Entry from April 21, 2010

Writing at Spiked online, Frank Furedi wondered if the complete shut-down of European air traffic during the last week has been strictly necessary.

I am not a natural scientist, and I claim no authority to say anything of value about the risks posed by volcanic ash clouds to flying aircraft. However, as a sociologist interested in the process of decision-making, it is evident to me [sic] that the reluctance to lift the ban on air traffic in Europe is motivated by worst-case thinking rather than rigorous risk assessment. Risk assessment is based on an attempt to calculate the probability of different outcomes. Worst-case thinking — these days known as ‘precautionary thinking’ — is based on an act of imagination. It imagines the worst-case scenario and then takes action on that basis. In the case of the Icelandic volcano, fears that particles in the ash cloud could cause aeroplane engines to shut down automatically mutated into a conclusion that this would happen. So it seems to me to be the fantasy of the worst-case scenario rather than risk assessment that underpins the current official ban on air traffic.

Professor Furedi thinks that “the institutionalisation of worst-case policymaking” has come about because of “the unprecedented sensitivity of contemporary Western society to uncertainty and unknown dangers.” But of course that “sensitivity” didn’t come out of nowhere either, and I think that we can blame it, as we can so much else that is dysfunctional in our public life, on the media. It is on the media’s account that our public figures spend their lives all but paralysed by the fear of scandal, and it is because they are terrified of scandal that they take the extreme measure of shutting down all air traffic rather than running even a small risk of an air crash that could plausibly be said to have been caused by volcanic debris. They know who would be hounded out of public life if such a thing happened. Better safe than sorry.

Interestingly, the fuss about this sudden and unexpected return to the pre-flight era has coincided with a different kind of fuss about the British election, where the first “American-style” candidates debate has resulted in what the media are calling a big win for the leader of the third-party Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg. And why is “Nick” doing so well? Again, by common consent, it is because the two major parties, incumbent Labour and challenging Conservatives, are “lacklustre” and “uninspiring” while Mr Clegg’s party stands for what we might call hope and change and, well, a new kind of politics. In The Times of London, Ben Macintyre writes that, in this election, “the Slogan isn’t working” and “the advertising has backfired. The electorate is simply too savvy, too sick of spin, too cynical to adopt the neat mottos handed down by the parties,” and he quotes Mr Clegg, approvingly, as saying: “After the Blair phenomenon, you can never again kid the British people. Because of him there is now a permanent layer of cynicism.”

Yet is this not every bit as much a slogan as any, designed to flatter the voter and promote his own agenda — which thus becomes exactly what the other parties’ agenda is: namely, to persuade the voters that they’re more genuine, more sincere, more caring, more honest — in short, better people than those in the other parties. Mr Macintyre goes on to write that the only slogan to have caught on so far “is the anti-slogan slogan, uttered whenever a politician is at hand, and repeated like a mantra: ‘they are all the same’” — and yet he’s trying to tell us that they’re not all the same, but that the one who is more the same than either of the two others, the Lib-Dems, is the party for him. Mr Clegg is getting the mileage he is precisely for this reason. That is, he is hopping on the “they’re all the same” bandwagon by saying he’s different.

Except that, as you might expect, he’s not. He’s the same too, but he’s the same down to the ground where the other two parties are only the same in the debased political language that we now expect our elections to be held in. Both, that is, mouth similar, indistinguishable platitudes, just like “Nick.” But underneath, kept out of sight of the public, the Tories and Labour still stand for something — something that, so we are constantly told, people are “turned off” by. The Tories stand for the interests of business, finance and middle class property owners and tax-payers; the Labour party stands for the unions, particularly the public sector ones, government employees generally and the ever-increasing numbers of those who are pensioners of the state. What, by contrast, do the Lib-Dems stand for? Can anybody say?

Well, I’ll have a go. They stand for all the people — now said to be burgeoning in number — who are turned off by such substantial political positions and who prefer the platitudes. That makes “they’re all the same” a great joke, as well as a winning Liberal Democrat slogan — so long as they can get people like Ben Macintyre to go on believing it. And they can do that because the political class has been as cowed by fear of the scandal-promoting media as the bureaucrats who shut down European air travel. That’s why elections in Britain, like those in the U.S., are increasingly content-free exercises in posturing and attitudinizing and trying, like the personable Mr Clegg — who, as Simon Heffer points out in today’s Daily Telegraph, is just the latest version of the personable David Cameron, the Tory leader, of four years ago — not to tip their hands to anything they might actually want to do to solve the problems the country faces, lest it be turned into scandal. It’s zero-risk, worst-case politics, but, like the shut-down of the airlines, it turns out to have risks of its own.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts