This is a free extract from Iain Martin’s weekly newsletter, exclusively for Reaction subscribers.

When the story broke in the Telegraph last week that 100,000 WhatsApp messages from Matt Hancock had become available, I must admit I was in journalistic terms a sceptic. Imagine having to look at 100,000 messages involving the former Health Secretary. The journalists tasked with reading them must wonder whether they are being punished for sins in a previous life.

The ghastly spectacle that followed publication seemed to confirm my instinct. Isabel Oakeshott was on TV and radio explaining why she had, according to Hancock, breached their agreement. There were endless threads of confusing messages about Covid and Hancock’s campaign of self-promotion, and a crowd of characters fighting and finger jabbing all over the airwaves. Are the WhatsApps a meaningful story or just a squalid example of late period Tory infighting? With the ship sinking, some of the passengers and crew are fighting on the first class deck. 

And then I started to read the stories and the key threads, and my mind changed.

What is striking is how dismissively those on the message threads talk about the rest us, by which I mean the general population and the taxpayers who pay the wages of ministers, advisers and senior officials. The tone is by turns arrogant, glib, menacing and contemptuous. Plod is going to sort us out. There is glee and amusement when people are ensnared, or trapped in quarantine hotels, or caught out by the ridiculously draconian rules imposed by ministers. It is as though we are naughty nuisances who must be punished because we create work for the supposed grown-ups, our superiors. There’s a whiff of Dickens and the 19th century orphanage about the worst of the messages. The captives are mocked while the wardens snap and cackle.

The questionable decisions to shut schools for such long periods, with an obvious impact on the mental health of the young, and the quite mad order to make children wear masks in class, are discussed by some of the participants as though they are a political game. Cabinet ministers who expressed concerns about the impact of the assorted measures are dismissed as ideologues.

Missing in these monstrous exchanges is parliament or fear of parliament, which is supposed to be our guardian. To the eternal shame of MPs, they allowed the institution to be all but shut down by the state, and replaced with performative Zoom calls. Only a few of our elected representatives objected and demanded oversight.

But then we the public, or a majority, asked for it. The creepy authoritarianism, enforced by propaganda, public information briefings and strict policing, was popular at the time and it still is. The latest polling this week from YouGov suggested only 19% of voters think the government’s handling of Covid was too strict. Some 37% think it was not strict enough and 34% about right. One shudders to imagine what a more strict and controlling regime would have looked like. China?

This is not to dismiss Covid the disease for one second. In the first half of 2020 a lot was unclear. As in all countries, the health service was under pressure and tens of thousands of patients died. The vaccines when they came provided protection. Even many of those of us who felt the side effects of those vaccines will agree.

What worries me is what happens next time, when we know there will be more diseases and another pandemic at some point. In the last twenty years there have been three such diseases that threatened to become global pandemics. Neither SARS in 2003 nor the MERS outbreak from 2012 achieved full break out. COVID-19 did. This suggests a one in three shot at another Covid-style emergency in the next twenty years.

Such is the pace of technological change, in computing, data collection and AI that the next time it happens the state will have even more power than Hancock had. During Covid a majority of the British public liked this life by QR code, mediated (we now know) by squabbling, out of control and partying politicians who cratered the economy and added hundreds of billions of pounds to the national debt pile, left to be dealt with later by future generations.

The lesson to be drawn, surely, is that MPs and concerned citizens need to organise in preparation. I’m not holding my breath, although perhaps some senior MPs and campaigners will see the need to campaign for freedom and proper parliamentary oversight of the state in the next crisis.

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