Andrew Roberts has written a piece for the Spectator about the significance of the ‘Lockdown Files’ for historians. It is a genial and accommodating High Table sort of musing on the subject, but it does not press the subject very hard. Roberts is in so generous a mood he is even willing to pass the port to figures like Whitty and Gove, and intimate judiciously that they have come out of the revelations with their “reputations enhanced”. Nonetheless, he has posed a genuine question. How far can historians know about the politics of the past?
Bill Rice, in a recent piece for the Brownstone Institute, asked more pointedly, ‘Where are the Bernsteins and Woodwards of COVID-19?’ This question is an accusation. But it is also a question of broad significance. How far can journalists know about the politics of the present?
These questions are obviously related. How can we write about actual politics when much of actual politics takes place offstage? How much can we know about actual politics now, in the present? How much can we know about it later, when it is past?
These are difficult questions. In order to think about them, it is useful to have a short account of the ways in which we humans have written about actual politics over the last few thousand years.
- We start with inscriptions and king-lists: those Ozymandias inscriptions found on walls, stones and mountains. They were propaganda: statements of what the king wanted you to think. He was the king of the four quarters, etc. The modern equivalent is COVID-19 era utterances by government and media of the ‘Stay Safe’ sort.
- Then there is the Bible. The Bible is very important because it is one of the first instances where respect for original written texts was so great that they were not rewritten or paraphrased but included in entire form: enabling the Bible to be deconstructed much later on. But there is not much about politics as such: a few conversations with Gideon or Samuel about whether Israel should have a king or not.
- Next is Thucydides. The Greeks invented ‘history’ and Thucydides invented the sort of history everyone has tried to write ever since, up to and including Andrew Roberts. But Thucydides did not include original texts. Famously, he invented the speeches of Pericles, the bullying Athenians and so on, much as Shakespeare was to do later. He invented, in other words, the trick of writing accounts of events long after they happened as if they were recorded at the time.
- After Thucydides we have centuries of attempts to write long histories of Rome by, say, Polybius and Livy, assembling things out of myth and tradition; we have contemporary histories written by figures like Caesar, which we have to take on trust; we have Eusebius doing for Christianity what Livy had done for Rome; and there are variations of these in medievalists like Otto of Freisung, the Renaissance historians like Machiavelli who wrote about their cities.
- Arguably the first great historical revolution came at the time of Scaliger, Casaubon and Budé who tried to establish what could be historically known about the past. Figures like Clarendon still wrote contemporary history. But finally in the 18th Century figures like Gibbon tried to fuse narrative and erudition: that is to say, they tried to tell a story while also being as accurate as they could be about what was known. But he wrote about a long distant subject.
- In the 19th and 20th Centuries we had the arrival of archival history: the astonishing teutonification of history by people like Lord Acton: launching the modern academic writing of history which depends on recovering lost pictures of the world. This became important for politics in the 20th Century as people like Maurice Cowling tried to use vast arrays of archival material to offer a historical account of the politics which had never been seen on the surface – in the speeches or legislation – but which revealed the true nature of political deliberation and decision by turning to letters and diaries.
This story is mostly about the historians, who can reveal the hidden politics of the past. It has to be put together with the story of the journalists, who try to reveal the hidden politics of the present. Nonexistent before around 1600, journalism arose in the Civil War, flourished in the eighteenth century, and was locked in place by the nineteenth century. It became official. The fourth estate, as it was called, offered weekly or daily written accounts of what was going on. Newspapers were inconvenient for rulers. They still are. But the ruling class adjusted in order to find ways of dealing with the unconcealing of actual political goings-on by journalists, and a new political culture emerged.
As the 200th Century progressed there was much more contemporary revelation of what was going on, or what had recently gone on, politically. Instead of self-justificatory works by Lloyd George and Churchill about the wars, we saw the emergence of a new revelatory style of political revelation. Richard Crossman’s Diaries were published to great consternation in the 1970s, showing the inner workings of government. Private Eye had been contributing to a change in culture since the early 1960s. From the 1980s on there was an escalation of the sense that everyone should know everything relevant about politics as soon as possible. Now we expect, in the United Kingdom, to have accounts of what went on behind the scenes written fairly soon, depending on insider accounts and leaked material. We don’t want Thucydidean speeches; rather, we want Campbellite expletives.
Historians of the Maurice Cowling type can explain the 19th Century by consulting archives, investigating the written record. But the 20th Century saw the invention of the telephone: and the disappearance of the written record. For this reason it became even more important to have contemporary histories or journalistic accounts written before the evidence and the eyewitnesses could fade away. With the ‘Lockdown Files’ we have had a revival of the written record. Though of course historians and journalists cannot trust this modern sort of written record – for the very simple reason that no 19th Century writer of letters or diaries ever expected to have their writings published, whereas every 21st Century politician knows that anything could be published, and so should be polished or deleted as necessary.
I say all this because what struck me about COVID-19 was that all the journalists and historians went missing when it came to explaining the politics behind what was going on. Doubtless, this will change after the ‘Lockdown Files’. Perhaps journalists may feel emboldened to tell the story. Perhaps historians will try their hand later on. But what was remarkable about the years 2020 to 2023 is that hardly anyone wrote anything.
Of course, we had books pro and contra lockdown: polemics. We had books making judgements about ‘hysteria’, ‘consensus’, or ‘the herd’, and we had books about false science and books about true science. Let me list some of them:
- A literature which was more exhortatory or exculpatory than explanatory: Klaus Schwab’s Great Reset (2020), Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency (2020), and Bill Gates’s How to Prevent the Next Pandemic (2022); also an illustrated children’s book about Captain Tom. All of it was superficial, speculative or purported to be informed by ‘the Science’: all the pro books were ostensibly unpolitical.
