A few people have contributed unwittingly to the idle thoughts scampering across my brain that eventually coalesced in the idea of writing this article. First of all Richard Drake, with his articlei, “Changing Minds”. Then, Brendan O’Neill, with his excellent recent pieceii at Spiked Online, “We Can’t Go On Like This”. And finally, John Ridgway, with his commentiii on his articleiv, “Rumour Had It”:
For example, the way the climate concerned pick and choose which of the green energy solutions are to be allowed to tackle global warming makes a lot more sense when seen through an anti-perfectibility lens, at least to the extent that perfectibility can be characterised as the hubris that Man can and should control Nature entirely for his betterment.
Richard set me thinking, first of all, about whether or not I am the sort of person who is capable of changing my mind about an important issue, or whether, on the contrary, once my mind is made up, nothing will shift it. Reflecting on that, it occurred to me that I have changed my mind over some pretty important issues that have been front and centre in the mainstream media over recent years – from docile acceptance that we need to be very afraid of climate change and that we must do everything in our power to stop it (beliefs I no longer hold); through a slight preference to the UK remaining within the European Union (subsequently replaced by a desire to leave and satisfaction that we have done so); to at first totally supporting the official response to Covid 19, but now having serious doubts about it at this (what I hope will be shown to be a late) stage.
It was Brendan O’Neill’s article that used the line “politics of fear”, and which gave this article its heading. This particularly resonated with me:
The elites have entirely lost the ability, and the will, to reason with us. The impact this has on the ideal and the practice of citizenship cannot be overstated. It is an offence against democracy to issue apocalyptic warnings to try to dragoon the masses into compliance with restrictions. It turns us from democratic citizens who ought to be engaged in factful discussion about how crises should be tackled and society should be organised, into aberrant children whose behaviour must be shaped and controlled by threats and occasional treats…
And John Ridgway’s reference to hubris contributed the final piece in the jigsaw of my thinking.
There are a number of common strands between climate alarmism, Brexit hysteria and covid rule-making. First, and I think most importantly, there is fear. The second theme is hubris. The third theme is authoritarianism. There is, perhaps, a fourth thread that also connects these apparently disparate subjects – the failure of “expert” models and projections. Of huge importance, there is collateral damage – which may be worse than the harms sought to be avoided by the measures themselves. Finally, there is the infantilisation of debates, such as exist.
None of what follows is – or is intended to be – profound or original. I merely seek to point out that the big issues of the day over the last few years in the UK have shown remarkably similar traits regarding the approach of politicians and experts towards them all, and that none of it seems to be terribly healthy for our democracy.
In each case the people who run things have sought to convince us that we should be terrified – of climate change, of the harsh realities facing the UK should it dare to leave the safety and comfort of the EU, and of covid, even (perhaps especially) the omicron variant thereof.
So far as concerns climate change, there is clearly no need to labour the point – we’ve all been well aware of it for decades now. To keep it topical, I’ll content myself with a quote from the articlev on the BBC website on 14th December 2021 about the speculation that a big chunk of the Thwaites glacier might break off (in the next five to ten years):
Scientists are warning of dramatic changes at one of the biggest glaciers in Antarctica, potentially within the next five to 10 years.
They say a floating section at the front of Thwaites Glacier that until now has been relatively stable could “shatter like a car windscreen”…
And this one appeared on the BBC website on the same day:
Arctic heat record is like Mediterranean, says UNvi
The highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic, 38C (100F), has been officially confirmed, sounding “alarm bells” over Earth’s changing climate…
…Human activity is contributing to a rise in world temperatures, and climate change now threatens every aspect of human life.
Left unchecked, humans and nature will experience catastrophic warming, with worsening droughts, greater sea level rise and mass extinction of species.
There is so much more I could I have quoted, but that confirms the fear messaging.
As for Brexit, on 20th August 2016 the Guardian’s Larry Elliott summarised the fear campaign thusvii:
Project Fear predicted economic meltdown if Britain voted leave, so where are the devastated high streets, job losses and crashing markets?
Unemployment would rocket. Tumbleweed would billow through deserted high streets. Share prices would crash. The government would struggle to find buyers for UK bonds. Financial markets would be in meltdown. Britain would be plunged instantly into another deep recession.
Given that this is a report in the massively pro-remain, anti/Brexit Guardian (albeit I believe Larry Elliott is an exception to that rule among Guardian journalists), I think we can take it as a fair summary of the nature of the campaign.
And then we turn to covid. There can be no doubt that it has been a serious and dangerous virus. While debates can be held regarding whether (especially with the benefit of hindsight) the policy responses around the world have done more harm than good, the politics of fear are all too clear, especially in the UK, just now. The advent of the omicron variant brings a new element in to the debate, but on the basis of the evidence to date, it seems to me that this development on balance is good news – more transmissible, but apparently milder in terms of symptoms. Given that, and the 95%+ level of antibodies in the UK’s adult population, I anticipated a moderate level of response from SAGE and from the the UK government and from devolved governments within the UK. Instead, Nicola Sturgeon talks of a tsunami of cases and, not to be outdone, Boris Johnson has talked of a tidal wave. And Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, talks of “staggering” omicron numbers being expected, describing the omicron variant as “probably the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic”.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines hubris primarily as “excessive pride or self-confidence”, which I think fits the bill. Its secondary meaning might, in the fullness of time, have some relevance too: “(in Greek tragedy) excessive pride or presumption towards the gods, leading to nemesis”.
First, there is the hubristic belief that humankind can control the climate. For that, surely, is what all 26 COPs to date are about, it’s why the UK government has a “net zero” agenda, and it’s what people like Polly Toynbee believe when, writing in the Guardianviii on 14th December 2021, she described the Global Warming Policy Foundation as “a group of deniers blocking climate-saving action”. Unless she isn’t to be taken at her word, what else can those words mean, other than that, if humankind applied itself, we can take action to save the climate? Whatever that means.
Then there was the belief that the UK’s politicians could control the EU juggernaut if we remained a member of it. OK, it’s not on the same scale as saving the climate, but given the refusal of the EU to engage with then Prime Minister Cameron regarding his requested minor EU reforms to bring back to the UK ahead of the referendum vote; and then the outcome of the Brexit referendum, and its aftermath, it’s a pretty good example of hubris meeting nemesis.
Finally, there is the belief that we can control covid. At one level, this isn’t so unreasonable. After all, for centuries now scientists have developed vaccines that have kept terrible diseases at bay, and although questions are being asked about the efficacy against the omicron variant (especially over time) of the vaccines most of us have been taking, there seems to be no doubt that vaccines trigger a helpful antibody response.
But at another level, the belief is hopeless. Countries like Australia and New Zealand, relying on their island status and distance from other population areas, actually tried, if some reports are to be believed, to adopt a zero covid strategy. The futility of such attempts is surely now becoming apparent. When news of the omicron variant first emerged from South Africa, the UK government quickly put a lot of southern African countries on the red travel list. But here we are, a few short weeks later, and omicron is here, and happily multiplying itself in the UK population at a rapid rate. Sure enough, the red list has quietly been amended to remove those countries from it, in belated recognition that it serves no useful purpose.
And to my surprise (though I must credit the article, for fear that I be accused of stealing the thoughts) as I search the internet for corroboration of my views, I find this articleix by Ross Clark in the Telegraph on 29th August 2021:
“Net Zero and Zero Covid absolutists share the same hubristic delusions – When it comes to both coronavirus and climate change, the purist route is doomed to failure”
I don’t know whether to be disappointed at the lack of originality of my thoughts, or to be pleased that someone like Ross Clark has articulated my ideas so well for me:
Zero Covid is dead. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said as much last week, finally accepting that the delta variant has made it impossible for one country to eradicate a disease which has become endemic elsewhere.
For the moment, New Zealand persists with its miserable cycle of lockdowns, but, with cases rising anyway, Jacinda Ardern must surely soon bow to the inevitable.
We are destined, though, to go through the same cycle with Zero Covid’s cousin, Net Zero carbon emissions. Both have similar ideological underpinnings: a belief that by mandating something to happen, the means to achieve it will magically come into existence. Both involve a refusal to balance huge, open-ended costs against other considerations, and both are driven by a desire to control the population via puritanical strictures.
Which leads nicely in to the next point.
Authoritarianism/Lack of Democracy
Climate hysterics want to ban lots of things. They want us all to replace our useful diesel and petrol cars for electric cars that are more expensive and less practical and despite the lack of a charging infrastructure and an increasingly unreliable supply of electricity. They want us to replace our efficient gas central heating and gas cookers for all-electric homes, using more expensive and less effective heat pumps. Many of them want us to fly less (perhaps even rationing foreign holidays), lecture us about eating meat, and tell us we shouldn’t own pets. They tell us lots of opinion polls and surveys show public support for such measures, but we’re not allowed a vote on net zero or on any of the measures that will be imposed on us to achieve it.
