Mark Garnett: We are a nation of hysterics

If we're not panicking outside Northern Rock, we're mourning Mourinho or feverishly judging the McCanns. But who created this mawkish monster of Middle England?
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The Independent Online

When one of the first Northern Rock escapees was asked to explain why he was queuing for his money, his smiling response to the BBC reporter was "Better safe than sorry". At least this showed that, even in an awkward spot, Britons can still bandy truisms with the best. Hopefully the erstwhile investor did indeed sleep safely that night, even if his mattress was bulging with banknotes. It probably never occurred to him or any other of the bank's jittery customers that they would all have been safe if they had kept a bit cooler.

Some of the commentary since the onset of the Great Panic has been pretty apocalyptic. The Government's enemies have tried to compare the sequence of events to 1992's Black Wednesday, hoping that it would inflict fatal damage on New Labour's reputation for economic competence just as the ERM ejection ruined John Major. The stock market crash of 1987 is a more relevant point of comparison, though on that occasion the panic was felt by dealers rather than depositors. Others see the rush to the bank as a symptom of a much deeper malaise, in a society fuelled by greed and freighted with debt.

Alternatively, it could be seen as an economic echo of Diana-mania, exposing Britain as a country which has been gripped by a 10-year neurosis. Strangely enough, the anniversary of the Paris crash passed by without undue lamentation, probably because the media and the public had plenty of new mawkish material to feed on. Diana was elbowed off the front pages in favour of Madeleine McCann and her parents, whose changing fortunes have been accompanied by alarming public mood swings.

The McCann case illustrates one problem for anyone trying to demonstrate that the British have grown more unbalanced in recent years. From the outset, it was clear that the case was going to provide teachers of media studies with an embarrassment of riches. Amid the plethora of photo-opportunities, and the comings and goings of assorted PR advisers, it was undeniable that the public had a genuine fascination with the story. But would it have been treated differently, say 30 years ago? In other words, has the media changed more than the public, or has everyone become more emotionally erratic at the same pace?

The same questions arise in connection with the tendency to greet the death of any celebrity with a flood of floral tributes. For souvenir-sellers at football grounds, the signing of a well-known player sets the tills ringing. But it would be even more lucrative if the star should suffer a fatal mishap in mid-season. Nowadays football grounds are transformed into shrines as soon as anyone with a footballing connection passes away. They do not even have to die: Chelsea fans are mourning for Mourinho as if he had perished. But while this is a new phenomenon, one senses that it is at least in part a response to the media demand for visible tokens of grief.

The feeling grows when one considers Blue Petergate. So far, hysteria about the misnamed feline has chiefly been restricted to newsrooms, but already it seems likely to cause as much carnage within the corporation as the rather more serious Hutton inquiry. It will be instructive to see whether the contagion spreads, enticing demonstrators to chant "Down with Socks".

Although the press is clearly a key instigator of excessive emotions, other cases suggest deeper societal stirrings. The recurrent exhibitions against paedophiles, for example, are clearly not staged for the cameras – in fact, they are rarely reported in full, even by the newspapers that try to whip up the frenzy. The same is true of the initial reaction to the problems of Northern Rock. After the first day, a few eccentrics might have joined the queues in the hope of getting their faces on the telly. But the media had no more pre-knowledge of an imminent outbreak than the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Bank of England.

While many recent manifestations could only have happen in the post-Diana period, the siege of Northern Rock might have happened in less emotive days. In the first weeks of 1975, British consumers faced with a sugar shortage regularly ransacked their local grocery stores. There were frequent accusations that some shoppers were hoarding the newly-prized foodstuff, stuffing their larders with supplies as if the country had returned to wartime conditions. The hoarders probably consoled themselves with the thought that it was better to be safe than sorry.

While this half-forgotten episode shows that the British have always been prone to collective panic attacks, the parallels between 1975 and the Northern Rock incident are not exact. The 1975 hoarders suffered a fair amount of moral hostility, while the Northern Rockers have been portrayed as misguided at worst. The hoarders actually had the better excuse for their actions, even though others were bound to suffer. The sugar shortage came after a prolonged period of gruesome economic developments which had stretched everyone's nerves to breaking point. After the oil crisis of 1973, Britons were learning to expect double-digit inflation as a fact of life. While many experts predicted problems in the banking sector in 2007, by comparison the recent Northern Rock panic came out of a clear blue sky.

Also, in 1975 the sweet-toothed scavengers thought that their actions had been licensed by a senior politician. "If Mrs Thatcher can hoard, so can we," proclaimed one Finchley shopper at the time. She was referring to a recent magazine interview in which Margaret Thatcher – a candidate for the Conservative leadership at the time of the sugar shortage – had openly condoned the practice.

By contrast, in September 2007, the customers of Northern Rock lacked the open backing of any prominent politician. More significantly, they could not have cared less. It almost seemed as if the best way to stem the stampede would be for a government minister to congratulate the panic-stricken on their far-sighted actions. Support from such a quarter might have persuaded even the most determined alarmist to think again.

Another notable aspect of the Northern Rock affair is the light it sheds on the post-Thatcherite attitude to acquisitiveness. Some of the dissatisfied customers have been quite willing to divulge the extent of their holdings in the bank's fast-dwindling coffers. In the mid-1970s, only savage torture would have persuaded Britons to make a precise public disclosure of their wealth. In 2007, apparently, the mere appearance of a camera crew is enough to loosen tongues on this most intimate of subjects, especially among the owners of six-figure sums.

One important lesson of these incidents is that Britons tend to act irrationally and effectively when they think their self-interest is at stake. The same was true of the 2000 fuel crisis – although that episode was more congenial to the average motorised Briton, who only had to sit back and watch while a handful of protesters enforced a major shift in government policy.

Just as now, there was a sense at that time that the whole nation had lurched away from its rational moorings. On that occasion, too, ministerial appeals fell on deaf ears. The difference in 2007, though, is that the people who besieged Northern Rock acted in conscious defiance of virtually everyone with a qualification to comment on the US-led banking crisis. In preference, they have heeded the professional doom-mongers in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, which did its bit to invoke the spirit of the Titanic by running the front-page headline "How safe is our money?". As a result, television pundits have been forced into semi-apologetic appearances, trying to explain what has happened to the Northern Rock without directly implying that things would have worked out better if its customers had been sane. Northern Rock investors might be demented, but at the time, many of them were probably watching the TV coverage of their own activities and their sensibilities had to be taken into account.

Much of the commentary on the Northern Rock affair has been inspired by a hope of finding some reason to blame politicians rather than the investing public. In the ratings-driven media world it makes no sense to tell valued viewers that they have been behaving like headless chickens, threatening to turn a manageable problem into a full-scale crisis. But there is a sense in which politicians really are implicated, not just in the Northern Rock saga but in the more general British penchant for unreasonable exhibitions. The bank-botherers outside Northern Rock are key constituents for our political parties, mostly denizens of Middle England. It might be bad taste to praise them, but they must be appeased regardless of cost – and they can never be condemned. To varying degrees, politicians of all parties have tried hard to avoid criticising these, or any other devotees of non-rational causes. On one occasion Tony Blair even offered support for a campaign to secure the release from prison of a fictional soap-opera character. Gordon Brown seems a little more discriminating, but not much.

Politicians have done their bit to get the British in a mood to manifest their feelings on any transient topic of media interest. As old-fangled dreams about a fully participatory democracy are discarded – and the battle of ideas recedes into an uninspiring neo-Thatcherite consensus – politicians have been forced to become more supplicatory. In keynote conference addresses, it is now obligatory for any party leader to pay a rhapsodic tribute to the British people. On such occasions, this increasingly miscellaneous and erratic body is depicted as the repository of unfailing wisdom, and politicians are honoured to serve it.

The big problem with this approach is that it encourages the public to think that it ought to be consulted on specific issues from time to time. In 1975, Labour held a referendum on membership of Europe, and in those days there was just enough deference left in the voting contingent to ensure a government victory. On the surface the issues of EU membership and the solvency of a bank might be very different, but the level of rationality exhibited during the Northern Rock imbroglio reinforces the opinion-poll view that the British public would reach a different decision if it was given a belated chance to revisit its 1975 referendum verdict.

This leaves Gordon Brown with the awkward task of explaining why an EU referendum of any kind would be a bad idea. Simultaneously, the Government is making a fuss about the citizens' juries that have begun to deliberate on the future of the NHS.

If these bodies are a true cross-section of British society, they will include a sizeable group of convicted criminals, and other habitual offenders. Statistical probability suggests that one or two might even be Northern Rock investors who have recently demonstrated their suitability as national legislators by extracting their money because of an irrational scare.

If there was much chance that the citizens' juries would be taken seriously by government, there really would be reason to panic. It would be ironic if the British people were about to exert a continuing influence on key decisions just at the time when they have reached unprecedented levels of giddiness. Thankfully, Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Health, has already ruled out the possibility of jarring conclusions about NHS structures: the citizens will have to take existing, semi-privatised structures as a fait accompli. At the same time he talked about "an NHS led by clinicians", which raised the question of why he was asking members of the non-clinical public for their opinions. In any case, the citizens' juries should be easy to handle; if their conclusions coincide with New Labour policy, they will be embraced with considerable warmth; if not, they will be ignored.

The original idea of citizens' juries, presumably, was to give "ordinary" people a chance to convey their real feelings to the politicians. The apparent need for such bodies is itself an eloquent testament to the failure of the British political class, which supposedly provides elected representatives who can be trusted to plead the cause of their constituents. It is taken for granted nowadays that politicians, and the media people who cluster around them, are incapable of making a truthful report of popular feeling.

Politicians were aware of this conviction even before New Labour, and have learnt to live with it. But the Northern Rock affair shows that when things get really serious – they will not be believed when they try to convey obvious truths that conflict with public opinion. The public that matters – Middle England – has been taught to think that it is always right, whether its ideas are based on rational cogitation or the latest frightening headline in the Daily Mail. The Northern Rock affair will do nothing to shake this notion of bourgeois infallibility. If anything, the Government's uncertain handling can only make the public less inclined to heed good advice.

It might be too late to arrest this development, given the multifaceted forces with a vested interest in flattering individuals with a reasonable amount of disposable income. In this respect, the advertising industry seconds the efforts of the semi-educated tabloids. But just as politicians have helped to create the monster of Middle England, so they have every reason to repair the damage if they can.

After the current series of conferences, the party leaders should impose a voluntary moratorium on insincere flattery of the electorate. It would be better, and more honest, not to mention them at all. Otherwise the cherished voters of Middle England might take the rhetoric seriously and conclude that the institutions of government are unnecessary obstacles to the implementation of good old British common sense. Getting rid of representative institutions and instigating rule by phone-in or internet polling might offend against a residual sense of heritage, but then again, better safe than sorry.

Mark Garnett is the author of 'From Anger to Apathy: The British Experience since 1975', published next month

Further reading: Francis Wheen's 'How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions' (Harper Perennial, £8.99)