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The power of fear and hope

PUBLISHED: 13:45 08 June 2018 | UPDATED: 13:45 08 June 2018

Tony Blair won a landslide by offering Britons hope
Photo: PA / Adam Butler

Tony Blair won a landslide by offering Britons hope Photo: PA / Adam Butler

PA Archive/PA Images

Are you scared?

Do screaming headlines about rising debt, stagnating wages and the endlessly-looming doomsday scenarios of war, famine and killer diseases wake you up with a start in the middle of the night?

Fear is very powerful. Advertisers have executed it for decades to tempt hard-earned cash from wallets and purses: “Don’t want to die in an horrific crash? Our car is the safest.”

The best example of the use of fear in this way is public health films. In the battle against smoking, drink driving and encouraging safe sex, fear has produced massive leaps forwards.

In fact it was a politician and his understanding of exactly when to use fear that undoubtedly saved thousands and thousands lives in the UK and beyond.

Norman Fowler was Margaret Thatcher’s health secretary at the beginning of the Aids epidemic. Shamefully, all those decades ago, when the disease began claiming lives it was often thought of as a ‘gay plague’.

But Mr Fowler was determined that government should be doing all it could to help people – and save lives.

He launched the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign and anyone old enough to remember the television adverts and leaflets will testify to just how chilling the message was. It was his drive and determination to help that saved all those lives – by terrifying a generation.

The fact that he was not fully supported – Mrs Thatcher doubted whether the graphic descriptions of sexual acts in the leaflets were appropriate – by many within his party and beyond only adds to the debt society owes him.

He recognised something needed to be done and it needed to be done quickly. And he used fear to solve that problem.

Mr Folwer is now the Lord Speaker and still takes an avid interest in the fight against Aids. In 2014 he published a survey on the global battle which highlight the plight of victims. Isn’t it refreshing to have a politician who sticks to his issues whether they bring him political gain or not? We could do with a few Norman Fowlers on the front bench today.

In this case fear worked.

But that is not always the case. Political campaigns usually fall into two camps: fear or hope. In the Brexit referendum the Remain camp used fear whereas the victorious Leavers used hope. Perhaps the most famous campaign that employed hope was Barack Obama’s game-changing 2008 victory. He even adopted ‘Hope’ as his slogan.

Donald Trump’s rather chaotic campaign employed both hope and fear but it was more of an anti-establishment, protest vote that took him to the White House.

In general hope tends to beat fear. People really get behind a campaign because they want a change for the better. That is why it is easier to employ hope when you are the challenger rather than the incumbent.

A good example of this was the 1997 election of Tony Blair. While Mr Blair was telling everyone that things would get better under his party the Conservatives were screaming “New Labour, new danger”. Hope won again.

But where is the hope now? Some of the more fervent Brexiteers are adamant that the future will be filled with excellent, lucrative trade deals. Remainers continue to hold out hope that they can somehow manoeuvre the political will towards a second referendum when they believe the result would be overturned.

But, frankly, both of these hopes are rather fanciful – at least in the short-term. Leaving the European Union may prove to be an excellent decision but it is going to be a bumpy road to get there because of the inevitable upheaval.

Hope is all well and good at the ballot box but voters want it to change in to something tangible sooner rather than later.

As it stands the hope that Brexit will be a success appears to be fading among the public. The reasons for this are plentiful: we have a weak government, a confused opposition, a divided populous.

What Britain needs now is a politician to offer some hope. Someone brave enough to stand up and say: “We are where we are whether you like it or not – and I am going to make a success of it.”

Does Theresa May offer that? Jeremy Corbyn?

It seems that since early 2016 – when the Brexit phoney war began – this country has been involved in a constant row with itself. Even the cabinet is in open warfare.

Mr Fowler knew when fear was needed. Now we need someone with an equal vision to offer up some hope.

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