What would Britain look like if Hitler had been our friend?

In Sansom’s humbled nation, the Labour leadership had scorned Hitler’s supposedly generous treatment of Britain and her empire, denouncing pro-appeasement backbenchers prepared to split the parliamentary party after it rejected Halifax’s rationale for mak

The great strength of C J Sansom’s counterfactual novel Dominion (Mantle, £12.99) is its convincing portrayal of an alternative Britain in 1952. George VI is recently deceased and his eldest daughter awaits her coronation. Nazi Germany is ostensibly an ally not an occupying power: after Lord Halifax rather than Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain in May 1940, the fall of France led to a peace treaty signed in Berlin.

Thus only the Isle of Wight is occupied, although Senate House constitutes German sovereign territory in the heart of London, with Ambassador Rommel deaf to the screams coming from the Gestapo cells in the basement. Away from Bloomsbury, Sansom’s humbled nation remains in many respects the close-knit yet subtly fissured society that was faithfully reconstructed by David Kynaston in Family Britain; except that, to echo Orwell, the strictest members of the family are very much in control.

In Downing Street, Halifax has made way for a Pétain-esque Lloyd George, his death enabling the Canadian press baron Lord Beaverbrook to satisfy the growing demands of a ruthless dictator in a distant capital. Yet here, it is Hitler whom Beaverbrook is eager to court and not Stalin. Sansom has done his homework, noting how out of uniform and in front of a camera a transformed Oswald Mosley could render the abhorrent acceptable. No wonder that by 1952 a now respectable British Union of Fascists has a sizeable presence in the Commons, allowing Mosley’s appointment as home secretary. Draconian powers render the Home Office a powerful agency of state control, its ambition thwarted only by Whitehall turf wars that the Germans find baffling.

Still surviving is the India Office – however ferocious the struggle for independence in southern Asia – and in charge is Enoch Powell, displaying on television that disturbingly intense stare unique to the intellectually gifted and the manically inspired. His broadcast reaffirms “No surrender!”, but in this case it’s Uttar Pradesh not Ulster, the Führer’s respect for the British Empire ensuring German support for costly counter-insurgency operations. This is a recasting both persuasive and ironic, Sansom drawing on Powell’s wartime fantasy of being viceroy by the age of 30.

In Sansom’s humbled nation, the Labour leadership had scorned Hitler’s supposedly generous treatment of Britain and her empire, denouncing pro-appeasement backbenchers prepared to split the parliamentary party after it rejected Halifax’s rationale for making peace. After 12 years of the state smothering even the tamest dissent, Attlee’s party has joined Churchill’s rogue Tories in abandoning Westminster: the two men provide political leadership for a resistance movement intent on destroying a regime that is ever more indifferent to parliamentary supremacy and the rule of law.

Irony is rooted firmly in accuracy, with only the odd factual error (Etonians play football not rugby; and by dying in 1947 the pro-appeasement cleric Arthur Morley could never have been archbishop of Canterbury five years later). However, Sansom is mistaken in portraying Sir John “Jock” Colville as the devoted acolyte of Churchill he became in real life. In May 1940 Colville was Chamberlain’s loyal private secretary and thus keen for the foreign secretary to succeed should his master be forced to quit. Had Halifax become prime minister, then a relieved Colville would never have altered his view of Churchill as a dangerous opportunist. This is a minor criticism given Sansom’s success in recreating the urban, and especially suburban, landscape of early-1950s Britain, and in recalling the claustrophobic, conservative nature of domestic life.

The book’s authenticity is rooted in a refusal to exaggerate the grimness of everyday living, as well as a recognition that more than a decade after a brief and Blitz-free war, Britain would have emerged from austerity, in the same way that for different reasons the “second Elizabethan era” really did embrace growing affluence and incipient consumerism. Britain across the 1950s saw old prejudices suppressed or melt away, while new ones emerged. No Windrush generation can exist in Sansom’s counterfactual society but he recognises the reality of festering anti-Semitism. At a time when Jews were still often blackballed at the golf club, insulted as “Yids” and labelled as mean, clearly there existed the potential for a malign remoulding of public opinion.

Sansom’s “Historical Note” rightly challenges postwar complacency as to how the British would have dealt with defeat. His afterword articulates a set of fundamentally decent social-democratic values. Where many readers may demur is when he defends depicting a purged SNP as collaborationist and quasi-fascist. Not surprisingly the Scottish Nationalists are appalled by Dominion, dismissing the half-Scottish author’s right to portray nationalist aspiration as too often a dangerous and reactionary phenomenon.

Here is an argument that will run and run, fuelled by aggressive promotion of the paperback edition. Yet however contentious Sansom’s views on Scottish independence are one year away from the referendum, even his harshest critics north of the border would concede that Dominion is the most imaginative restatement of counterfactual fiction since Robert Harris’s 1992 Fatherland. It may not be Alex Salmond’s bedside reading but as an exercise in virtual history, Dominion remains a remarkable achievement.

Adrian Smith is professor of modern history at the University of Southampton

Could Hitler have ever been an ally to Britain? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad