Dan Jarvis, pictured in Iraq during his time in the Parachute Regiment. CREDIT: KEITH WALDEGRAVE/ REX
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As the UK tires of career politicians, the soldiers are returning to parliament

It is hard to exaggerate how deeply the public prefer a former soldier, especially one who has seen active service, to a former lawyer, special adviser or trade union official.

Waves of nausea shake the body politic. Theresa May’s limitations as a leader produce such feelings of revulsion that at frequent intervals a spasm runs through her own party, which seems about to spew her out. And yet she is still in office. For although May is considered deficient in leadership qualities, so are her rivals. If Jeremy Corbyn were a formidable parliamentarian, the Conservatives would have had to ditch her by now. But although Corbyn has the quality of having refused to play the careerist game, he is a feeble debater and has yet to humiliate May at Prime Minister’s Questions, least of all on the issue of Russia.

When looking around for someone who could replace May, or indeed Corbyn, a problem arises. Few in either the cabinet or the shadow cabinet are seen by the public as potential leaders. Most of them are regarded – to the extent that anyone has heard of them – as career politicians who have never done anything in the slightest bit brave or interesting outside politics. Taken as a group, they appear industrious, conformist, pallid, selfish and dull.

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg are the most conspicuous contenders for the Tory leadership, but each has bitter enemies as well as admiring friends. While May has preserved a precarious unity by being weak, the fear is that one of the three Brexiteers might split the party by being too bold. What other possibilities exist? They are more numerous than one might think. One of David Cameron’s forgotten services to the Conservative Party was to increase the number of women and ethnic minority candidates who stood in winnable seats. Conservative MPs are more diverse than when he became leader in 2005, and it is not inconceivable that one of these recruits will in due course become leader.

Over the same period, an even more unexpected development took place. Three ex-soldiers who are seen as potential Conservative leaders were elected to parliament, and so was one who may go on to lead Labour. Their names are Rory Stewart, Tom Tugendhat, Johnny Mercer and Dan Jarvis.

To understand the significance of this, it is worth glancing at the history. Between the Duke of Wellington, whose last brief premiership was in 1834, and Winston Churchill in 1940, not one prime minister had served in the armed forces. From Churchill until 1979, every prime minister except for Alec Douglas-Home (debarred by illness) and Harold Wilson (a wartime civil servant) had served in the military in either the First or Second World Wars, and so had hundreds of MPs.

Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan had been badly wounded during the First World War. Their military service was of the greatest political importance. Nobody could impugn the patriotism of Major Attlee, who went on to serve loyally under Churchill, whom he greatly admired, in the wartime coalition, before defeating him in the general election of 1945 and taking charge of the greatest of all Labour governments, itself composed of many and various talents. Military experience is conducive to teamwork.

In an increasingly egalitarian age, it had another advantage. The First World War threw together subalterns from privileged backgrounds with men who had started with nothing. In the trenches they endured horrors of which civilians could have only the faintest idea. Here was equality of risk and sacrifice: indeed, even greater risk and sacrifice for junior officers than for the men they led. Anthony Eden, who in 1955 succeeded Churchill as prime minister, said that while serving in Flanders with men from his own district in County Durham, he acquired a “sense of the irrelevance and unreality of class distinction”. He became a One Nation Conservative: the creed with which Stanley Baldwin, who dominated Tory politics between the wars, sought to meet the challenge of socialism, while at the same time welcoming Labour into parliament and indeed into government.

For Harold Macmillan – under whose leadership the Conservatives recovered so well from Eden’s 1956 Suez debacle that they won a decisive victory at the general election three years later – the trenches were likewise a formative experience. To the end of his life (he died in 1986), Macmillan remained loyal to the men with whom he had served in Flanders 70 years before. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords, delivered in 1984 at the age of 90, he deplored the miners’ strike, then being fought by Margaret Thatcher, for whom he felt little affection: “It breaks my heart to see – and I cannot interfere – what is happening in our country today. This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in.”

