Ruling by fear is no way to govern

Tom Harris

The Lockdown Files have place renewed criticism on both the government and the opposition for basing many of their Covid policies on fear: the fear of infection, of contaminating others, of death itself. We were warned to stay at home, not to meet anyone outside of our family “bubble”, not to go to work lest we contribute towards the downfall of society. As well as fear of the virus itself, our politicians planted a fear of police arrest, of the authorities’ invading our homes to investigate any alleged breaking of Covid rules, even a fear that our neighbours would report possible breaches of lockdown restrictions. There might even have been a fear that our local community would judge us for not joining the weekly “clap for the NHS”.
“Project Fear” came into modern-day significance in the early 2010s, when Alex Salmond used the term as a useful shorthand for what he thought of the pro-Union campaign during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The phrase was then embraced by the campaign to leave the EU two years later. But the practice of denigrating politicians for casually exploiting voters’ fears of hypothetical threats has a long history.
Fear is a highly motivating factor and has been deployed in a number of ways by tenacious politicians. Winston Churchill kicked off the 1945 general election campaign with a low blow against his former Labour partners in the wartime coalition, raising the spectre of a homegrown version of the hated Gestapo should the socialists win power. Labour won a landslide victory. Fear of communism and of nuclear holocaust has worked for both sides of the political divide in the United States: Lyndon Johnson was elected president in 1964 thanks in part to the famous “daisy ad”, depicting an innocent young girl removing the petals of a flower as the nuclear countdown progresses – an emotive warning against the alleged warmongering tendencies of Johnson’s Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan beat incumbent president Jimmy Carter thanks to various warnings about how an untrammelled Soviet Union was being allowed, through US inaction, to paint the globe red.
Threats to you and your family’s future prosperity have delivered mixed results, though this hasn’t put a stop to the tactic. Remember the Conservative posters depicting “Labour’s tax double whammy” in the 1992 general election? Or the rather less impactful “New Labour, New danger” posters that sought to depict Tony Blair as some sort of demonic monster, which turned out to be about as useful to John Major in preventing a Labour landslide as Churchill’s “Gestapo” smear had been half a century earlier? And it would be hard to forget some of the Remain campaign’s more gloomy projections. Nevertheless, our politicians believe that fear can work and now risk, through overuse, making it less motivating a factor than it has been in the past. Voters decided in 2014 that the fear of inheriting an economic basket case with no firm plan on the future of the currency, mortgages or pensions was enough to justify a No vote in the Scottish referendum. They chose to reject the many, varied and imaginative threats conjured up by the Remain campaign in its efforts on behalf of EU membership. Intriguingly, the electorate gave the benefit of the doubt to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party despite many credible warnings about the threat his extremist opinions might post, only to dramatically withdraw it two years later. When it came to Covid and the authoritarian measures deemed necessary to keep us safe, fear again won out. Even after the successful and ground-breaking rollout of the Covid vaccine programme, politicians raised the spectre of mass deaths unless we returned to lockdown – a controversial measure that will be examined, one day, by a public inquiry. It is entirely possible that claims about the climate “emergency” will lead us to change our lifestyles in ways Greta Thunberg would approve. But while few contest the need for a low carbon transition, the language around Net Zero risks further lessening fear’s potency.
There are times when it is perfectly legitimate to issue warnings, rooted in evidence, of the dire consequences of a policy or party. But ruling by fear is no way to govern. And to invent or exaggerate threats for the sake of political advantage represents a failure of leadership – and one which offers no guarantee of victory.