Amid concerns over a no-deal Brexit, we should be careful that all this talk of catastrophe does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy, writes Bill Jamieson.
Well, that does it for me. Into the log shed I go to cower. The latest front-page headline Brexit scare stories warn the “impact of no deal likened to volcanic ash chaos” and “officials warn of putrefying piles of waste after Brexit”.
Even these were capped by a breathless report last weekend that British officials have revived Cold War emergency plans to relocate the royal family should there be riots in London if Britain suffers a disruptive departure from the EU.
Emergency evacuation plans in existence since the Cold War “have now been repurposed in the event of civil disorder following a no-deal Brexit”, according to an unnamed source from the government’s Cabinet Office. Other papers referred to plans to move the royal family, including the Queen to safe locations away from London.
Doubtless, similar plans have also been drawn up to provide emergency shelters for senior Government ministers, defence chiefs, top Whitehall officials and the Governor of the Bank of England. I do hope the Scottish Government has not been overlooked.
Add these to the list of warnings – leading supermarket food chains predicting shortages of fresh fruit and veg, emptying shelves of basic groceries, NHS stockpiling of key medicines, chaos at ports and air travel disruption – and it is not hard to imagine we are heading to a collective national breakdown.
We are talking ourselves into catastrophism. Indeed, the words “catastrophe”, “disaster” and “ruination” – this from a Cabinet minister at the weekend – are now in such constant use we have lost control of the language of proportion.
At the risk of pedantry, here are the Oxford English Dictionary definitions. Catastrophe: “an event causing great and usually sudden damage or suffering”. Disaster: “a sudden accident or a natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life”. Ruination: “the action or fact of ruining someone or something or of being ruined”.
Time was when the BBC once told us the news and we then had to work out for ourselves whether to worry about it or not. Today it tells us all the worries – and leaves us to work out whether it’s true or not.
Disruption, delay and inconvenience there may well be on 30 March. But a breakdown of the world as we know it? In the near-hysteria that now seems to accompany any mention of Brexit, we have succumbed to something akin to classic moral panic, up there with transgender discrimination, the Millennium bug, Ebola and bird flu. It spreads and engulfs everything until, well, it doesn’t.
The danger here is those alarming predictions can become self-fulfilling. Consumers are already running scared of Britain leaving without a deal. We know how difficult it already is for high street retailers. But while the Government needs to prepare for the worst, in doing so it risks panicking skittish consumers even more. And with the high street in enough turmoil as it is, constant daily warnings of a Brexit ‘disaster’ risk inflicting collateral damage.
Across the country, a febrile, apprehensive mood is setting in, in addition to abnormal levels of anxiety in hundreds of rural villages where even an hour’s delay in the weekly recycling lorry can induce a state of vigilantism. And in Waitrose stores in the south-east, the merest sign of a depleted shelf can bring on the jitters: “Good God! The pots of Madagascar Vanilla have almost run out. Must be Brexit!”
Now it is the most natural thing for politicians to over-dramatise to secure attention. The same, sadly, is true also of the media. Have I not also succumbed? Guilty as charged, m’lud. But whose pulse would beat faster on a headline reading “temporary spell of trade uncertainty”, or “much fruit and veg will still be available”? Such reports would be consigned to the same level of oblivion as the anecdotal headline in the New York Times: “Important news from Canada: See page two.”
I remember in my early days as a business reporter being taken aside by the chief sub-editor after filing a sensationalist account of a 50-point fall on the stock market using the word “crash”. “There’s a scale of words we have here,” he quietly explained. “Down 50 points and it’s a slip. Down 100 points and it’s a fall. Down 200 points and it’s a slide. Only a fall above 400 points merits the words ‘crash’. Otherwise, when it does fall 400 points, you’re out of words!”
Personally, I do not believe we will leave on 29 March, or if we do, it will be with some form of last-ditch fabricated ‘deal’ in the early hours of 30 March. There is much on which both sides can agree – respecting the integrity of the European Single Market and Customs Union; a reduction of trade and regulatory barriers and steps to minimise disruption to businesses and consumers, which is as important across Europe as it is to the UK.
Investor confidence in the Eurozone has plummeted to a four-year low, with a sixth consecutive monthly fall in a key business index taking it to its lowest level since November 2014. Italy is already in recession and Germany close to the brink.
We also tend to overlook that trade and business, like flowing water, find ways around barriers and obstruction.
Then there are the weapons at the UK Treasury’s disposal to cauterise a downturn post 29 March. Policy responses can range from a suspension of deficit reduction to a boost to government spending and temporary reduction in VAT. Certainly, further interest rate rises are already off the table. And as the National Institute for Economic and Social Research points out this week, in the event that the UK slips into a no-deal Brexit, the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee should lower the Bank Rate if inflation expectations remain anchored. As for spending, it says the Chancellor can go further than the increases announced in the 2018 Budget. “In our view, the Chancellor will have to go further to better cater to the needs of an ageing population and to maintain the quality of public services.”
A testing time, certainly. But Armageddon? The end of days? Even at this late hour – especially at this late hour – we need to take more care on words than we do.