The march of playground morality

“Simplistic” was the word used by the Advertising Standards Authority to describe an ill-fated government campaign to raise awareness of climate change. It was a polite way of describing the smoothing out of inconvenient truths in order to deliver a hard-hitting message in a series of public service announcements. But it was the advertisements themselves, with their use of nursery rhymes, kiddie-book pictures and primary school prose, that have raised a larger question.

When was it that the Government started openly treating the public as idiots – or, rather, as very young children who can be patronised and brain-washed in this embarrassing, inept fashion? A minister and his civil servants must have read the following piece of opening copy, after it had been written by a team of well-paid advertisers, and then pronounced that it was just fine: “Rub a dub dub, three men in a tub, a necessary course of action due to flash flooding caused by climate change.” Some apocalyptic prose follows, concluding with the ringing statement of intent that, “if we carry on at this rate, life in 25 years could be very different”.

It has become a marketing cliché, used by supermarkets, carmakers and government alike, that any environmental campaign should use sweet, clear-eyed children to convey its message. There is nothing like the innocence and vulnerability of the young to put adult self-indulgence into focus and spread a little guilt around.

The new advertisements, though, go further. Suddenly it is we, the public, who are the children. Government propaganda campaigns have tended to be patronising, but the tone which Ed Miliband and his department has adopted is that of a bored teacher addressing a class of particularly slow children.

Public debate is becoming infantilised. In our tearful, sentimental, bullying age, questions of the day, serious and silly, tend to be resolved by the standards of the playground. Now the Government is eager to play its part, too. Matters of justice and morality, whether they involve the punishment of a criminal, the bad behaviour of MPs, or the infidelity of a well-known footballer, are decided by Harriet Harman’s “court of public opinion” – that is, by feeling, not reason. The vindication of the self-righteous majority has become part of everyday life with that great modern ritual, the public apology, providing us with the sense of moral superiority which has suddenly become so important.

The new childishness is visible on our TV screens and in our newspapers, but it is depressing to see ministers appealing to it and exploiting it. When it comes to climate change, the Government has had various choices. It might have taken action in areas like airport expansion or mandatory energy saving. It could have presented the public with facts as they are now known. Instead, the Miliband approach has been nursery rhymes, clumsily-told stories and pointless waffle about how life is going to change unless we really watch out. If this approach is how the Department of Energy and Climate Change plans to win hearts and minds, it can hardly be surprised that there is scepticism in the classroom.

Independent, Friday, 19 March 2010