- A much better literature was found on the other side: either engaging in polemic, as in Alex Berenson’s Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights and Lives (2021) and Toby Green and Thomas Fazi’s The Covid Consensus: The Global Assault on Democracy and the Poor (2022); or, taking on the scientific side of the story, as in Mark Woolhouse’s The Year the World Went Mad (2022), Robert F. Kennedy’s The Real Anthony Fauci (2022) and Alina Chan and Matt Ridley’s Viral: The Search for the Origins of COVID-19 (2022). Not much of this was political, except perhaps Green and Fazi’s book and Giorgio Agamben’s Where Are We Now: The Epidemic as Politics, though, again, they asserted that the whole thing was political. They did not and could not demonstrate it. Most of it reported what happened on the surface.
I am not saying that an insufficient number of books have been written about COVID-19. But most of them, even the good ones, were superficial, dealing with the superfices, the surface, of what happened. Or with the science of it, both true and false. The only books which resembled anything like classic journalistic or contemporary historical writing, indicating what happened in the corridors of power, were:
- On the poor side, of course, Matt Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries of 2022, and also the disgraceful book by Calvert and Arbuthnott, Failures of State (2021), which pretended to be history, but extended the standard narrative by making the commonly asserted but never substantiated and in fact unsubstantiable claim that everything was right about the pandemic protocols except they were not imposed severely enough or consistently enough.
- On the other hand, and almost alone, we had Laura Dodsworth’s admirable A State of Fear (2021), which did find some sources which revealed the importance of ‘nudging’ in Government policy. Apart from that, there were only self-published books which one could find on Amazon, or, of course, utterances by the likes of Jonathan Sumption in the newspapers, or utterances by other sceptical voices on alt-media platforms like the Daily Sceptic, the Conservative Woman, UnHerd, the Delingpod, etc.
In other words, there were no serious journalistic books about the contemporary political situation. Where was the next Tim Shipman or Andrew Rawnsley? Nowhere. This is by any standards a remarkable absence.
In order to demonstrate the stark fact of this absence we only have to consider the situation before 2020. Consider some significant pre-Covid political events about which studies of the Machiavellian goings-on of our rulers were fairly briskly written:
- Yanis Varoufakis was appointed Greek Minister of Finance in January 2015, had his adventures with the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission in a short six months, and resigned in July 2015. His book Adults in the Room was published in May 2017, to much acclaim: that is, less than two years after the events in question.
- Even faster was Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times, whose book All Out War, about the Brexit referendum held on 23 June 2016, was published before the year was out. Shipman’s second book, Fall Out, was similarly published in 2017 extremely close to the time of the events it described.
- Earlier on, Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour was published in 2000 shortly after the events it described, and like Shipman’s book, was soon expanded in a second edition to take account of some later developments. The same is true of Rawnsley’s second book, The End of the Party, which was published just before Labour lost the 2010 election, and was reissued to take account of that.
All of these books broke the fourth wall. They were considered to be revelations of what had gone on in the corridors of power. And this is before we consider all the diaries and autobiographies now commonly found about reasonably recent events: those by Clark, Mullin, Cameron, Swire, etc.
Yet, about COVID-19 there haven’t been any equivalent books based on reportage – no glimpse of the inner councils of politics. This is remarkable when one considers that the evident grandeur, scale and devastation of the pandemic, as a political event, dwarfed the minor matters of Granita or Brexit, and dwarfed even the centuries-old problem of Greek debt. All we had was self-justification and opportunism; and no digging-the-dirt, apart from Dodsworth’s. Peter Hitchens might have written a book about it. He reacted to it, argued against it, but perhaps was not really interested in it. For him, it was an after-effect: so he wrote about grammar schools instead. Jonathan Sumption attacked it on too narrow a front, in terms of a doctrine about the need to restrain lawyers in politics. More importantly, perhaps, neither knew the politicians. Since Gove and Cummings were rationalists-in-politics, they will be unlikely to write anything away from their mechanised narrative. Johnson no doubt knows that he would be paid much more for other books. Irrelevancy is his great trait. The civil servants lack courage. And the journalists were either bought or caught: either paid for by the corporations to stay quiet and question nothing – or, simply, they bought into the narrative themselves.
Finally, we have the ‘Lockdown Files’. Until now, I confess that I had not understood the ubiquity of WhatsApp in contemporary politics. I saw that Private Eye had fallen back on parodying the Government in terms of text exchanges: but I did not attribute any significance to that, except that Private Eye had run out of ideas, or that modern politicians were boring. I had no idea that this is actually how politics is done: though I suppose I should have guessed on seeing MPs in the Commons paying more attention to their phones than parliamentary debate. Anyhow, for the moment, Isabel Oakeshott had, as Roberts notes, found something of great interest for journalists and historians. She has broken the fourth wall. She has done the job of the modern fourth estate. To the chagrin of her rivals, she is the Woodward and Bernstein of the day.
It is even more important for politics than it is for history that she did this. But the really remarkable thing is that, in our world of almost contemporary publication, the contemporary historians and prominent journalists for so long have been completely silent about the politics of COVID-19.
From the beginning, there were many of us who saw that COVID-19 was not about ‘the Science’ but about politics. But what is remarkable is how effectively the system entered into denial about the politics of the entire pandemic. We were left to make polemical arguments – this is what Agamben did – or to argue with the ‘facts’ and ‘statistics’ and ‘models’. But the Government presented a blank wall about its own politics, and denied there was anything to see politically. It was ‘the Science’, stupid. At the same time, the opposition, the journalists, the commentators, the historians: all of the famous, established, mainstream lot – everyone who should have known, and been willing to say, that Machiavelli is always right – remained in a conspiracy of silence.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.