• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

How Project Fear wants us all to panic over Brexit

You need to don full protective clothing to wade through the alarmist warnings that make up most anti Brexit arguments.

Even then you’re likely to fall victim to endless oracles waxing lyrical about economic Armageddon. Even my research for my latest book How Fear Works could not prepare me for the shrill escalation of scaremongering about a post-Brexit Apocalypse in recent weeks. As Parliament headed for summer recess, anti-Brexit doomsayers went into overdrive to cultivate a climate of panic.

Back in March the boss of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, set the tone. He predicted Britain would descend into chaos within six months. According to the billionaire, holidaymakers would be left “panicking” when they found out that flights between the EU and UK could be grounded. Other anti-Brexit bosses piled in with their own scare stories.

Doug Gurr, head of Amazon UK, raised the stakes and warned that Britain would face “civil unrest” within weeks of a no-deal Brexit. Dominic Grieve, a leading Tory Remainer MP, matched Gurr’s catastrophism by asserting that “we will be in a state of emergency” if there is a no-deal Brexit.

“Basic services that we take for granted might not be available,” he warned. The message from his tarot cards was simple: food stocks will run dry, the elderly and infirm will have to go without medicine, motorways will become gridlocked.

As the warnings flooded in Brexit started to sound more like the plot for a Hollywood disaster movie than rejection of a foreign bureaucratic institution. Project Fear had descended to a new low and decided to home in on the anxieties of sick and vulnerable people and scare them into submission. These incitements to panic seem particularly bizarre given that human history demonstrates that even when people are confronted with a genuine threat it is entirely selfdefeating to panic.

When people panic they are overwhelmed by fear to the point that they cease to act rationally. They become a danger to themselves and those around them, which is why these calls to panic seem so weird. So why has “panic” become so weaponised in the debate around Brexit? Well, on a practical level, the aim of these alarmist accounts is to encourage members of the public to fear the worst about life in post-Brexit Britain.

The constant evocation of a world of food shortages, lack of medicine, breakdown of infrastructure and chaos attempts to foster a climate of hopelessness and demoralisation in British society. Those who weaponise the word panic are actually hoping that people will adopt this self-destructive form of irrational behaviour. Not content with prophesying the collapse of the aviation industry, advocates of Project Fear have supplemented their propaganda by evoking people’s dread of war and conflict.

The spectre of a descent into a world comparable to the dark days of the interwar era is used to frighten people off Brexit. “A humiliating Brexit deal risks a descent into Weimar Britain,” contends historian Timothy Garton Ash. Does he really believe that the day after a no-deal Brexit Britain will descend into the hell that was 1930s Germany? Of course not. Instead he wrote, “Am I exaggerating the danger by even hinting at a comparison with Weimar Germany?” before clarifying: “Indeed I am”!

So why did he feel the need to scare people with the ghost of Weimar Germany? He writes: “It’s surely better to overdramatise the risk, to get everyone to wake up to it.” In a different setting, warnings intended to exaggerate reality are usually associated with the term “the Noble Lie”. Advocates of the Noble Lie insist that they have the right to stretch the truth because regardless of the facts their warnings serve a politically valuable cause.

In this case the cause of waking up an otherwise ignorant public justifies stretching the truth and preying on people’s anxieties. Ever since Britain voted to leave the EU, advocates of the Noble Lie have been busy concocting alarmist stories. Do you remember the scary stories about a surge of hate crimes in the aftermath of the referendum? Suddenly post-referendum Britain was depicted as a lawless jungle rife with violence against minorities.

The reality was very different. According to the Crown Prosecution Service there was a sharp decrease in religious and racial hate crimes that were reported to it by the police during the year 2016-2017. While fabricators of fear issued warnings about hate crimes rising, prosecutions were down by 7.89 per cent. Thankfully the majority of Britain has paid little attention to these prophets of panic.

Given that Britain was able to avoid the temptations of Weimar in the 1930s it is definitely not going to allow the dreams invested in Brexit to turn into a nightmare. The future is always uncertain and any responsible government will prepare for all contingencies in the post-Brexit world. We are not young children helpless in the face of uncertainty. If our preparations are inspired by the politics of hope and not of fear, the spirit of British fortitude will allow us to seize the opportunities available in the post-Brexit era.

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