Regular readers of this blog will know I was a huge fan of the political counterfactuals book, Prime Minister Portillo and Other Things That Never Happened. So it was great to find the new volume, President Gore.... lying under my Christmas Tree on Monday.
This one digs deeper back into political history than the original, for instance postulating what might have happened if the 1832 Great Reform Act had not been passed or if Sir Robert Peel had lived longer. I haven't had time to read it through from cover to cover yet, but three chapters dealing with more recent events immediately caught my eye.
The first, by Peter Riddell, looked at the question of what might have happened had Harold Macmillan succeeded in taking us into the Common Market in 1957. By and large I agree with Riddell that it would have made us far more European-minded as a country, but I disagree that it would have led to a moreorless permanent period of Conservative Government, under Macmillan and then Ted Heath, throughout the late 50s, 60s and early 70s. Riddell forgets that that was an era of political pendulum swings, and that Harold Wilson proved a much more successful election-winner than Heath.
The second standout chapter for me was written by the book's editor, Duncan Brack, and looks at what might have happened to the Liberal-SDP Alliance had it not quarrelled over defence and lost a third of its support during 1986. Brack presents a convincing argument that the row could have been avoided given a bit more political commonsense on the part of the protagonists, David Steel and David Owen, but I think he underestimates the extent to which Owen was determined to wreck the Alliance, and that, in this regard, the defence issue was little more than a pretext.
The most fascinating chapter, for me, was the one by R.J. Briand on whether,if John Major had become Chief Whip in 1987, would have have saved Margaret Thatcher from defenestration at the hands of her own party in 1990, only to see her defeated by Neil Kinnock at the ballot box in 1991. Quite possibly. By contrast, Mark Garnett's chapter on Michael Howard becoming leader in 1997 only served to demonstrate that very little would have changed for the Tories in that period, and that whoeever the Tories chose in 1997 and 2001, they were onto a loser.
Anyway, it all goes to show once again that there is very little historical inevitability about anything. I have always thought that the political history of my own lifetime would have turned out very differently if Jim Callaghan had fought an election in 1978, achieved a hung Parliament, gone into coalition with Steel, brought in PR, established a moreorless permament anti-Tory coalition....and relegated Margaret Thatcher to an interesting footnote about a failed ideological experiment instead of coming to dominate the landscape of the past 30 years.