Irrational fear is well known for derailing sensible debate. We have seen it take a toll on our capacity for common sense over and over again across the years.
Politicians know this better than most, yet – as the events of the past few days have shown – they choose to play fast and loose with the volatile emotion that is popular public opinion.
At the weekend, Ukip's charismatic leader Nigel Farage, who has probably enjoyed the most successful year of any of the main party leaders, called for Britain to take in some Syrian refugees. In doing so he removed a stumbling block to the urgent international debate that needs to happen around the issue of immigration. While the Prime Minister might point out that this country has lavished £500 million on an aid programme to support more than two million Syrians who have fled the civil war and are now languishing in refugee camps nearby, the fact remains – and this was Mr Farage's point – that Britain is also among the 18 EU countries that have refused to take a single family across our borders to safety.
In the few days since making what was an important contribution to the debate, Mr Farage has found himself at odds with some Ukip members and has been forced to climb down from where he appeared to stand on the issue, explaining that it was just Syrian Christians who should be extended the hand of friendship.
Suddenly, all the good he had done was swiftly undone. Now we see that some members of the Conservative Party are also becoming troubled. The health minister Earl Howe, for example, has been busy defending the decision to charge some migrants for NHS care.
Herein lies the problem, one that may prove – depressingly so – to be the defining sentiment of 2014. The more politicians announce panic measures such as capping access to NHS services, the more voters will worry about the scale of the problem of migration – and the more likely they are to turn to the hardline policies advocated by Ukip. Now, popular anxiety has been ratcheted up unscrupulously by right-wing politicians as the deadline looms for lifting movement controls on Romanians and Bulgarians. This can lead to intolerance, intimidation and violence. It will be a sorry shame if 2014 is defined by this mean-spirited political approach.