New 'terror' charade

Peter Manson argues that the new 'anti-emergency guide' issued by the government has the clear purpose of keeping the population firmly in line behind the political establishment's global policy

Get ready to take shelter. You are about to be bombarded by a barrage of leaflets and a blitz of advertisements warning you of the dangers of a terrorist attack.

The 22-page government booklet Preparing for emergencies is to be delivered to every household in Britain within the next month. Meanwhile, a campaign of TV commercials has already begun, supposedly to advise us that, while we should adopt certain measures to guard against terrorism, we are in safe hands and everything is under control. In the words of home office minister Caroline Flint, “The message is: be prepared, but get on with your everyday life.”

The booklet is intended to replace the notorious 1980 brochure Protect and survive, written at the height of the second phase of the cold war. For those readers too young to remember, it advised the public to prepare for a nuclear holocaust by kitting out a “fallout room”. They were told to tape up their windows, make an improvised shelter out of an upturned table and fill their bath with clean water (not forgetting to protect it from radiation by covering it with a sheet).

In a no doubt conscious effort to avoid a repeat of such absurdities, Preparing for emergencies steers clear of painting scenarios that are too surreal. It not only includes details of the precautions to be taken against chemical, biological and radiological attack, but also deals with more mundane events such as flooding, fire and even heavy snow.

Yet, while masquerading as a general-purpose ‘What to do in an emergency’ booklet, its objective remains virtually identical to that of Protect and survive: to keep the population firmly in line behind the political establishment’s global policy - or risk a catastrophe at the hands of some devastating enemy.

Previously, of course, that enemy was ‘communism’, whose forces were set on enslaving the world (or perhaps physically destroying what they could not conquer). There is no doubting the genuineness of imperialist triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But with it went an important means of disciplining the population and in particular the working class.

Now at last we have islamic extremism, al Qa’eda and the ‘war on terror’. Blair may have failed to persuade us of the deadly threat from Saddam Hussein and his non-existent WMDs, but 9/11 was real enough, wasn’t it? The new booklet, while deliberately avoiding any hint of hysteria, is part of the attempt to build up a degree of acquiescence and marginalise opposition to the new imperialist order. No more two-million-strong demonstrations - or so the government hopes.

According to John Asquith, chair of the Emergency Planning Society, it may become necessary to revive contingency plans, first developed in the 1960s, for the evacuation of 9.5 million people under a ‘dispersal scheme’ from the inner cities to rural ‘reception areas’. However, perhaps Asquith got a little carried away - “We are coming full circle and beginning to think about that again,” he said - for Preparing for emergencies makes no mention of any such possibility.

This is hardly surprising, since secret papers released last week show that the government was fully aware that its evacuation plans were utterly useless as a means of protecting the population against nuclear attack. Dame Evelyn Sharp, permanent secretary of the ministry of housing and local government in 1962, confided in an internal memo: “… we know very well how rough and ready and full of snags our scheme is. We know that things may never turn out like this - or, if they do, that it may still be totally disastrous.”

The new booklet prefers to concentrate on such things as “general advice about what to do in an emergency”, which are actually nothing more than pathetic platitudes. Although, says the brochure, “your common sense will normally tell you what to do”, it is important to take note of a few hints - “make sure 999 has been called”, don’t “put yourself or others in danger” and “try to remain calm”. Very helpful.

Where the booklet is a little more specific, it is also rather contradictory. In an emergency, you should “go inside a safe building” - except of course on those unspecified “particular occasions” when you should stay outside. Just don’t worry - tune in to the radio and listen out for instructions. And if you do fall victim to a ‘dirty bomb’ attack, “wait for the emergency services to arrive and … if necessary decontaminate you. If you go home untreated, you could contaminate others and make any incident worse.”

What about if you happen to find yourself “trapped in debris”? Well, “stay close to a wall and tap on pipes”, of course. It is always useful to have a clear idea of the action you will take in such eventualities. As a child, I worked out for myself what to do if I ever got cast adrift in shark-infested waters: I would keep a plank of wood handy, wait for the creature to show its teeth and jam the thing between its jaws.

As in the 1980s, the government is recommending you keep a supply of basic rations to hand for use in all manner of emergencies - soup, baked beans, Ryvita and a “can of deodorant”. Oh, and don’t forget “16 paracetamol tablets” and “16 aspirin tablets” - those terrorist bombs can be very noisy. It is also useful to carry your mobile telephone with you, apparently, not to mention your credit card - you will, after all, be expected to pay for anything you have forgotten, biological attack or not.

True to form, the Tory opposition is playing its allotted role in the charade with enthusiasm. Shadow home secretary David Davis wanted to know: “Why has it taken so long to actively inform the public? It has been three years since September 11 - heaven knows what could have happened in that time.” But thank god we know what to do at last. Not that the measures go far enough: “The truth is, if Britain were targeted tomorrow, we would still be grossly unprepared for a terrorist attack,” said Davis.

Whether the government has everything under control or is completely incompetent, the message is the same: we all need to pull together and act as one in the defence of the realm.