A review of:

Francis Beckett (ed.): The Prime Ministers Who Never Were

Biteback 2011 £14.99

Counter-factual history has been popular for some time, possibly because there is less history being taught and because we all like to fantasise. This collection of fourteen highly entertaining essays is the latest in that genre and to my certain knowledge there is at least one more in the pipeline.

Counter-factuals are useful in many ways; they are the equivalent of control experiments in science except that one cannot actually change the outcome merely understand it better. One takes an important turning point in history and changes one detail that might have developed otherwise, then studies the effect. Quite often there is no difference – the particular detail turns out not to have been of all-engrossing importance. At other times one can see that history could so easily have gone another way.

There are rules about counter-factuals, though. There is no point in writing about anything but real turning points; the counterfactual has to be credible; and the outcome has to be based on real historical knowledge and not be simply wishful thinking. Sadly, the little tome, entertaining though it is, falls down on almost all of those.

In the first place who the Prime Minister is rarely makes overwhelming difference to events. Some small difference, maybe, but overwhelming no. There are exceptions: had it been one of the Tory wets who had become party leader in 1975 and Prime Minister in 1979, things would probably have gone very differently internally and externally. Similarly, had Lord Halifax accepted the Premiership in 1940, things would probably have gone differently. As it happens, I am not sure about that, though most historians, starting with John Charmley, think so. Would Halifax have managed to come to an agreement with Hitler? Did he even want to? It is not clear but they are both legitimate questions for discussion. One could even argue, as Peter Cuthbertson does, that without the destructive effect of the Brighton bomb Norman Tebbit would have become Prime Minister (very possible) and there would have been no Maastricht Treaty, no agreement with the IRA and Thatcherite reforms would have continued. I think I go along with two of those but my guess is that Prime Minister Tebbit might well have signed that pesky treaty.

As for the other Prime Minister who Never Were, the essays are pure fantasy. Ten out of fourteen are about Labour possibles (or wannabes), which, in itself indicates that this is not true counter-factual but more of the “don’t I wish” school of history. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have had more Labour governments or, at least, a Democratic Centralist Party, created by Rab Butler, in power for most of the twentieth century? That is not true counter-factual history.

The Prime Ministers who never became that did not for the most part because they did not actually have what it takes. Austen Chamberlain and Rab Butler, two of the Conservatives (the other two being Halifax and Tebbit), were not near misses. They would both have had to be completely different personalities to have grabbed the historic possibilities. Interestingly, there is no essay about Curzon who was a real “contender” unlike Austen Chamberlain.

Of the ten Labour possibilities, Neil Kinnock actually lost an election and not particularly narrowly; Michael Foot could not have become Prime Minister in a million years; John Smith, having contributed handsomely to the Labour defeat in 1992, was unlikely to win afterwards; and Hugh Gaitskell would, as almost everyone knows, have lost in 1964 as he had done several times previously. After all, even new broom Harold Wilson barely managed to win. A much more interesting counter-factual would have been a discussion of Sir Alec Douglas-Home winning the 1964 election, which would have been a real possibility and would have made a great deal of difference.