There sounds the lost voice of One Nation Conservatism. By the 1980s, even the Second World War generation of politicians was starting to pass from the scene. Edward Heath, a protégé of Macmillan, was an officer in north-west Europe in the 1940s, an experience that helped make him a fervent supporter of European unification: as prime minister he had in the early 1970s taken Britain into what was then the European Economic Community. Heath remained an MP until 2001, but was no longer of significance. James Callaghan, who served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and in 1945 had appeared, like many Labour candidates, in uniform for his selection meeting in Cardiff South, became in 1976 the last of the wartime generation to reach 10 Downing Street. His air of benevolent authority was in its way very naval (his father had been wounded at the Battle of Jutland in 1916), and on a personal basis he was more popular than Thatcher, but she beat him in 1979 following the wave of public sector strikes known as the Winter of Discontent.

 Nicholas Soames, who as a young man served in the 11th Hussars and is still a Conservative MP, likes to recall that when he was first elected in 1983, there were two members of the Tory whips’ office who had gone ashore on D-Day. On the Labour side, Denis Healey had been a beachmaster at Anzio, while senior Tories such as Lord Carrington and Willie Whitelaw bore, like Eden, the letters MC for Military Cross – as a silent but sufficient reminder that they had put themselves in harm’s way.

A few former soldiers such as Soames, himself a grandson of Churchill, still entered the Commons, but by the 1990s they were in a small minority, and none of them was seen as a future leader. The atmosphere now was civilian. Tony Blair had been a barrister; David Cameron a special adviser.

Yet the public became increasingly dissatisfied with this generation of career politicians. They appeared, in the mass, callow and uninspiring. In any pub in Britain you would hear the accusation that they were only in it for the money or that they were all the same – and in 2009, when the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, the charge seemed proven. Our political class stood convicted of lining its own pockets while having no idea of the struggles other people faced.

 Anthony Eden (centre) servd in the First World War before going on to become Prime Minister. Credit: Getty

In 2011, the expenses scandal claimed as one of its victims Eric Illsley, the former National Union of Mineworkers official who was Labour MP for Barnsley Central. He pleaded guilty to three charges of false accounting and was sentenced to 12 months in prison. One of those who put themselves forward for his seat was Dan Jarvis. He faced what should in Yorkshire have been the insuperable hurdle of hailing from Nottingham, where the miners had kept working during the strike. But he was also a major in the Parachute Regiment, and when someone observed at his selection meeting that he had not run many political campaigns, he was able to reply that he had run a few against the Taliban.

It is hard to exaggerate how deeply the public prefer a former soldier, especially one who has seen active service, to a former lawyer, special adviser or trade union official. Jarvis was duly selected and returned for Barnsley Central.

Soon after he arrived at Westminster, another Labour MP who had served in the forces, the MP for Falkirk, Eric Joyce, who had risen from private to major in the Black Watch, got into serious trouble in a Commons bar. Most Labour Party members wanted nothing to do with Joyce. He was seen as an embarrassment, and was left to sink from view as quickly as possible. Jarvis saw this as intolerable, and did a great deal to look after Joyce, ringing him several times a day to find out how he was. A Conservative MP, Adam Holloway, who had served in the Grenadier Guards and had been at Sandhurst with Joyce, also did what he could to help. Here was a different scale of values: a man was in serious trouble, so you tried to rescue him.

You learn more about leadership in Afghanistan or Iraq than you do as an underling at Westminster. Sharing a cup of tea in the small hours in an outpost thousands of miles from home is a good way of getting to know your compatriots. At its best, military life encourages solidarity, self-sacrifice, courage under fire, making light of difficulties, and a willingness to back one’s own judgement. You do not abandon a comrade because the idiot has got himself into trouble. You rally round.

When Gavin Williamson, the new Defence Secretary, a man with no knowledge of or instinct for military life, tried to garner cheap applause by saying that we should “destroy and eliminate” Britons who had fought for Islamic State, Jarvis had the experience needed to put him right. As he wrote in the Guardian:

When on military operations, your proximity to death and violence – and to those who do not acknowledge the rule of law – both challenges your belief in the importance of such laws and reinforces the need for them… But how we utilise force is what differentiates us from our opponents. Soldiers know they lose their legitimacy when they sink to the level of the terrorists they face, and that such legitimacy is maintained through the rule of law. If soldiers understand that, secretaries of state should too.


Johnny Mercer left the army after 12 years, having served in Afghanistan as a captain in 29 Commando Regiment. In 2015 he stood as the Conservative candidate in the Labour seat of Plymouth Moor View, and after the Tories polled the constituency, Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist running their campaign, told him: “You ain’t gonna win, mate.”

But Mercer did win, and delivered a maiden speech in which he explained his commitment to better mental health provision and care of veterans. He recounted the cases of his friends Lance Sergeant Dan Collins, who committed suicide after returning from Afghanistan, and Lance Bombardier Mark Chandler, who was shot in the face while serving next to Mercer “in an intense close-quarter gunfight” during a dawn patrol, and died in his arms. Mercer spoke of “the bottomless well of grief that comes from losing a child, husband, brother or sister in war”.

This speech attracted much attention and Mercer was singled out as a potential future leader, which can be an invidious position, as it distresses other MPs. As he remarked in a recent interview: “I have no delusions about how some colleagues do feel about me, I’ve been told so. Recently I’ve done a lot of media on defence and the NHS; they genuinely think I do that for myself. They fundamentally miss the point that this is me doing my bit for the team effort.”

For Mercer, “the team” stretches across party boundaries: he has expressed his disgust at the sexist and anti-Semitic abuse thrown at Ruth Smeeth, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North.

When Tom Tugendhat – after serving with the army in Iraq, Afghanistan and as military assistant to General David Richards, then chief of the defence staff – applied for the safe Tory seat of Tonbridge and Malling in 2013, he was able to declare: “I am not a professional politician… I have never fought an election.” He judged, rightly, that this would be to his advantage; he won an open primary against stiff competition from three other finalists with greater political experience, who all went on to find other seats.

Although he only became an MP in 2015, Tugendhat was elected to the chairmanship of the foreign affairs select committee in the summer of 2017, after indicating, in a Times article, that he was determined to hold the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to account: “When humour is lost in translation it creates misunderstandings with other countries that we can’t afford.”

The Tugendhat insurgency – which routed the incumbent Conservative committee chairman, Crispin Blunt, who was thought to be too sympathetic to the Foreign Office – was supported by a cross-party coalition which included Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Keir Starmer and Dan Jarvis.

Rory Stewart served in the army for a short time, but became celebrated for his proconsular exploits in Iraq, where after the invasion of 2003 he played a role in trying to reconstruct two of the country’s southern provinces, and for his remarkable walk across Afghanistan, described in his book The Places In Between.

Soon after he was elected an MP in 2010, the New Yorker published a profile of Stewart, in which he described his idea of leadership by talking about his work with a charity he set up in Kabul:

 I work with a local government councillor called Aziz, who was a champion wrestler. For 40 years, he has dealt with war, pogroms and government. He is assessed by members of his community on whether he is generous to the poor, courageous even in the face of death, a powerful representative of their interests and able to keep his promises. He and they believe that leadership is an exercise in moral virtue and courage, that politics should be a noble profession and politicians virtuous. A British voter might think that is naive. But I believe Aziz is right.

Most British voters would, I think, be delighted by such a definition of leadership, as long as they were confident the person making it was not a hypocrite. In the recent reshuffle Stewart was moved from the Foreign Office to be made prisons minister, which was said by some to be a ridiculous appointment given his expertise in foreign affairs. But it might equally well turn out to be a good one. Some of his early remarks, about the need to concentrate less on the theoretical aspects of prison management and more on finding out, for example, why Liverpool prison is filthy and getting the place cleaned up, have been encouraging.


Leadership contests are unpredictable, and the chances are that none of these former soldiers will reach the top. But at least they are expanding the range of possibilities beyond the ranks of candidates who only know or have ever done politics. And it happens that Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who many, especially on the Remain side, want to see succeed May, was an enthusiastic member of the Territorial Army. On becoming, last summer, honorary colonel of 32 Signal Regiment, in which she herself had served, Davidson declared: “The training you receive as a reservist develops leadership, decision making, teamwork, confidence and moral courage.”

Just the qualities one would like to see in a prime minister, since the greatest holders of that office (one thinks of Churchill and Attlee) have succeeded only by conducting a strong team of ministers. The prime minister cannot do it all on his or her own. They have to appoint good colleagues, trust them to do good work, and listen to them when they talk good sense. Cabinet government is not some impractical constitutional theory. It is the best way of reaching good decisions.

In the United States, soldiers since George Washington have shown that they can become statesmen by rising above the petty partisanship that disfigures so much of politics. In Britain, the public is disgusted by politicians who seem interested only in advancing their careers, and who display none of the qualities one looks for in a leader, including the ability to recruit and work with the best people for the job.

But the Commons is not a fixed body. It evolves, and one of the unremarked ways in which it has changed in recent years is by taking in gifted new members who learned about leadership in the armed forces, and not as bag-carriers to nonentities. l

The author’s new book, “Gimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May”, is published by Square Peg

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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A century ago, the Spanish flu killed 100 million people. Is a new pandemic on the way?

Our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have.

It is hard not to have a sneaking envy of the virus. As complex creatures, we are distracted by myriad demands on our attention; we will never know the dead-eyed focus of the viral world. It is akin to the psychopath: a cold, purposeful drive to achieve its own agenda, coupled with the skills and resourcefulness to succeed. In a world threatened by nuclear war and devastating climate change, it may actually be the virus that we should fear most.

This is the centenary year of the Spanish flu outbreak, when a virus killed between 50 and 100 million people in a matter of months. The devastation was worldwide; it is only known as Spanish flu because Spain, neutral in the ongoing hostilities of World War One, was the only country without press restrictions. Across Europe, people assumed their own outbreaks originated in the only place reporting on the disaster.

A number of authors have lined up with a kind of grim celebration of influenza’s annus mirabilis. As well as chronicling the fatal reach of this organism, they all offer a warning about a follow-up pandemic that is overdue – and for which, it seems, we are largely unprepared. “Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey, or pig, preparing to jump to a human being,” says Jonathan Quick in The End of Epidemics. “It has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

If that seems a little shlocky, you should know that Quick is no quack. He is a former director at the WHO, the current chair of the Global Health Council and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. The book’s blurb includes endorsements from the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the president of Médicins Sans Frontières, and the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The numbers Quick serves up are stupefying. Bill Gates, for instance, has said it is more likely than not that he will live to see a viral outbreak kill over 10 million people in a year. In Gates’s nightmare scenario, outlined by computer simulations created with disease-modelling experts, 33 million people die within 200 days of the first human infection. The potential for exponential spread means a death toll of 300 million is possible in the first year. “We would be in a world where scrappy, ravaged survivors struggle for life in a zombie-movie wasteland,” Quick tells us in his informed, cogent and – honestly – frightening book.

If you can’t imagine what that is like, you could try asking the Yupik people of Alaska, who were devastated by the 1918 Spanish flu. You might not get an answer, however, because they remain traumatised, and have made a pact not to speak about the pandemic that shattered their ancient culture.  (A pandemic is a disease that spreads across continents; an epidemic is usually contained within a country or continent.)They aren’t the only long-term sufferers. The Vanuatu archipelago suffered 90 per cent mortality and 20 of its local languages went extinct. Those in the womb in 1918 were also affected. A baby born in 1919 “was less likely to graduate and earn a reasonable wage, and more likely to go to prison, claim disability benefit, and suffer from heart disease,” reports Laura Spinney in Pale Rider.

Such arresting snippets of the flu’s legacy abound in Spinney’s thoughtful, coherent take on the 1918 outbreak. The book’s subtitle suggests that the Spanish flu changed the world, and Spinney certainly backs this up. Societies broke down and had to be rebuilt; recovering populations were reinvigorated by the simple calculus of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”; public health provisions were first imagined and then brought into reality; artists and writers responded to a new global mood by establishing new movements.

Not every outcome could be spun as a positive. Scientists, for instance, were humiliated by their inability to halt the flu’s progress, creating an opportunity for quack medicines to arise and establish themselves. Some of our greatest writers lived through the trauma, but could never bring themselves to discuss it in their stories. Virginia Woolf noted that it was “strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature”.

Spinney’s background as a science writer shines through: her handling of the workings of the flu is detailed and deft. She brings both the influenza A virus (the only type responsible for pandemics) and the human immune system to life, laying out the biochemical processes that kill and cure with clarity and care. She exposes the chilling roots of often-used but seldom-explained viral names such as “H1N1” (Spanish flu) or “H5N1” (bird flu). H is for haemagglutinin, the lollipop-shaped appendage that allows a virus to break into a cell and take over the means of production. N is for neuraminidase, the “glass-cutter” structure that allows replicated viruses to break out again and unleash hell upon the host. So far, we know of 18 H’s and 11 N’s and they all have ever-evolving sub-types that make a long-lasting general vaccine against the flu an elusive dream: “Every flu pandemic of the 20th century was triggered by the emergence of a new H in influenza A,” says Spinney.

For all her technical expertise, Spinney has a light touch and a keen eye for the comic. She relates how a ferret sneezing in the face of a British researcher in 1933 exposed influenza’s ability to travel between biological species, for instance. She also excels with the bigger picture, detailing the century of scientific detective work that has allowed us to piece together the genetic elements of the 1918 virus and gain insights into its creation. It seems to have jumped to humans on a farm in Kansas, via domestic and wild birds indigenous to North America. There may also have been some ingredients from pigs, too, but that’s not settled.

Spinney’s afterword questions whether our collective memory for such events ever reflects the truth of the moment. “When the story of the Spanish flu was told, it was told by those who got off most lightly: the white and well off,” she tells us. “With very few exceptions, the ones who bore the brunt of it, those living in ghettoes or at the rim, have yet to tell their tale. Some, such as the minorities whose languages died with them, never will.”

That said, Catharine Arnold has done a remarkable job of relating the tales of a diverse set of sufferers, crafting an arresting and intimate narrative of the 1918 pandemic. She pulls the accounts of hundreds of victims into a gripping tale that swoops down into the grisly detail, then soars up to give a broad view over the landscape of this calamitous moment in human history.

Arnold’s remembrances come from the unknown and from celebrities. A Margery Porter from south London emphasised that “we just couldn’t stand up. Your legs actually gave way, I can’t exaggerate that too much.” John Steinbeck described the experience of infection as almost spiritual. “I went down and down,” he said, “until the wingtips of angels brushed my eyes.”

The reality was, inevitably, less poetic. A local surgeon removed one of Steinbeck’s ribs so that he could gain access to the author’s infected lung. Most victims’ bodies turned blue-black as they died. Healthcare workers reported appalling scenes, with delirious patients suffering horrific nosebleeds. “Sometimes the blood would just shoot across the room,” a navy nurse recalled. If their lungs punctured, the patients’ bodies would fill with air. “You would feel somebody and he would be bubbles… When their lungs collapsed, air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled – an awful crackling noise with sounded like Rice Krispies when you pour milk over them.”

The killer in 1918 was often not the flu virus itself but the “cytokine storm” of an immune system overreacting to the infection. Strong, fit young people, with their efficient immune systems, were thus particularly at risk, their bodies effectively shutting themselves down. Then there were the ravages of opportunistic bacteria that would lodge in the devastated tissue, causing pneumonia and other fatal complications. Arnold paints a grim but vivid picture of exhausted gravediggers and opportunistic funeral directors cannily upping their prices. The morgues were overflowing, and morticians worked day and night. In the end, mass graves were the only answer for the poverty-stricken workers attempting to bury their loved ones before they, too, succumbed.

No one was spared from grief or suffering at the hands of the “Spanish Lady”, as the flu came to be known. Louis Brownlow, the city commissioner for Washington DC, reported nursing his stricken wife while answering telephone calls from desperate citizens. One woman called to say that of the three girls she shared a room with, two had died, and the third was on her way out. Brownlow sent a police officer to the house. A few hours later, the sergeant reported back from the scene: “Four girls dead.”

Some of the other stories Arnold has unearthed are equally heartbreaking. A Brooklyn boy called Michael Wind wrote of the moment his mother died after less than a day of being ill. He and his five siblings were at her bedside, as was their father, “head in hands, sobbing bitterly”. The following morning, knowing that he was soon to die too, their father took the three youngest children to the orphanage.

Arnold writes beautifully, and starkly, of the tragedy that unfolded in the autumn months of 1918: “the Spanish Lady played out her death march, killing without compunction. She did not discriminate between statesmen, painters, soldiers, poets, writers or brides.” She chronicles the Lady’s path from the United States and Canada through Europe, Africa and Asia, culminating in New Zealand’s “Black November”. The book is utterly absorbing. But how do we respond to its horrors and tragedies? What are we to do with our collective memories of such visceral, world-shattering events? Learn from them – and fast, argues Jonathan Quick.

Unlike Arnold and Spinney, Quick is not content to be a chronicler or a bystander. He is, he says, both terrified at the looming disaster and furious at the lack of high-level reaction to its threat. He is determined to create a movement that will instigate change, mimicking the way activists forced change from governments paralysed by, and pharmaceutical companies profiteering from, the Aids pandemic. Quick has channelled his fury: The End of Epidemics is, at heart, a call to arms against influenza, Ebola, Zika and the many other threats before us.


So what are we to do? First, our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have. We must strengthen our public health systems, and create robust agencies and NGOs ready to monitor and deal with the threat. We must educate citizens and implement surveillance, prevention and response mechanisms, while fighting misinformation and scaremongering. Governments must step up (and fund) research.

We can’t develop a vaccine until the threat is manifest, but we can prepare technology for fast large-scale production. We can also invest in methods of early diagnoses and virus identification. Invest $1 per person per year for 20 years and the threat will be largely neutralised, Quick suggests. Finally – and most importantly – there is an urgent need to create grass-roots support for these measures: citizen groups and other organisations that will hold their leaders to account and prevent death on a scale that no one alive has ever experienced. Is this achievable? Traumatised readers of Quick’s book will be left hoping that it is.

For all the advances of the last century, there are many unknowns. Scientists don’t know, for instance, which microbe will bring the next pandemic, where it will come from, or whether it will be transmitted through the air, by touch, through body fluids or through a combination of routes.

While there is considerable attention focused on communities in West Africa, East Asia or South America as the most likely source of the next outbreak, it’s worth remembering that most scientists now believe the 1918 influenza outbreak began on a farm in Kansas. Quick suggests the
next pandemic might have a similar geographical origin, thanks to the industrialised livestock facilities beloved by American food giants.

Viruses naturally mutate and evolve rapidly, taking up stray bits of genetic material wherever they can be found. But it’s the various flu strains that live inside animals that bring sleepless nights to those in the know. They can exist inside a pig, bat or chicken without provoking symptoms, but prove devastating if (when) they make the jump to humans. As more and more humans live in close proximity to domesticated animals, encroach on the territories inhabited by wild animals, and grow their food on unprecedented scales, our chance of an uncontrollable epidemic increase.

