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 AvatarMatthew Huntbach 7th Jul - 9:46am
    Richard Underhill Under their interim leader Labour is agreeing with the Tory government too often for healthy politics, leaving no space for in-betweeners. Yes, it's...
  • User AvatarMatthew Huntbach 7th Jul - 9:41am
    Jim Williams So with regards to strategy, the previous Lib Dem approach, of giving the Tories a heart and Labour a brain, was a disaster....
  • User AvatarRichard Underhill 7th Jul - 9:29am
    It is, of course, correct to say that our surveillance aircraft and bombers are turning back at a frontier which ISIS does not respect and...
  • User AvatarRichard Underhill 7th Jul - 9:19am
    Greater London has a larger population than Scotland as imminent boundary changes will make clear, unless there are rebellions on the government benches. Other countries...
  • User AvatarJane Ann Liston 7th Jul - 9:16am
    Well said. One could add that the Tories also have the advantage of more money than any other party.
  • User Avatarexpats 7th Jul - 9:04am
    10 years on from the 7/7 London bombings and we have learned nothing..... Bombing in the ME merely creates more 'martyrs' and more home grown...
Wed 8th Jul 2015
Thu 9th Jul 2015
Fri 10th Jul 2015
Sat 11th Jul 2015
Sun 12th Jul 2015
Thu 16th Jul 2015
Sat 18th Jul 2015
Sun 19th Jul 2015
Mon 20th Jul 2015
Thu 23rd Jul 2015
Sat 25th Jul 2015
Sun 26th Jul 2015
Mon 27th Jul 2015
Thu 30th Jul 2015
Sat 1st Aug 2015