The EU has become very authoritarian, at least in part as a response to covid 19. Things like budgetary constraints and free movement of people, which were declared sacrosanct in the past, have been dropped with alacrity now that covid has arrived. The public hasn’t been allowed a vote on any of this. Lockdowns, mandatory vaccinations, vaccine passports, creating a health Apartheid in the EU are all apparently fine. The EU, once soi-disant upholder of human rights has looked the other way. And EU Commission President, Ursula Von der Leyen, has said the EU must consider mandatory vaccinations across the bloc:
Asked whether she supported the Greek government in its imposition of a €100 (£85) monthly fine on those aged 60 and over who failed to get a Covid jab, Von der Leyen said the spread of the disease and lack of vaccine take-up in parts of the EU meant mandatory vaccination had to be on the table as a policy response.x
And it isn’t just the EU that has behaved in an authoritarian way. UK politicians fell over themselves in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum result to find reasons to declare it illegitimate and non-binding. They may or may not have been correct to do so, but its strange that nobody suggested before the vote that it’s result would be non-binding (something to do with a general expectation that the UK population would vote to continue the UK’s membership of the EU, perhaps). In the end, it took the referendum, local elections, an EU election, and a general election to achieve the democratically-expressed will of the British public. Not a shining example of democracy at work, and an early sign of the increasing authoritarianism affecting the British public sphere.
Now, the UK government (aided and abetted by the opposition parties) restricts our freedoms pretty much at will every time there is another “reason” to be frightened of covid. Lockdowns have occurred on a regular basis, Parliament’s role has been minimised, fines for transgressions, doubling and doubling again (and again and again) to shocking levels have been introduced. The Prime Minister has talked of the need for a national conversation about mandatory vaccination programmes, and seems to have backed down only in the face of a substantial backbench rebellion earlier this week. Opposition parties (save for the numerically inconsequential Liberal Democrats and the sole Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas – and credit to them) don’t object to the authoritarian nature of Government policies, but complain instead that they are not sufficiently authoritarian, and demand more, sooner.
The Failure of Expert Models
This isn’t the place for a detailed analysis of the failure of climate models over the years, but I think it’s fair to say that at least some of the more extreme versions have shown themselves to be wide of the mark. It doesn’t stop the “out there” versions such as RCP 8.5 regularly being cited as the benchmark we need to be concerned about, instead of the outlier that represents an implausible outcome.
Brexit will undoubtedly cause problems as well as present opportunities, but it’s unarguable that the dire warnings of “experts”, from HM Treasury Officials, through the Bank of England and the IMF proved to be exaggerated and arguably completely unfounded. As Larry Elliott said in the Guardian article cited above, about the dire prognostications of Project Fear:
It hasn’t worked out that way. The 1.4% jump in retail sales in July showed that consumers have not stopped spending, and seem to be more influenced by the weather than they are by fear of the consequences of what happened on 23 June. Retailers are licking their lips in anticipation of an Olympics feelgood factor.
The financial markets are serene. Share prices are close to a record high, and fears that companies would find it difficult and expensive to borrow have proved wide of the mark. Far from dumping UK government gilts, pension funds and insurance companies have been keen to hold on to them.
City economists had predicted an immediate rise in the claimant count measure of unemployment in July. That hasn’t happened either. This week’s figures show that instead of a 9,000 rise, there was an 8,600 drop.
…But it is obvious that the sky has not fallen in as a result of the referendum, and those who said it would look a bit silly. By now, Britain was supposed to be reeling from the emergency budget George Osborne said would be necessary to fill a £30bn black hole in the public finances caused by a plunging economy. The emergency budget is history, as is Osborne.
In a way, Project Fear did work. It put the wind up businesses, making them warier about investing in new kit. And at least some of the people who voted remain did so because they were worried about the economic consequences of leaving. That was hardly surprising, given the regular and lurid warnings – from the Treasury, the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – about the dire consequences that would inevitably flow from Brexit.
He was writing in August 2016. It was early days, and as he rightly cautioned, caveats were necessary. The damage stemming from Brexit might be a slow burn, and so on. And yet, despite the massive damage caused by the policy response to the covid pandemic, more than five years later the prognostications of the Project Fear seers and experts are still risible. House prices were going to collapse. Instead they continue to rise at a rapid rate. There may be a black hole in the public finances, but it has precious little to do with Brexit and everything to do with the Treasury largesse around the covid pandemic.
Turning to covid, and the expert prognostications around case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths have been consistently wrong, always erring on the high, and most pessimistic, side. None of those failed models have any impact on our politicians when the next round of the covid saga arises, however, with the latest frightening modelled projections always being wheeled out again to justify the latest policy measures in response to the latest threat.
Whenever climate sceptics warn that the race to net zero in the UK is causing considerable financial damage to the economy, rendering what is left of British industry uncompetitive in world markets, making energy supply unreliable and expensive, further impoverishing the poorest in society and so on, the response is usually that this is not true (despite the evidence) and that in any event, even if it is, it’s a small price to pay compared to the costs that will result from climate change.
Quite apart from the fact that the costs of policy choices are self-evident, this line of reasoning fails to recognise that the UK is not likely to suffer greatly from climate change.
Brexit doesn’t fit easily into this section of the article, since in my view both options contained benefits and disadvantages, and the question for the British public was whether voting yes or no would cause more harm or more good. The fact that the pluses and minuses surrounding the issue were fairly evenly balanced no doubt explains the closeness of the vote.
When it comes to covid, I strongly believe that history will show the policy choices adopted by politicians to have caused more harm than good. The damage caused to the economy will take decades to make good. Businesses have been wrecked, livelihoods destroyed, NHS backlogs have gone from huge to unmanageable, people have died because they were unable to attend face-to-face appointments with GPs, cancers have been missed and gone untreated, mental health has suffered, obesity, drug use and alcoholism have worsened, children’s education has suffered, domestic violence and child abuse have reached highly disturbing levels, with children dying because police were more interested in prosecuting concerned members of the extended family for breach of covid regulations than they were about the child’s welfare. The list goes on and on. No doubt I have inadvertently missed quite a lot out.
Infantilisation/The Death of Logic
The big problem with the approach of those in charge of UK policy-making, and those who feed into that system in the form of pressure groups, academics, assorted experts, agitators and subsidy-seekers, is that whilst all warn of the dangers of climate change, there is no recognition that nothing the UK does can prevent climate change in the absence of the rest of the world adopting similar net zero policies. This is a huge failure of logic, and an illustration of the infantilisation of debate. Believing or wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. Ignoring the elephant in the room doesn’t make it go away.
Just this week the Guardian reportedxi on the latest debacle at the United Nations. The headline solemnly tells us: Russia vetoes UN security council resolution linking climate crisis to international peace. One can argue that the failure of the resolution doesn’t much matter, and that it was more a virtue-signalling statement than one that would achieve anything of substance. What is significant, however, is not just that Russia wielded its Security Council veto, but that India also voted against it and that China (no doubt noting that the resolution was dead in the water, so it didn’t need to vote against it to stop it) abstained. The significance is that China and India are the two countries who watered down the outcome of COP 26, turning it from a failure into a farce. They and Russia are not interested in climate change, though they may murmur soothing words from time to time to ensure that the western developed nations continue down the track of economic suicide. The logic of this is irrefutable. Unfortunately, infantilisation prevails.
Again, Brexit doesn’t fit easily into this section of the analysis, so I will content myself with the observation that from what I saw of it, the contribution to the debate from politicians on both sides of the Brexit debacle was infantile at best.
Turning to covid, despite all the talk of “following the science”, there has, sadly, been too much willingness to follow worst-case models and to ignore real evidence. I understand that this is a highly emotive issue, I get it that no politician wants to be exposed to the criticism that he or she puts profits ahead of lives. However, nowhere, so far as I am aware, has there being a fact-based assessment of the efficacy of the various non-clinical interventions adopted to respond to covid; nowhere has there been a cost-benefit analysis (in the sense not just of financial costs and benefits, but of societal costs and benefits too). In the early days that may have been justified, in the midst of a new and lethal virus about which little was known and against which there was no known effective medical treatment and for which no vaccine had been developed. Almost two years on, we are, thankfully, in a different situation, and it’s time for a more measured and evidence-based approach.
It’s all very well telling us we have to follow “the science” (even though that seems to amount these days to little more than following models). How about adding in a little common sense at the same time? How about letting reality intrude on the great delusion that we in the UK can shape and/or defy the world?