A news story today shows just how arbitrary much of history is. At the height of the Covid pandemic the UK government, suffering the worst death rate in Europe, gambled big on developing a vaccine quickly. This was very much something that suited the personality of the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson is notorious for a lack of attention to detail and for wanting to have his cake and eat it. A vaccine must have appeared to him to be a magic cure for his Covid problem.
Gambles sometimes pay off, and this one has given him some unexpected benefits. Not only did an effective vaccine get delivered in a very short time, the roll out also got off to a good start. In the meantime, the European Union’s similar programme didn’t come in so quickly. This meant that it was a double payout. It both countered the internal bungling of the day to day handling of the virus and allowed some points to be scored at the expense of the EU.
It’s easy to see the faults in other people’s political ideas. There has been a big uptick in simplistic philosophies lately. Trumpers believe in putting their state first, regardless of the international implications. Libertarians discount the benefits of the state’s activities. Brexiters think that getting rid of the influence of Brussels will make us freer. It isn’t hard to see the shortcomings of these viewpoints. They can be summed up in a few sentences and obviously are nowhere near adequate to the complexities, trade offs and downright cussedness of the real world.
You wait ages for an event of historic significance then you get two come along at once. The attempted coup in the Capitol last week will no doubt be discussed for years to come. At the moment we don’t have all the accounts we’d like to have, and no doubt more will be coming out for years to come. But there will be a lot of historical information available. While the actions and motivations of the key players, particularly Mr Trump himself, are the big part of the story we have a lot more to go on with this.
You don’t get historic events along very often, and even more rarely do you get to watch them roll out in realtime on the television while being able to discuss them with just about anyone else on the planet.
I woke up to the news the South Korea’s population has fallen for the first time in its history. Wars and famines have been just as prevalent in the country’s history as anywhere else, but it turns out that demographics is the thing that really counts. An ageing population who choose to avoid having too many children is enough to bring down the population rate.
I wouldn’t be without conservatives. They are on the whole decent people, or at least they are as decent as non-conservatives. I have never noticed the slightest difference between conservatives and liberals when it comes to honesty, intelligence or general likability. You certainly can’t tell whether somebody is a conservative or not just by what they say or do at any rate.
Since the Brexit referendum I have become obsessed with UK political current affairs. This isn’t all bad. It has been a fascinating and very educational experience. It has been full of drama and I now know way more about the details of the British constitution than I ever thought I would.
Well it is that time of year when you have a little time to reflect. And I have decided that I am no longer happy using Facebook. I hate the experience and they are undermining democracy. And I waste too much time on Twitter. I love the experience but I can’t seem to take it in moderation.
History books themselves have their own history. History has always been a subject that interests people, and it was always a reasonably large proportion of whatever the available media of the day was. And as parchment gave way to paper, and paper in turn became a mass market commodity more and more people were able to afford to indulge their interest in what had gone on in the past. So the popular history book intended for just anyone who was curious about the past started to appear in the 1930s and by the 1950s was an established genre.
One of the giants of popular history was Thomas Costain whose books sold in huge quantities. I think I missed out growing up because I have a feeling my teenage self would have loved them. The style of writing is the key. This is history written as a story.
So what you get out of this history book is basically a rather old fashioned view of history – but that is in itself quite interesting. How people in the fifties thought about history tells us quite a lot about what they believed in general. They were interested in character and had a much clearer idea of what was right and wrong than we do. So when a medieval king fiddles the system to his advantage, Thomas Costain regards this as a personal failing of the king involved.
It is worth exploring this one a bit. The king in question was Henry III and his modus operandum was to swear to comply with requests from this subjects for concessions. And once he had done so, he would apply to the pope and get the agreement annulled. This annoyed his subjects and in their exasperation they turned to Simon de Montfort. He proceeded to get parliament going, setting up history for several centuries of progress in the direction of democracy.
So basically the formula is that history is full of characters, and it is legitimate to invent stuff you don’t know to fill in the human side of things. History has a direction and a purpose and like fiction it always contrives to have a happy ending.
Is this sort of history any use today? I have to say I find it grating to read more than a small dollop at the time. Hearing how pleased William the Marshall was when he finally got home after the wars for a bit of a rest is just annoying when you know there is simply no data on his emotional state. The frequent value judgements are irritating even when the values expressed are ones we still hold, which we often don’t. But it does make things very memorable, so if you want to have an overview of what was happening in the Middle Ages it isn’t a bad option.
Elections can often be dramatic and unpredictable events. But they are often soul destroying and boring as well. The UK’s 2015 one was just dispiriting. The referendum on the EU was not much fun either. And when Theresa May called her snap election in 2017 it looked like it would simply be the worse possible example of the genre. Continue reading Betting The House by Tim Ross