendancy has not been predicated on the issue of terrorism’ (see The politics of fear, by Frank Furedi).

With a little transatlantic translation, those same points could all be made in relation to the new critics of Labour’s politics of fear in Britain.

Accusing the government of using the politics of fear to win votes has become the latest expression of contemporary cynicism about politics. It is another way of saying that we cannot believe a word they tell us, so that any mention of a terror scare must simply be a PR stunt. This is now the point where political criticism collapses into anti-political cynicism and conspiracy mongering. Again, Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow captured the sneering mood well in his interview with Peter Hain. Snow suggested that it seemed a bit of a coincidence that a hyped-up story about a thwarted 9/11-style terrorist attack on London tower blocks should have appeared in the media on the same day as the government published its proposals for ID cards and new anti-terrorist laws. (Even though, as Hain protested in vain, the story had been splashed by the Labour-hating Daily Mail.)

Many of those who now find it easy to accuse New Labour of exploiting the politics of fear seem to find it much harder to recognise that they are all at it. These uncritical critics seem blind to the way that every political party, lobby group and PR firm is using fear as a selling point.

For instance, critics of the government’s anti-terrorism policies almost never attack it – as we often have on spiked – for blowing up the threat that something like al-Qaeda poses to our society (see Al-Qaeda: blowing up the numbers, by Brendan O’Neill). Instead the government is attacked for ‘not doing enough’ to protect the British people from some fresh alleged terrorist threat, be it bio-terror, dirty bombs or poison in our food and water supplies. Or it is accused of ‘putting Britain at risk of terrorist attack’ by supporting President Bush’s war in Iraq. Here Bush is cast in the role of bin Laden’s co-bogeyman.

An alternative use of the politics of fear is to suggest that we face other new dangers which should be treated just as seriously as the war on terror. The government’s own chief scientific officer argues that global warming now poses as big a threat to the civilised world as terrorism. The language of fear and competing claims of mortal danger also influence debates away from the issue of terrorism, about asylum or the environment. Fear is a particularly potent weapon on issues that highlight concerns around personal health – which these days means everything from the MMR vaccine to mobile phone masts.

Despite their claims that New Labour is ‘trying to create a climate of fear’, the Tories have acted as shamelessly opportunist fearmongers in opposition, seemingly prepared to latch on to any wild panic in a desperate bid to scare voters away from the government. The Lib Dems might consider themselves above such low shenanigans. But in fact their criticisms of the war in Iraq have all been couched in the language of the politics of fear; they ‘oppose’ the war, not because of the invasion of a sovereign country, but because it could make Britain a target for terrorist retaliation. Where Blair says Iraq is the frontline in the war on terror, these critics say it is a diversion from the real threats we should fear.

Those who imagine that cackling New Labour ministers are plotting to dupe the voters through the politics of fear also over-estimate the extent to which the government is in control of this process. In reality, the government itself is under the sway of the culture of fear as much as anybody else. New Labour’s lack of coherence and certainty means that it too can be buffeted about on waves of anxiety over terrorism or foot-and-mouth disease, so that the insecurity spreads from the top down. For instance, Blair has plans for the possible evacuation of London in case of a one-off terrorist attack – something that Winston Churchill refused to consider when faced with a full-scale Nazi invasion. That is not a PR stunt or a vote-winning gimmick. It looks more like a sign of genuine panic.

The cynics and uncritical critics make one last mistake. While lazily focusing their fire on ‘the new politics of fear’ over terrorism and crime, they are nodding through measures motivated by what one New Labour cabinet minister has described as ‘the new politics of behaviour’ – the government’s crusade on personal health. Yet the notion that our society is at serious risk from junk food or passive smoking is just as much a symptom of the culture of fear as an overblown terrorism scare. As Frank Furedi argued in that spiked article, ‘The defining feature is the belief that humanity is confronted by powerful destructive forces that threaten our everyday existence…. “The end is nigh” is no longer a warning issued by religious fanatics; rather, scaremongering is represented as the act of a concerned and responsible citizen.’

The official scares about an ‘obesity timebomb’ or a ‘smoking epidemic’ may seem to lack the dramatic impact of the terrorism issue. But in many respects, people’s anxieties are not primarily focused on the big issues. Mobilising public fears around lifestyle risks through the new politics of behaviour can have a serious cumulative effect, paving the way for further, barely-contested attacks on our liberties. These more subtle and insidious aspects of the politics of fear deserve far more critical attention than they have received from the one-eyed cynics to date.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

Frank Furedi’s Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation is published by Continuum. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

(1) Hain terror claim sparks furore, BBC News, 24 November 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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