Don’t panic! Don’t panic! It’s hard to avoid the image of Dad’s Army’s Lance Corporal Jones in the immortal television sitcom as we approach the Hallowe’en deadline for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.
Barely a day passes without earnest warnings from pundits and politicians, business leaders and farmers, that we stand on the brink of a ‘crash-out’ cataclysm.
Few critical supplies will be spared disruption. Vegetables and fruits, basic foodstuffs, medical supplies, cars and critical components, building materials and household items: supply chains developed over years face traumatic disruption.
It doesn’t matter how much money the government flings at last minute no-deal preparations: announcements intended to reassure are lost amid reports that thousands of businesses have not been offered advice on how to cope, and that the myriad of small firm suppliers to giant companies are effectively helpless.
Should we be stoic? Or should we panic? Of course, there are still more than two-and-a-half months to go till Armageddon Day. No need to fill the supermarket trolleys and pack our fridges to bursting just yet.
But every sign of a half-empty supermarket display of bananas or less than over-flowing baskets of pomegranates triggers a frisson of apprehension, a neurotic alarm bell: is this the start? What will it be like next week? What if the peaches run out? Or the Parma ham disappears? Or the Belgian choccy biscuits?
Of course, we’ll stick to stocking up only on essentials, won’t we? But my brother, a devoted Remainer, is also a zealous devotee of those chocolate covered Mini-Magnum ice cream lollies. And last week he bought an industrial supply of them in a box that now takes up much of the freezer. In the grim catastrophe that awaits us, there is surely a need for those lighter, non-essential items to help keep up civilian morale. But Heaven help us if there’s a power cut.
No need to panic? It’s not hard to imagine that on 31 October the BBC TV helicopters will be swooping low over Dover, bringing fearful 24-7 live pictures of a snaking queue of lorries and hundreds of commercial vans in a deadlocked standstill. Angry drivers will be interviewed cursing Brexit and all its works.
Few scenes are likely to stir a greater sense of apprehension and panic as the camera pans over the gridlock. But by then it’s too late. For in between the lingering shots of gridlocked lorries, the coverage switches to breathless commentators giving updates on riotous supermarket invasions across the country. Shoppers are seen packing their trolleys full of every available ‘must stock’ item from tea bags to toilet rolls, pet food to pineapple juice. As for French and Italian wines, grab what you can – before all the shelves gang dry.
On BBC Newsnight, a hectoring Emily Maitliss barely allows some hapless Government minister to gasp for air before resuming, with forceful contempt, a barrage of hostile questions. And it’s little better on the other channel with Robert Peston, as SNP Commons leader Ian Blackford, the go-to herald of apocalypse, declares “I told you so” and calls for a second referendum (that’s a second Scottish independence referendum, he adds, to help confused English viewers).
How long might the panic last? Any transport seizure at Dover could be addressed by diverting lorries to ferries made available at other UK ports, with hauliers’ extra costs met from the Treasury’s contingency fund. In extremis, prolonged gridlock could result in a Dunkirk-style flotilla of boats collecting supplies on the beaches of Normandy as French farmers seek to sell their product to salivating UK customers.
Looking further ahead, as we cannot readily stockpile fresh fruit and veg, Scottish farmers could exploit opportunities to meet increased demand. We could also be turfing over our garden lawns to grow potatoes, carrots and green beans. However, we must be patient and brace ourselves for disappointment as not all have green fingers. On my previous experience with a potato barrel, the crop yielded spuds no bigger than marbles and even those were sufficient for barely two salad meals. But by then we might have turned to frontier foods such as seaweed and nutrient-rich sea buckthorn: the best weapons yet against obesity.
We are in for anxious days, to be sure, and scare stories will abound. But panics of any sort become self-exhausting. And they are more often defeated in the end by inventiveness. Panic ye not: few barriers, regulatory or tariff, can long withstand the timeless ingenuity of willing buyer and willing seller to rise above the obstacles and meet mutual needs.