The Prime Ministers who never were

If only one crucial detail in history had turned out differently… such is the premise of many a work of fiction, especially counter-factual histories and time travelling science fiction tales. Yet for all the popularity of the well known piece of verse, “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost…” which culminates in a kingdom being lost, serious counter-factuals by experts in a field are rather rare.

Those who see themselves as proper academics have often looked down on counter-factuals as light entertainment for the not-so-serious, missing that, as The Guardian’s review of this book put it, “It’s only when you consider how to manipulate the conditions to create an alternative future that the factors that shape outcomes become clearer”.

So Francis Beckett’s collection, The Prime Ministers Who Never Were, is a welcome publication not only for adding to small collection of British political counter-factuals but also for having such a heavyweight list of contributors.

By focusing on senior politicians who never quite made it to 10 Downing Street, this collection benefits from being mostly dependent on tiny twists in fate which it is extremely easy to imagine having happened – a slight shift in MP votes in a leadership election or a sudden death that did not occur. It is a serious collection with serious tales, but some authors let a little light mischief slip into their stories as with the idea of a Tony Blair Home Secretary under Prime Minister John Smith being wheeled out to dismiss as vacuous the “Third Way” being pushed by opposition leader Michael Portillo.

Historians and others perennially debate how much influence individuals can really have on events in the face of bigger forces, and these chapters do a good attempt at making the case. In particular, the fact that Halifax almost certainly could have become Prime Minister in 1940 if he had really wanted to, but instead at a crucial meeting with Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill did not press his own case, makes for a fascinating what-if from Hugh Purcell. Even Churchill, one of the figures most likely to be put in the “big enough character to change events” category was subject to such small twists of fate.

Many of the chapters take familiar what-ifs – what if John Smith had not died suddenly, what if the Tories had won a handful fewer seats in 1992 and so on – but there are also some strikingly original ideas, including Peter Cuthbertson’s story of Mrs Thatcher anticipating her demise and campaigning successfully to be succeeded by Norman Tebbit.

The subtlety with which events are initially shifted in these counter-factuals is both a strength – it makes the exercise of pondering “what if.” all the more poignant and insightful – but also a weakness, at least for the non-expert reader. Unlike volumes such as President Gore… and other things that never happened (to which I contributed a chapter on the 1832 Great Reform Act), this volume does not provide any commentary on what has been changed in the alternative histories. If you are not familiar with the details, where facts stop and fiction starts is easy to miss in many cases so whilst you enjoy reading this book, having some reference books or the internet to hand may well enhance the enjoyment.

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in Books.
Bookmark the web address for this page or use the short url http://ldv.org.uk/23589 for Twitter and emails.
Advert

6 Comments

  • Does it include Ed Miliband?

  • Liberal Neil 1st Apr '11 - 12:17am

    Nice redesign.

    And a fitting date for the relaunch ;-)

  • Leekliberal 2nd Apr '11 - 10:40am

    The greatest Prime Minister we never had was undoubtedly Roy Jenkins but look at what he did achieve!

  • Ed Maxfield 4th Apr '11 - 11:16pm

    I havent read the book but it is difficult to view it with much credibility if it is suggesting Foot, Tebbit or Mosley were ever realistic contenders for the top job. Perhaps in a world where only political nerds get to decide things and voters dont count at all.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

  • User AvatarJohnTilley 20th Dec - 2:44am
    Mr Wallace 19th Dec '14 - 11:47pm "......Why anyone would work in a crap job when they didn’t have to is beyond me… " This...
  • User AvatarT-J 20th Dec - 1:37am
    Al, thanks for your wonderfully condescending offer, but England will be better off looking at how federal countries like Germany or the US balance their...
  • User AvatarT-J 20th Dec - 1:16am
    I quite like the idea of running citizens' income using a negative income tax band, which guarantees an income but then pulls back the initial...
  • User AvatarCharlie 20th Dec - 12:21am
    Part of the problem is that not enough thought has been given to terrorism. In War between states there is the Geneva Convention. When dealing...
  • User Avatarmalc 20th Dec - 12:07am
    Sesenco " (1) Would you be kind enough to supply us with a workable, objective definition of “mature enough”? Along with the method that should...
  • User AvatarAl 19th Dec - 11:47pm
    It is significant that the only achieved progress that the article can point to is votes at 16 - a reform driven by and achieved...
Sat 20th Dec 2014
Sat 3rd Jan 2015
Wed 14th Jan 2015
Thu 15th Jan 2015
Fri 16th Jan 2015