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.
At such times evidence matters. Johnson never revealed figures from the Health Service Journal, confirmed by the BBC, that British hospital bed occupancy is still at or below its seasonal normal.
We are never reminded that three-quarters of deaths in the first wave of the virus were confined to 5% of the population judged to be at the highest risk, since that might argue for a “shielding” rather than a “blanket” lockdown. Certainly there was not the vaguest mention of the stupefying cost of resumed lockdown. Johnson had merely lost patience with localism and had to scare London so as not to seem unfair to Manchester.
These are desperate issues for people on all sides of the argument, but the public is left floundering between unresolved conflicts over figures and politicians pounding away at anyone’s natural fear of death. There is no sense of a balance of miseries. As with the earlier neglect of care homes, we have one sector of the welfare state, the NHS, exploiting fear – nightly on BBC television news – to guard its own corner. That is what the security industry does in the case of terrorism.
The reality is that every lobby has a dog in these fights. Specialists are naturally eager to protect their professions and deliver on their chosen targets. That applies as much in the realm of national security as in national health; as much in mental health and family care as in schooling, jobs and trade. In these arguments there are no absolutes, only competing interests.
Johnson’s speech announcing a new lockdown on Saturday reminded me of how Tony Blair deployed fear to justify drastic state action over foot and mouth disease, and – warning that Saddam Hussein’s arsenal put the UK “45 minutes from doom” – in support of the Iraq war. It is the same blind fear exploited in every debate on immigration, crime and prisons.
There is little sign of evidence calming emotion. We just get Patel on terror and Johnson on Covid, marshalling that last refuge of the populist, the politics of fear.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist