Our era lacks gravitas. That’s why we cannot deal with crisis
What is a national crisis? Eighty years ago the social researchers Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson decided it was “one of those things, like epidemics and earthquakes, which suddenly arrive to threaten the security of ordinary lives. In the ordinary way, the interest of private people in public events is fitful and vague: at times of crisis it extends and increases.” As the founders of the Mass Observation project in 1937, the first crisis Madge and Harrisson and their hundreds of volunteer diarists had examined was the fallout from the abdication in December 1936 of Edward VIII. But then in September 1938 came Munich, and Neville Chamberlain’s three trips to meet Hitler to avert the outbreak of war. This was a crisis of a different order: the United Kingdom experienced nothing like it again in peacetime until the present post-referendum years of bitter division and anxiety.
Some of the personal reactions recorded by Mass Observation in 1938 feel remarkably familiar. “It’s a fucking mess, ain’t it?” “No one knows what’ll happen.” “I can’t understand it properly, but it doesn’t seem too good to me.” In London at the height of the crisis, a 38-year-old woman writes: “We don’t bother much about it … not because we are not thinking about it. Life’s too short to keep on with war, war, war.” And another woman adds: “Oh, when I see the paper I turn the page over. Suppose it’s because I’m windy …”
I catch sight of my own behaviour in these last two reactions: my need to escape what passes for reality by switching off shows such as BBC1’s Question Time, or exchanging Radio 4’s Today programme for music on Radio 3. On Thursday’s edition of Today an unrepentant leave voter in Bedford gave Nick Robinson a biscuit analogy (perhaps inspired by the comedian Peter Kay) in which the UK had behaved like “a soggy rich tea” in its negotiations with the “solid Hobnob” that was the EU.
“If we’d have sent a Hobnob with chocolate on we’d have won,” he said, suggesting Alan Sugar as the best man for the job. All of this was said seriously. He might have been the 40-year-old chauffeur who in 1938, when asked his opinion on what should be done, replied: “Keep out of foreign entanglements, that’s best. Old England’s the best country in the world.” Certain feelings endure.
What has changed is the media’s tone. In 1938, another world war was certainly a more frightening prospect than the national belittlement that faces us now; even so, the coverage of Brexit deserves a register that has gone missing. Gravity may be the word. We have forgotten how to be grave.
In 1938, Mass Observation saw its primary purpose as drilling through the patriotic rhetoric of Fleet Street newspapers to the land that Irish poet Louis MacNeice described as “the kingdom of individuals”. Newspaper editorials spoke confidently and generally. According to the Daily Mail: “The British nation unreservedly places its complete trust in the prime minister, Mr Neville Chamberlain.” A London evening paper, the Star, began an editorial: “ENGLAND SPEAKS. The country remains admirably calm in these hours of deepening crisis … It is the steady spirit of a nation that has made up its mind and faces the future unafraid.”
Madge and Harrisson noted that the trouble with this kind of statement wasn’t that it was true or false – the trouble was the assumption on the newspaper’s part that it didn’t need to find out. “More subtle,” they wrote, were the statements that appealed to facts without establishing the facts objectively. It was here that the fabulous figure, the Man in the Street, played a key role. According to one writer, the Man in the Street had made up his mind that Hitler was “the supreme menace to the peace of the world” and until he was “in some way disposed of” nobody could sleep easy. Other Men in the Street backed Chamberlain’s approach and believed it would save Europe from war. Only when Madge and Harrisson did some elementary research did a much more complicated picture emerge of fear, bewilderment, anger, resolve and ignorance, in proportions that changed among the public as the crisis advanced.
The writers blamed the British press’s inadequate and almost mendacious coverage of British public opinion on the people they described as “the Intellectual Few”; editors who rarely met “ordinary people” or, when it came to big political questions, encouraged their reporters to discover what they felt. Similar criticism is directed today at the “metropolitan liberal elite”.
In their irreverence and sentimentality, and their interest in celebrity and the sensational, British newspapers and the broadcast media are now much closer to the audiences they pursue. News – including political news – has become a kind of entertainment. How many ministers will resign today? Did you see Corbyn mess up again? It may be no less informative, but in the telling a formal style of address has almost vanished, to be heard occasionally and eccentrically in the announcements of royal birthdays that come before the early-morning bulletins. And sometimes formality is desirable, as a way to dignify our grief or apprehension: not for nothing do undertakers wear black.
The present crisis will shrink soon enough. Compared with other crises circling in the stack and waiting to land – species extinction, human population growth, mass migration, resource exhaustion – Brexit is small stuff, a pointless distraction. But how can news bulletins cope with these things? How should they be ranked? A bearded man carrying a sandwich board – “The End is Nigh” – was once a familiar character in cartoons, but now the joke falls flat. “Collapse of civilisation is on the horizon” was how the Guardian headlined its report of David Attenborough’s speech this week to the UN’s climate summit in Poland. It appeared on the front page, though it was not the lead item.
If we want to see the world differently and, just possibly, avert the collapse, we need different kinds of information. What has mattered until now is money. The indices that appear without fail – fixed on the printed page and changing on the screen – show the fluctuations of the FTSE 100, the Dow Jones, Nasdaq and the currency exchange rates. Imagine if instead the same little boxes showed the average global temperature, the extent of Arctic sea ice, the rise in sea level and the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Day by day, the changes would be tiny – consoling in their minuteness. Comparison with the same set of figures for the same day 20 years before would be needed to show their ominous development.
There they would be: sober, factual, grave and rarely consulted; but always warning against the ultimate crisis, like an old-fashioned sermon on hell.
A man with a sandwich board – ‘The End is Nigh’ – was once a familiar character in cartoons. Now the joke falls flat