The Brexit coverage has become entertainment – but a sense of formality would dignify the public’s apprehension
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 …”