The last in-person CULA event I attended was our 2020 AGM, in which I was elected as Comms Officer and became editor of this blog. The international situation began to worsen almost immediately after this, and before long everyone was being told to stay at home (by the government), wash their hands (by the NHS), and write for the CULA blog (by me). I have decided that, as a perhaps rather wanky final act of my term as Comms Officer before our AGM this evening, I would have a look back over the last year of the blog and pick out some of the posts that have stuck in my mind from the weirdest year any of us will probably experience.
Interestingly, almost none of our members wrote directly about covid-19: no posts on public health, on the economics of the pandemic, on the future of politics. I think this is broadly a good thing. Looking back to op-eds and analyses published even this time last year is a humbling experience, showing how little we actually know about the directions crises evolve in and even the short-term impacts they will have; I quite like that CULA members had enough intellectual humility to know that none of us really knew anything, or at least to know we had nothing to add to what experts were saying. But the closest anyone came to writing directly about covid was Alex Harrison’s ‘“Stay at home, fix our National Grid, save lives”’, a weird but very interesting piece of recent-historical fiction about a lockdown that occurred due to climate, not public-health, worries. It’s about how the potentials of politics are much more radical than are often thought, but also how this is not a clearly good thing; I’ve found myself thinking about it multiple times over the past year.
Another post that was about the pandemic without being about it—though in a very different vein—was Joshan Parmar’s post about the exams fiasco, ‘Exam results—without exams’. Gavin Williamson is undoubtedly a very large tit and the exams situation was undoubtedly a massive cockup, but at the time it was hard to find anyone who was clearly saying what, exactly, had been cocked up. Twitter was abuzz with information and misinformation, with individual stories juxtaposed against wide-ranging data in unclear and seemingly contradictory ways. Joshan’s post is still the best explainer I’ve read about what went on: how the system was designed, why it was designed that way, and what the root problems were. It was genuinely very impressive how he cut through all the crap with incredibly penetrating analysis and understanding.
Most of the blog’s content during the age of covid, though, has been about different topics entirely. One big source of such content came just before last Michaelmas, when the Marshall Society posed CULA some questions about politics and economics. We decided to turn it into a competition, having our members submit answers that would be published to the blog, and the best answers (decided on by committee) given to the Marshall Society. I’ll mention just one of the many great answers we received from our members, Keir Bradwell’s winning response to the question ‘Should the UK’s borders be more open or more closed?’ Answering with a resounding “more open!”, Keir gave one of the best short arguments for open borders and free movement of people I’ve read.
But while sometimes the CULA blog engaged with the highest levels of economic and social policy, at other times our members discussed much more particular, and much grubbier, aspects of politics. Lara Brown and Samuel Rubinstein’s cowritten piece ‘Expenses and pretences’ was like this, with its subtitle spelling out their central point: ‘how Daniel Zeichner is letting down his constituents’. Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner got himself into a … spot of bother over his use of parliamentary stationery during the 2019 general election, and Lara and Sam excellently skewered his protestations of innocence. “These are lies, plain and simple”, they wrote of Zeichner’s attempts to dig himself out of the hole of electoral fraud; “[t]he people of Cambridge deserve better.” I can only agree.
Of course, I was not above exercising editorial power to publish my own empty ramblings on the blog whenever I felt like it. I am particularly proud of ‘Hobbes: A Cambridge Story’. If you know anyone who has or who might apply to do HSPS or HisPol at Cambridge, I urge you to send them this piece—it could save a life from being ruined by Thomas Hobbes. (The irony, of course, is that I am currently writing an article about Job 41 in Hobbes’ Leviathan. I have become the very thing I swore to destroy.)
But in my mind, two pieces stand out most of all. The first, Jacob Rose’s ‘Killing for votes’, still impresses me every time I reread it. Written the day before the US general election, in the context of Donald Trump’s rash of federal executions cynically employed to gain support with ‘law-and-order’ voters, Jacob’s piece is hard-hitting without exaggeration or hyperbole and retains an incredible power to shock. The ways democratic leaders can and have killed to win elections, all within the power of the law, was one of the most brutal but necessary topics to discuss in the leadup to that election; Jacob did it every justice.
And then there was Becky Grubb’s ‘In praise of inexperience’. Becky’s piece served an immediate argumentative purpose, as she set out in more detail an argument she had made at the last CULA Spirited Discussions. But you don’t have to know or care about the particularities of the debate Becky was taking part in to appreciate this post. Really, what it is is an emotionally compelling account of how human beings can relate to each other; the post reminds me of the philosophies of David Hume and Adam Smith, and it’s both absorbing and engaging. Speaking completely honestly, both Becky’s and Jacob’s posts rank with the best things I have read in the last year, and I only hope they both put their talents to good use in the future.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the incredible quality and quantity of content that CULA members have produced in the past year. Really, what the pandemic year has shown me most of all is just how impressive our members are: how broad-ranging their interests, how insightful their analysis, and how hot their takes. It’s been an unqualified privilege to read and edit the incredible work that they have produced in one of the toughest years anyone could have imagined. Whether the editor of this blog for the next twelve months is me or someone else, I hope they enjoy the experience just as much as I have.