The Prime Ministers Who Never Were: a Collection of Counterfactuals

The Prime Ministers Who Never Were: a Collection of Counterfactuals
Edited by Francis Beckett
Biteback, 256pp, £14.99

There can be few people active in politics who in recent years have not found themselves idly wondering how Labour might have fared had John Smith lived. Given the state that the Tory party was in, we can, with hindsight, be confident that Labour would have won the 1997 general election under just about all circumstances, though not perhaps by the huge margin that Tony Blair managed.

Of some things we can be fairly sure: a Smith government would have made do without the services of Peter Mandelson, though one should not entirely exclude the possibility that The Great Manipulator would have managed sooner or later to ingratiate himself with the new regime. The Millennium Dome would not have got off the ground. Spin and focus groupery and all the rest of the New Labour alchemy would be unheard of. Bernie Ecclestone's £1m cheque would have been returned uncashed. We would have been spared the spectacle of a serving prime minister being interviewed as part of a police inquiry into cash for honours.

There would have been some basic social justice: the minimum wage, greater job security and increased investment in schools and hospitals would all have come to pass under Smith just as they did under New Labour. Difficult issues - welfare reform, education, the NHS, peace in Ireland - might not have been addressed with anything like the same energy. Smith radiated integrity, but he was no radical.

The big question is how Smith would have handled George W Bush and the fallout from the attacks of 11 September 2001. My guess is that he would have shown the necessary solidarity, but he would not have sold his soul. We would have gone into Afghanistan with the Americans, but not into Iraq. On Iraq, he would have gone with the Europeans and the UN and thereby avoided the great black cloud that has hung over the New Labour project ever since.

The other big question is whether he would have allowed his chancellor - almost certainly Gordon Brown - to be suckered by the bankers to the extent that he was. He may well have done. Smith was no control freak. Gordon would probably have been left to his own devices as long as the books balanced.

A Smith premiership is just one of the many "what ifs" in this book. Each chapter describes a premiership that never happened. There are 14 in all: Austen Chamberlain, J R Clynes, Lord Halifax, Oswald Mosley, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Gaitskell, Rab Butler, George Brown, Norman Tebbit, Michael Foot, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and David Miliband. The criteria for inclusion are that "the person never attained the top job, but there was a particular moment when, had the chips fallen slightly differently, he would have done".

The most interesting contribution is a rather optimistic essay by Phil Woolas, arguing that had Clynes and not Ramsay MacDonald become Labour leader after the First World War, the rise of Hitler might have been averted and the Second World War might never have happened. A large claim, based on the suggestion that Clynes would not have allowed others to enforce the Treaty of Versailles so ruthlessly, humiliating Germany. Woolas also argues that Clynes would have used his friendship with King George V to stop the Tories exploiting the Zinoviev letter, thereby ensuring a Labour victory in 1924.

Nigel Jones, in another well-argued essay, offers an even more fanciful scenario: Mosley is elected as Labour leader in 1935 instead of Clement Attlee; he becomes Winston Chur­chill's deputy throughout the war and then prime minister in 1945; he goes on to win the 1950 election before finally resigning in a fit of pique in 1955 after failing to persuade parliament to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system with the Alternative Vote.

More realistic, perhaps, is the possibility that the veteran plotter Herbert Morrison might have succeeded in ousting Attlee as Labour leader in 1945 and gone on to lead the party to victory in the 1950 election, thereby laying the basis for decades of social democracy under governments headed by Butler and Gaitskell. Robert Taylor takes a pessimistic view of a Gaitskell premiership, suggesting that, unlike the wily Harold Wilson, Gaitskell would have sent British troops to fight alongside the Americans in Vietnam and that this would have brought about his downfall. Does that remind you of anyone?

Peter Cuthbertson examines the possibility that Margaret Thatcher might have been persuaded to stand down a year earlier than she did, to be succeeded not by John Major, but by Norman Tebbit (with Nicholas Ridley as chancellor). Tebbit, he suggests, would not have fallen for the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, and so would have avoided the disgrace of September 1992 when sterling crashed out of the ERM, taking with it the Conservative Party's claims to sound economic management. Tebbit would also, he argues, have laid the basis for peace in Northern Ireland, but by a rather different route from that of his namby-pamby successors: the assassination, presumably by the SAS, of the entire IRA Army Council.

Sadly, there are no women. None of the obvious candidates - Barbara Castle or Shirley Williams (or Margaret Beckett?) - came close enough. There is one obvious omission: Tony Benn. It is just about possible to construct a scenario where, had Benn won the fiercely contested deputy leadership in 1981, Foot would have resigned and been replaced by Benn; and had one more Exocet missile landed on a British warship, the outcome of the Falklands war might have been different, leading to a Benn premiership in 1983 or 1987. Now that would have set the cat among the pigeons. All very interesting, but, of course, none of the above happened. Ultimately this is a book for anoraks.

A third volume of Chris Mullin's diaries is due in September

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?