Mass hysteria and the tangled webs we weave

April Fools Day was no fun this year, as my parody meter appears to have broken, and no amount of shaking will fix it. I may have to sue the government for compensation, since I hold them directly responsible for the fact that I have lost the ability to work out where reality ends and parody begins. Though it was easy to spot the April Fool himself – I just pointed at Francis Maude.

Of the many odd, hilarious, alarming, and wince-making things the coalition has been up to, the petrol advice stood out as the worst. I’m going to start by assuming it was all just a cock up. Then I’ll move on to the idea that it might have been a conspiracy. Neither bodes well or makes them seem any less stupid or nasty.

To recap, their general advice, for several days, was that car drivers should not panic, NO DEFINITELY DON’T PANIC, I SAID NO PANICKING but should simply put a bit extra in the tank the next time they happened to pass a petrol station. More specifically, dear old Maude recommended also filling jerry cans with petrol and storing them in the garage, advice which flies in the face of common sense, reality and strictures from the Fire Brigade. He showed a complete lack of knowledge of how most of us live. I don’t have a garage but unlike various of my other traits, this does not mark me out as particularly odd.

As a result, a week on there are still petrol shortages and these look likely to persist over the Easter weekend. One woman is in hospital with 40% burns. And I really cannot help but wonder and sigh over science education in this country. Really, why are people not interested in science? How can you not be interested? If you know about science, you can work out that petrol has a low boiling point. This means that it vaporises readily even at room temperature. In fact the reason it smells so strongly is because of that vaporisation – that smell is your nose detecting petrol vapour in the air. And if you learn about car engines you know that petrol’s flammability is really quite important. If it weren’t highly flammable, we wouldn’t be using it as fuel. So for pity’s sake, take all of this science on board and realise that pouring it from a can to a jug, in your kitchen, with the oven on, is not the world’s best idea. I mean I really am sorry that someone learned all this by getting severely burned. But really, what does it say about British society, our knowledge, and our education if even one person responsible enough to hold a driving licence, could not work out that pouring petrol in the kitchen was a very dangerous idea.

But back to that advice. Essentially it is the Tory party in microcosm. If you, as an individual get to the petrol pump first and top up, the advice works for you as an individual. What happens then is that others, observing you, copy you because once one person has started to panic buy it makes sense for others to panic buy. The result is that we then have a tipping point in which so many people panic buy we create a shortage– the very thing we feared in the first place. So as a society the advice doesn’t work, but it’s fine for the pig at the front of the queue and let’s face it, that’s right-wing politics in a nutshell.

This behaviour has often been observed in the past. It is well known. Psychologists have spent some time investigating how people respond to this kind of dilemma. Because what will work for a few individuals in this situation will not work well for the majority. Thus we have the problem – do we act in self interest, or in the interests of the majority? Apparently any knowledge of this particular psychological dilemma is generally omitted from Eton syllabi.

Coalition response to the growing crisis was initially that clearly their advice was sensible, because tanker drivers were then still working, so it was OK because stocks would be refilled. This showed not only their utter ignorance of human behaviour, but also total ignorance of the way the economy works. And these are the people running the economy. But they had no idea that many systems, perhaps most, work on a just-in-time basis. This is because storage costs money and as any sensible capitalist will tell you, you don’t want to waste money storing excess stuff no-one currently needs, on the off chance that the government will cause a shortage by announcing that there might be a shortage. Again they just could not work out that what one person does can have a ripple effect throughout society. One person buying extra does not create a shortage. Almost everyone buying extra so that demand more than doubles does tend to cause trouble with the supply chain.

Those were the most immediate and obvious problems. But in addition, there are reasons we are told to avoid full fuel tanks when taking cars on ferries or in tunnels. Fuel is a fire hazard and crashing with full tanks makes the hazard worse. And another thing, fuel has weight. So you need more fuel to carry around the extra fuel. So you’ll get through fuel faster, creating even more of a shortage. Lovely.

Now let’s explore the possibility that the government weren’t just being stupid. They have raised a large amount of extra revenue just before the end of the financial year. And they were apparently trying to whip up anti-strike feeling. That one has legs. OK it appears not to have worked, but it has legs.

On the Today programme, Baroness Warsi referred to the ‘strike’ in 2000. Except that the fuel shortage in 2000 was not caused by a strike. It was caused by farmers and lorry drivers blockading fuel depots. I’m sure Warsi was aware of this. She’s not ignorant. She is disingenuous. Or a flat out liar. Add to this the Lib Dem’s Sarah Teather on Question Time stating that a strike had been called and you get the picture. At that stage, no strike had been called. Words matter. This government may be thick. They may be disingenuous. They may be flat-out selfish lying bastards. But they do have a manipulative skill in the way that they use words. I may have lost my ability to detect parody but I have not lost my ability to detect manipulation.

So that’s the coalition government for you. Good at offering advice that is in the interests of individuals but not in the interests of society as a whole. Bad at understanding the economy. Good at trying to be devious, hopeless even in their deviousness. And to add to the danger, they have a nasty way with words.