Thursday, 5 April 2012

A fevered and a vulnerable society

One of the most notable things about the last couple of weeks in politics is just how vulnerable, and just how fevered, our developed society can be.

The whole edifice depends on tiny threads and thin margins: the haulage industry, the long-distance movement of food and drink, and the 'just in time' provision of fuel and power. Destroy or threaten any one single element, and the whole structure threatens to topple or crumble. Any provincial city could be reduced to very thin rations indeed, in just a few days, by cutting it off from the Motorway and A-Road network. Only a few feet of asphalt that make all the difference. Block or destroy the M4 and M5, and Bristol, for instance, would be in big trouble very, very quickly.

That's why citizens rush to the pumps, and start to hoard petrol, at the slightest hint of a panic-ridden gaffe on the part of Ministers. It's also why governments can become very unpopular, very quickly - witness the chaos inside the Brown administration in the autumn of 2007, and the very swift decline in government popularity over the last couple of weeks. Taxes on pasties? Not-such-generous tax breaks for pensioners? Ill-considered remarks about a possible petrol stike? Why then, Britain must be in crisis!

This rhetoric of crisis is in fact a very notable element of post-war British life in what Michael Shanks once famously called the a 'Janus-faced society', enjoying 'a prosperity it could not quite make itself believe in'. It's been going on for decades. And it's all down to the thin ice of prosperity and modernity - literally fuelled by very vulnerable supply chains and arteries - that we know we're skating on. Bombing nightmares in the 1930s? Fears of genetic transplantation and mutant farming in The Day of the Triffids? Night terrors about pandemics and viral infection, so obvious in Terry Nation (above) and his post-apocalyptic BBC series Survivors in the 1970s? Check, check and check again.

The rhetoric of 'chaos' and 'crisis' isn't new at all. But it's got more acute, because the risk of cascading economic and social reverses has got worse. In terms of fuel, for instance, there are fewer garages and fewer haulage firms.

Next time there's a crush in front of baked bean stands and anti-viral handwash at the supermarket, consider: are the dangers really more than yesterday? The answer will almost always be 'no'. That doesn't mean they're not out there, though... We just don't know what they are.