The meat factories known as “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) are particularly problematic. They provide cheap meat, poultry, dairy and
eggs from animals kept in what Quick terms “concentration camp conditions”, simultaneously creating the perfect breeding ground for new and dangerous pathogens. Pigs, he points out, eat almost everything, so their guts are the perfect mixing bowls for a new and deadly influenza strain. “CAFOs were the birthplace of swine flu, and they could very likely be the birthplace of the next killer pandemic,” Quick warns.

There are other possibilities, though – bioterror, for instance. Bill Gates is among
those who have warned that terrorist groups are looking into the possibility of releasing the smallpox virus in a crowded market, or on a plane. Then there is the possibility of a scientist’s mistake. In 1978 a woman died after smallpox was released from a laboratory at the University of Birmingham, UK. In 2004 two Chinese researchers accidentally infected themselves with the SARS virus and spread it to seven other people, one of whom died. In 2014, a cardboard box full of forgotten vials of smallpox was found in a National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Maryland. A year later, the US military accidentally shipped live anthrax spores to labs in the US and a military base in South Korea. It’s not impossible that human error could strike again – with catastrophic results.

Such possibilities lie behind our discomfort with what scientists have to do to further our understanding. Researchers in Rotterdam, for instance, wanted to know whether the deadly H5N1 bird flu could develop a capacity for airborne transmission like the common cold virus. Having failed to modify its genetics to achieve this, they began to pass an infection between ferrets, the animals whose response to the virus most mimics that of humans. Ten ferrets later, healthy animals were catching the virus from the cage next door. Knowing how easily H5N1 can become airborne is exactly the kind of discovery that will bolster our vigilance. It is, after all, many times more fatal than the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu. At the same time, there was a huge – but understandable –
furore over whether the research should
be published, and thus be available to potential bioterrorists.

We might have to live with such dilemmas, because it is important to be ready to challenge the killer virus when it arrives. As we have seen with Aids and the common cold, developing vaccines takes time, and there is no guarantee of success, even with a concerted research effort.


Will we be ready? Quick suggests that our best chance lies in the world’s business leaders realising what’s at stake: economies would be devastated by the next pandemic. In 1918, Arnold points out, the British government was telling citizens it was their patriotic duty to “carry on” and make sure the wheels of industry kept turning. The result was a perfect environment for mass infection. Political leaders made similar mistakes across the Atlantic: on 12 October President Wilson led a gathering of 25,000 New Yorkers down the “Avenue of the Allies”. “That same week,” Arnold reports, “2,100 New Yorkers died of influenza.”

It’s worth noting that Spanish flu did not abate because we outsmarted it. The pandemic ended because the virus ran out of people it could infect. Of those who didn’t die, some survived through a chance natural immunity, and some were lucky enough to have maintained a physical separation from those carrying the invisible threat. The virus simply failed to kill the rest, enabling their bodies to develop the antibodies required to repel a further attack. A generation or two later, when the antibody-equipped immune systems were in the grave, and humans were immunologically vulnerable (and complacent) once again, H1N1 virus re-emerged, causing the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

As these books make clear, this is a history that could repeat all too easily in our time. Of the three, Pale Rider is perhaps the most satisfying. It has greater complexity and nuance than Arnold’s collection of harrowing tales, fascinating though they are. Spinney’s analysis is more circumspect and thus less paralysing than Quick’s masterful exposition of our precarious situation. But the truth is we need all these perspectives, and probably more, if we are to avoid sleepwalking into the next pandemic. Unlike our nemesis, humans lack focus – and it could be our undoing. 

Michael Brooks’s most recent book is “The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook” (Scribe)

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
Laura Spinney
Vintage, 352pp, £25

Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History
Catharine Arnold
Michael O’Mara, 368pp, £20

The End of Epidemics
Jonathan D Quick with Bronwyn Fryer
Scribe, 288pp, £14.99

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special