The world is always coming to an end, for someone. “Never morning wore to evening but some heart did break,” as Lord Tennyson elegantly put it. People die every day, from illnesses and accidents. Ambulances and fire engines are forever on their way to some life-shattering emergency; the police are eternally ringing someone’s doorbell to give bad news. The news websites’ pandemic death toll tickers have made it impossible to forget, but the fact is not new.
As in personal life, so too in business and civil society. Each year hundreds of thousands of businesses cease trading. In 2019, even before the pandemic, there were 336,000 business “deaths” — 11% of all British businesses. Factories and workshops close, while industries decline and sometimes vanish completely. Once-vibrant clubs and churches gradually dwindle.
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Even at the level of states and governments, nothing lasts forever. Countries and languages and whole peoples disappear with tragic regularity. Over lockdown, I read Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms, a series of elegies for various European states, or statelets, that are no more. Some are widely known, like the Soviet Union or the Byzantine Empire. Others are much less celebrated, even among history buffs. Davies includes a chapter dealing with the Visigothic state that existed in eastern France in the century after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. It lasted less than a century before being subsumed into the Kingdom of the Franks. But perhaps his most obscure case study is the Republic of Rusyn, a short-lived attempt by Carpatho-Ukrainians to carve out an independent nation from the ruins of Czechoslovakia, as it was being dismembered by Nazi Germany, Hungary and Poland in March 1939.
As I read about these statelets struggling to survive, Covid-19 was causing human suffering and misery on a massive scale — not simply deaths, but strain on medical staff, family separations and ongoing disruption to normal life and health system operation. The Government and the health service were making serious and repeated mistakes. Vital organs of the state were hesitant and sclerotic, highly susceptible to groupthink. It was easy to think: this is how a nation collapses.
Indeed, there has been a widespread sense that we are in the midst of an epoch-defining event, that the world has changed irrevocably, that we must re-examine our assumptions about numerous aspects of modern life. The giant consulting firm McKinsey produced a report called “The future of work after Covid-19”, while its rival EY issued one focusing on the changes to globalised supply chains. The Economics Observatory asked “What is the future of commuting?” The Centre For Cities think tank investigated whether cities themselves have a future anymore.
But Vanished Kingdoms — I hesitate to use the dread phrase “putting in perspective”, because that sounds glib — made me reflect on what it takes, really, to destroy a way of life. Not to trivialise people’s grim experiences, but when you read about, say, the Russian invasion of East Prussia in the last year of the Second World War — invasion is almost too antiseptic a word; destruction would meet the case — it does inevitably offer a new baseline for the consideration of terrible events.
Obviously, its’s little or no comfort to someone who has lost a family member to Covid — or a job or a home — that it could be worse: they could be living in a chaotic post-Roman kingdom menaced by enemies on all sides. But when we come to reflect on the specific political-historical-civilisational questions raised by the pandemic — the future of work, of the health service, of global trade — it’s important to have some kind of benchmark. Particularly because, in the modern West, there is a prevailing sense that we have little to learn from history, because we are so advanced. My generation grew up during the 1990s “holiday from history”, when the power of liberal democracy was unchallenged and its future seemingly secure. No wonder Covid-19 feels like the end of the world.
But one very obvious lesson of history is that we are fortunate, even during a plague, to live in Europe in the early twenty-first century. We are lucky to have strong nation-states, able and willing to look after their people, and well-established norms of diplomacy and international co-operation. However badly her Majesty’s Government has failed in its responsibilities, the nation has not yet been annexed by neighbouring powers, as happened to the venerable Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late eighteenth century, weakened by infighting and loss of trust in government.
That said, it is worth noting that Davies, writing in 2011, does argue that the United Kingdom in its current form is not long for this world — mainly because of the loss of confidence in the shared beliefs and institutions that held its four nations together: Crown, Empire, and Protestant Christianity.
Covid, by itself, is not going to bring an end to the largely orderly and peaceable Europe of 2021, in the way that — for example — the World Wars were catastrophic for so many of the peoples of central and eastern Europe featured in Vanished Kingdoms. The disease remains a serious problem, but most continental nations have now reached high levels of double vaccination — and cut their death rates accordingly. Seven European nations were added to the British government green list over the weekend, meaning that travellers from them do not need to quarantine. The suggestion by UnHerd’s Ed West, at the very start of the pandemic, that the long-term consequences might not be very severe, now seems very prescient.
Possibly, of course, I am too optimistic. One of Davies’ subjects is the Byzantine Empire, which endured for more than a thousand years, but whose long-term fortunes were seriously affected by recurring outbreaks of plague from the sixth to the eighth centuries. Those plagues, of course, were much deadlier than Covid-19, and spread through populations without access to modern medicine; but perhaps the pessimists are right that we can expect more globalised outbreaks of serious disease. It is entirely possible that not all such diseases will be as treatable and relatively non-deadly as our current foe.
And optimism can be dangerous if it tips into arrogance. Vanished Kingdoms carries a dedication to i’r anghofiedig, a Welsh phrase which Davies translates loosely as “those whom historians tend to forget”. He explicitly frames the book as dealing with our collective tendency to absent-mindedness, our complacency in looking back on our ancestors.
It has been argued that some of the misjudgements made by the British public health establishment in the early weeks and months of the pandemic stemmed from a kind of instinctive resistance among highly educated, high-status people to solutions that were redolent of historical responses to disease outbreaks. Why did it take so long to impose any kind of meaningful border restrictions? Why did it take the best part of a year for masking and good ventilation, rather than mostly pointless hand-washing and surface cleaning, to be strongly prioritised in advice to the public and to hospitals, schools and shops?
The answer to these questions, perhaps, is that closing the borders and emphasising the importance of fresh, clean air sounded too simple to be true. It’s what people did in the age of the plague — when our allegedly simple-minded forebears still believed in dirty foreigners, miasma theory and bodily humours — so it must be rejected by sophisticated moderns. As the great Theodore Dalrymple has noted, intellectuals are incentivised to avoid obvious conclusions, because their status depends on the elucidation of non-obvious truths. And liberal modernity encourages us to throw out the baby with the bathwater: to reject the wisdom of past ages, as well as the unscientific mistakes and prejudices.
Davies would, I fancy, dislike such disdain, even if held unconsciously or instinctively. He is a humane writer, concerned not with ideology, but with truth and historical drama — and with helping us know what the past was really like. At a time when the public square is full of rancour and misinformation, inflamed by people’s understandable fears and concerns about the spread of disease and the undoubted, if unavoidable, downsides of our chosen anti-Covid strategies, his proposal is tempting. We must focus on the lessons of history, and so prioritise truth and fact — and proportion.