First published by The Herald on 10 September 2019
IT IS a mark of just how febrile the atmosphere in the UK is just now that an apparently innocuous social media campaign can send people into a total flap.
Over the weekend police forces across the UK sent out Twitter messages advising people to get ready for an emergency by preparing a handy bag of essentials that could be grabbed and run off with at the drop of a hat. Police Scotland’s message, which reflected what was put out by other forces, noted that as “emergencies can happen at any time […] it’s recommended to have a #GrabBag ready containing essential items including medication, copies of important documents, food/water, torch, radio and other personal items”. The words were accompanied by a cutesy illustration of a backpack holding, among other “essentials”, a first-aid kit and an unspecified “emergency plan”.
So far so, well, strange, until a little while later Sky News’s deputy political editor Sam Coates tweeted about Westminster gossips expecting the Prime Minister to declare a national emergency in a bid to forgo asking Brussels for another Brexit extension. Mild consternation ensued. Whether or not the two things actually became connected is moot, but many assumed the police messages had come from on high and took them to be Brexit-related as a result.
“What emergencies do you envisage?,” one Twitter user asked. “Brexit? War? Civil disturbance? Flood? Pestilence? Nuclear accident? Martial Law?” Another questioned whether the force was “seriously suggesting Scottish citizens are at risk from something” while yet another branded it “paranoid, reactionary rubbish”. Even BBC The Nine’s chief correspondent James Cook got in on the act, messaging home secretary Priti Patel and Scottish justice secretary Humza Yousaf to ask if this is “really how [they] think we have to live now?”. “What does it say about our society?,” he continued. “I understand the need for vigilance in areas with earthquakes/wildfires/hurricanes/unrest etc but the UK? Really? Isn’t it all a bit Hobbesian?”
In actual fact the messages were sent as part of 30days30waysUK, an online “preparedness” campaign that has been co-ordinated by public sector and voluntary organisations for the past five years and uses the month of September to, among other things, urge people to become blood donors, wash their hands after sneezing and, yes, to be ready for unspecified emergencies. Having gone largely under the radar until now, the campaign found itself having to tweet out messages reiterating that the ones sent out by police forces had “no links to Brexit” and that it was “just coincidence that these issues have collided on Twitter and some people have assumed that they are linked”.
It was an easy mistake to make, though, and not just because the leap between “Brexit” and “emergency” is now so small. Back in July – before he’d lost a bunch of votes, prorogued parliament, expelled some of his party’s longest-serving and most-loyal MPs and threatened to break the law in order to get his own way – newly minted Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled plans to splash £100 million of taxpayers’ cash on a series of adverts that would make the case for a no-deal Brexit. The “unprecedented marketing blitz” was touted as the biggest public-information campaign since the Second World War and was expected to flood homes, televisions, newspapers and social media with information on what citizens could do to prepare themselves for what everyone, even then, expected would be a disorderly departure. A co-ordinated campaign from UK police forces urging people to prepare for an emergency had to be part of that, right?
But that would be to give Mr Johnson and his floundering Government way too much credit. Because strange though the grab-bag suggestions may be (who, after all, takes a whistle, a radio and a notebook and pen to an emergency?) the messages at least had more substance than the Government’s own “Get ready for Brexit” campaign. Though the promised television ads have seemingly yet to see the light of day, those appearing on billboards and in newspapers are conspicuously short of detail, with “Get ready for Brexit” and “Prepare for Brexit at gov.uk/Brexit” the sum of all their parts. That’s a hell of a lot of nothing for a hundred million quid.
Anyone clinging to the hope that the signposted website will be of more use is going to be sorely disappointed, with a few clicks of a mouse revealing that Mr Johnson’s government is entirely as clueless as it appears to be about the impact its actions are going to have. What nationality are you? British. Where do you live? UK. What do you do? Work in the UK. Do you plan to travel after 31 October 2019? No (well, not immediately, but there wasn’t a button for that). Are you preparing a business or organisation for Brexit? No. You do not need to take any action at this time. Great, that’s me ready then.
Only I’m not ready – how can I be when neither Mr Johnson nor his cabinet of stooges can honestly articulate what their vision of Brexit is, when it will happen and how it it is likely to unfold?
This much I do know, though: if the “Get ready for Brexit” campaign is the best our Government can come up with to put our minds at ease it’s no wonder the grab-bag campaign had the impact it did. When Boris Johnson’s own MPs resign because he could not provide “the reassurances” they sought that a new deal was his Government’s main objective; when, rather than addressing the population’s very real concerns about a disastrous week in Parliament, all the Prime Minster can do is bang on about Jeremey Corbyn; and when the only way Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – a man who has long warned of the ineluctable damage Brexit will wreak on the Good Friday Agreement – can get a reaction out of Mr Johnson is by mentioning Hercules and Athena; what option is there for the rest of us but to panic?
Boris Johnson assumed the role of Prime Minister after a tiny minority of the population fell for the schtick that he was the man to deliver Brexit. In just a few short weeks he has proved himself not just wholly incapable of doing that but wholly incapable of leading and governing too. Where he takes us from here is anyone’s guess, but from this point on it would be a brave citizen indeed who doesn’t have an emergency grab bag at the ready.