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Artillery Row

We shouldn't handle the truth

There are grown-up reasons for the state and the plague is one

Tuesday this week marks the seventy-seventh anniversary of what is believed to be the largest loss of civilian life in the United Kingdom during the Second World War. That this will pass largely unnoticed is both an echo of the nature of the event itself and a counterpoint to certain contemporary illusions.

Air raid sirens in east London sounded on the evening of March 3rd 1943, as newly installed anti-aircraft weaponry in Victoria Park fired into the night sky. It is said that the unfamiliar guns were mistaken by local residents for enemy bombs exploding in the streets. Nobody was on duty at Bethnal Green underground station and only one door was open. In the rush for shelter amidst the unexpected cacophony and with most of the station’s entrances locked, body crushed into body as still others attempted to enter through the blocked passageways. 173 people lost their lives in a short space of time.

Four years ago, the BBC interviewed Dr Joan Martin MBE, then in her centenary year, who had been on duty that night as a doctor at the nearby Queen Elizabeth Hospital. ‘When they pulled the bodies from the shelter all they did was to dump them on the pavement and throw water on them’ she recalled. They were all asphyxiated, mostly women and children, almost all dead.’ What is perhaps most discordant, though, to contemporary ears is the official response. She was instructed quite simply never to speak of what she had seen.

Dr Martin describes visiting the home of her personal mentor after coming off duty that night, having walked across London to Hammersmith to see her. ‘They’ve told you not to tell anyone else about it, haven’t they?’ she was asked, before being instructed quite simply: ‘I agree. Don’t dare tell anyone.’ Reporters did make extensive inquiries in the days that followed, as the pavements and staircases were washed clean in the aftermath, but any copy filed for publication was spiked by the War Office, never to see print. To an extent which is unthinkable to many today, news of the tragedy was effectively suppressed. Rumours circulated locally for years afterwards, but it would be several decades before the history of that night was brought out into the open. It bears emphasis that what was successfully suppressed was a large-scale loss of life not in North Africa or the Far East but in a densely populated area of London.

We hear a lot about the ‘Blitz spirit’ and with good cause, the resilience and the sense of duty of the wartime generation remaining an instructive and authoritative example for personal conduct in our own time. Nevertheless, it is also an instructive and an authoritative example as regards the purpose of the state. Keeping calm and carrying on was only ever one part of it. Accepting that to a great extent one had to be kept in the dark was foundational to the overall success of the war effort and there has never been any historically serious attempt to argue that it could ever have been otherwise. Whether at Bethnal Green, or in the shipyards, or at Bletchley Park, people kept their experiences to themselves and followed instructions not because they had consulted their own private wisdom or philosophical worldview and decided case by case that they would agree with the direction given, but because it was accepted that the opinion of the individual could not be the highest authority in a time of war and the conclusion with one’s personal thoughts on a given matter was redundant.

As the new strain of the coronavirus begins to appear in this country, with more general local transmission in the none too distant future within the ambit of realistic possibilities, the gulf between the wisdom of the wartime generation and the priorities of part of the political and media class stands in increasingly stark relief. The demand is invariably for ‘transparency’ and visible government action, particularly the release of information effectively in real time as it is received, almost as if the purpose of government in the midst of a serious public health challenge is to behave like the chef in an open plan restaurant in which diners can see directly into the kitchen as the cooking proceeds.

In several countries steps are being taken towards an approach which is authoritative and reserved rather than frantic and reactive

The most recent Observer editorial on the current situation is a minor classic of this unhappy genre, decrying the fact that ‘ministers have delayed appearing on key national news programmes that reach a wide public audience, and it took Boris Johnson days after the first British cases emerged to give a statement to the BBC. It echoes his failure to visit flood-hit areas of the country in recent weeks’. Similarly, Gordon Brown’s one-time advisor Damian MacBride took to social media to relate a seven-day-a-week regimen of around-the-clock Whitehall meetings and interviews to broadcast media during the foot and mouth crisis of 2007, apparently sincere in the belief that Mr Brown’s public communications should serve as a worked example of how to reassure the country. Be that as it may, on both accounts it is taken as axiomatic that the role of government is to conform itself to the alleged psychological requirements of the public, as discerned by the media, rather than for the media to assist the public in conforming to the requirements of the moment as discerned by the properly constituted authorities.

It is already clear in several countries that wiser counsels are prevailing and the initial steps are being taken towards an approach which is authoritative and reserved rather than frantic and reactive. There has been a noticeable drift in several jurisdictions towards not telling the public things which can either be learned from social media or which can reasonably be expected to leak in the near future. There is method to this superficially perverse attempt to deny people what they can find out if they try hard enough. These are the early stages of the formation of public readiness for those degrees of control and management which go against the democratic grain. It would be well for people in positions which include a measure of influence on public opinion to understand this for what it is and to see the point of it.

Much of the art of politics as properly practised is to reconcile a country to what is most necessary and most prudent, rather that whatever might most have been wanted. The political skill involved is not unlike that of the psychoanalyst who reconciles the patient to the truth of their own psyche or to the art of the clergyman who reconciles the parishioner to the limitations and the finitudes of the human condition. Nobody with any working knowledge of either approach is under the illusion that what most people need or want at the most difficult moments is an unreservedly blunt and unmediated encounter with reality. Indirection and omission can play their part and there need not always be the pretence that there is any genuine parity in capacity or authority between the participants, which can be quite far from being the case.

Patrick Porter’s consideration of the Afghanistan Papers for The Critic touches on an important truth when it outlines the extent to which there has been a collective requirement to be spared too stark a collision in this country with the nature of that conflict. There is good reason to believe that the public’s need for information about public health preparations and contingency planning in the current situation is also a good deal lower than some claim. More fundamentally still, the purpose of the state for those who wish to deal with realities rather than fictions has always been not simply to act in ways which the public at large cannot act but also to know what the public at large is best not knowing. To the extent that officials in this and other countries are resisting demands from the media class and ill-disciplined factions on social media for unwarranted levels of disclosure, they are not only protecting administrative effectiveness from being squandered on a manic news cycle, they also quite possibly prevent morale from being squandered on a level of disclosure previous generations did quite well not to ask for in the first place.

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