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

Show Hide image

Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood