If you do a GCSE exam in History you have to do something called a source paper. You’re given an extract of something old timey (technical term that) and you analyse it – maybe someone’s diary, a cartoon from a newspaper, a letter with an eyewitness account. That sort of thing. And then you draw as many conclusions as possible from a fairly scant amount of information.
But History GCSEs in 2045 are likely to be a very different beast, because thanks to journalist Isabel Oakeshott, students may have the option of reading over 100,000 WhatsApp messages sent during the pandemic, which document every single Matt Hancock cock-up in agonising, granular detail.
Unlikely you’ve missed it, but the overview is that Oakeshott felt that to truly unpick the mishandling of the pandemic, she needed to make public the WhatsApp archive file that Hancock downloaded around the time that he was fired. It was given to Oakeshott by Hancock to aid the writing of their book, Pandemic Diaries: The inside story of Britain’s battle against Covid, but Oakeshott has since handed it over to the Daily Telegraph, who spent weeks combing through every single message.
As I’ve mentioned before, having my WhatsApps made public is basically my worst nightmare. But unlike actress Eva Green, whose charmingly horrible messages became public earlier this year, Matt Hancock comes across as egotistical, needy, and intermittently incompetent. Worst of all, he’s got the most bizarre messaging style of any WhatsApp I’ve ever read.
There’s plenty for better qualified people than me to dissect in terms of the actual policy, and how the former health secretary screwed things up. But one thing I am an actual expert in is WhatsApp. One of the things I’m most grateful for about living in the modern era (aside from reproductive healthcare and Lulu Lemon leggings) is the existence of WhatsApp. 100,000 messages is child’s play to me. I could do that in one really flirty weekend. I love messaging – and then rereading, redrafting, and obsessing over said messages – more than almost any other activity.
The events being discussed in Hancock’s messages might belong in a GCSE History paper, but they’re worthy of an English Literature exam. Take, for example, this exchange, where Hancock has asked George Osborne, the former chancellor and the editor of the Evening Standard at the time, for a “favour” (a positive story in the paper about testing).
As a side bar, I didn’t realise that favours from friends could include weaponising the free press. The best I’ve ever managed is sending my best friend to my flat to check I’ve turned my curling tongs off. Anyway, the exchange reads as follows:
MH: Now I’ll find out how strong the bonds of loyalty are!
GO: You’ll make the front but not as big as 10 mins ago!
MH: Fair enough!
GO: And you’ll like the editorial
GO: Well done
MH: I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET
GO: I gathered
Much as it kills me to praise Osborne, “I gathered” is one of the most gloriously savage responses I’ve ever seen on WhatsApp. The understatement, the disdain, the powerplay – it’s almost enough to make you forgive him for that whole austerity thing. I’m also sad to learn that Osborne and I have something in common, in that we’re both double messengers. Why write out one paragraph and press send when instead you can send one message spread over 10 lines?
On 9 November he delivered an even more devastating response, courtesy of a beautifully placed comma. Hancock claimed: “Ok but mass testing is going v well – I fear this looks like you asked for me to be overruled… ” to which Osbourne responded:
“No one thinks testing is going well, Matt.”
Again, much as I dislike praising the man, the inflection from the comma and the finality of the full stop is chef’s kiss brilliant.
On the topic of grammar, the files prove what I would always have quietly suspected. Hancock is an exclamation mark person. It’s objectively the most uncool punctuation mark, a sort of beg for acknowledgement when it follows a joke, or a pathetic attempt to soften a direct request. We should all give up exclamation marks immediately.
Only worse than his exclamation mark usage is the intermittent use of CAPITAL LETTERS FOR EMPHASIS, in the same way that I do when I’m sending increasingly unhinged 3am messages speculating about being ghosted. It’s a pandemic, Matt, we know that it’s urgent, that doesn’t mean you need to text like a teen. Though perhaps it was a sign of things to come because his affair partner Gina Coladangelo does the same thing, writing, “almost every person on twitter says the goal has been SMASHED” (did they, Gina? Did they really?).
I’m sure that lots of politicians dream of their words being studied in history classes of the future, of their writing being forever held as an example of the power of language and the impact of their political power. It’s just a shame that in the case of Matt Hancock (and many of his colleagues) the study won’t yield any useful learning about how to handle an international pandemic with integrity, but is instead simply a masterclass in how to convey tone over WhatsApp.
Rebecca Reid is an author and journalist