Advice on how to prepare for Brexit is as much about projecting the government’s vision for life after October 31 than it is about what citizens need to do.
First published in September 2019.
The UK government is running a public information campaign urging the country to “get ready for Brexit” on October 31. It includes information on travel, exporting and legal requirements. The campaign is primarily built around a website but there are also billboards, radio and television adverts and social media posts.
Of course, public information campaigns don’t occur in a political vacuum and the Get Ready campaign arrives at a time when the government has been facing pressure to change the date of Brexit or even extend it indefinitely.
Against this backdrop, documents emerged from Operation Yellowhammer, the project set up to forecast potential problems associated with leaving without a deal. These include warnings over medicines shortages, disruption in the food supply chain and even civil unrest.
Even in the calmest political atmospheres, it’s difficult to persuade the public to prepare for an emergency, regardless of how serious it is. And it’s certainly debatable whether Brexit, which involves a change to trade and legislative arrangements, has the same resonance with the public as, say, a natural disaster.
We know that the public is particularly resistant to preparing for an event when the outcome is uncertain. For example, in preparing for floods there is a reluctance to evacuate unless the event seems certain to happen. There is still a possibility that Brexit might not happen, or would be delayed, which means that people might postpone preparation.
There are also costs and resources involved in preparedness. A significant proportion of the British population is already struggling with food poverty and low wages, so the idea that resources could be diverted into preparing for an event of uncertain probability is not tenable for many.
What’s more, people don’t often recognise themselves in the preparedness advice produced by government. Civil servants often make assumptions about the class and ethnicity of the “prepared” population and their advice is tailored towards categories of people that they recognise. In interviews with emergency planners and civil servants my research has consistently found that they make assumptions about the type of people that preparedness should be aimed at, which means that marginalised groups are sometimes excluded.
A vision of the future
Given all this, it’s perhaps surprising that governments the world over invest so much in preparedness campaigns. Indeed, sometimes the resources put into these campaigns are completely disproportionate to the threat concerned.
But, in reality, these projects are about much more than preparing for the worst. They are actually more about serving the interests of governments than the wider population. States use these campaigns to project their idea of the type of society and citizen that would be optimal after a disaster – calm, organised, compliant – in the hope of achieving it. Governments are often looking for social cohesion and social control rather than thinking about effective preparedness. That is what is happening below the surface of the Get Ready for Brexit campaign.
In a wide variety of disasters, we are often advised to “stay put” but this is a method of social control rather than safety. It’s about managing the population rather than protecting it.
The British government’s “Protect and Survive” campaign in the 1980s, for example, adopted a very Thatcherite type of civil defence to Cold War threats. The campaign was based on a traditional nuclear family building their own shelter and treating casualties without reliance on the state. The Civil Defence films for schools produced in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s projected ideas about racial segregation and desegregation to appeal to audiences in different regions. For domestic audiences and the outside world, civil defence projected ideas about American resilience and patriotism.
In the case of the Brexit campaign, it’s about using preparedness, not just for public information but for wider political and societal purposes. A powerful narrative against Brexit is that Britain can never be prepared for Brexit, or to leave the EU, and that there would be negative consequences in terms of shortages of petrol, food or medicine. Britain is divided politically and there is a lack of unity within political parties. The campaign presents a counter-narrative that preparedness is possible by following a number of simple steps. It’s also emphasising a message that Brexit will not affect people who “live and work in the UK, do not run a business and do not plan to travel abroad” after October 31 2019. The message is that the status quo will persist.
Launching the Get Ready for Brexit campaign Michael Gove, the minister in charge of preparations, said:
“Ensuring an orderly Brexit is not only a matter of national importance, but a shared responsibility. This campaign will encourage the country to come together to Get Ready for Brexit on 31 October.”
This briefing shows that the UK government considers that the campaign has a wider purpose than simply providing information. It is about the nation, sharing responsibility amongst citizens and encouraging the country to “come together” to heal divides between “Brexiters” and “Remainers”.
This is about the type of post-Brexit Britain that the government is aiming for – a shared project where political divides are healed through preparedness. Get Ready for Brexit is as much about social cohesion as it is public information. And the British government is not exceptional in terms of using preparedness in this manner.🔷
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