What if . . . France had taken Quebec

It is the morning of 13 September 1759. On the Plains of Abraham, just outside the walls of Quebec City, Britain is losing its great gamble for world power. We know the conflict today as the Five Years War, but if that single engagement had gone differently, it might have lasted longer - perhaps even seven.

What happened that morning, though, was burned into the mind of every British schoolboy for generations. The British and French forces had barely engaged each other when a shot rang out and General James Wolfe fell, killed outright by a bullet to the head. British morale was shattered; in just 15 minutes, the battle was lost.

Britain's defeat at Quebec was an event of world-historic proportions. With the French ascendant, the Marquis de Montcalm swept south towards the British colonies. And by the time Britain was forced to sign the Treaty of Paris, the map of North America had changed beyond recognition.
Not only did the Bourbon banner fly over New England and New York, but Britain yielded its claim over all territory west of the Appalachians. In Philadelphia as in London, the streets seethed with anger and resentment; in Paris, the skies glittered with celebratory fireworks.

In the short term, at least, Britain's defeat may have been a blessing in disguise. Zhou Enlai famously remarked that it was "too soon to tell" the significance of the revolution of 1769, which spread the uniquely British ideals of liberty, brotherhood and friendship around the world. But few mourned the execution of the unpopular George III, and you have only to look at a banknote to be reminded of the importance of Charles James Fox, our first democratically elected protector. Max Weber argued that Britain's transition to republicanism was inevitable because of its Protestant intellectual heritage. But we often forget that things could have been so different.

Meanwhile the French struggled to cope with the implications of victory. Attempts to impose Catholicism on their new possessions provoked the abortive American Revolution of 1776. And persistent financial problems led to the rise of Lafayette as Europe's first military dictator.

Yet, just this past summer, we were reminded of the worldwide dominance of Gallic culture as all eyes turned to l'Afrique du Sud for the World Cup, millions of fans across the world pinning their hopes on their own beloved boule players.

Thanks to ubiquitous baguette sellers, crêperies and sex shops, almost every major city in the world is now a little Paris. It's years since an English-language film won an award at the Césars. And with French the lingua franca of international technology, even the most patriotic among us have to sauvegarder our work on a disque dur. Zut alors, indeed.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

Show Hide image

David Cameron shows Labour how to do it

Leftwing rhetoric masked rightwing reality in Cameron's conference speech.

“The tanks are in the kitchen,” was the gloomy verdict of one Labour staffer to a speech in which the Prime Minister roamed freely into traditional left-wing territory.

But don’t be fooled: David Cameron is still the leader of an incredibly right-wing government for all the liberal-left applause lines.

He gave a very moving account of the difficulties faced by careleavers: but it is his government that is denying careleavers the right to claim housing benefit after they turn 22.

He made a powerful case for expanding home ownership: but his proposed solution is a bung for buy-to-let boomers and dual-earner childless couples, the only working-age demographic to do better under Cameron than under Labour.

On policy, he made just one real concession to the left: he stuck to his guns on equal rights and continued his government’s assault on the ridiculous abuse of stop-and-search. Neither of these are small issues, and they are a world away from the Conservative party before Cameron – but they also don’t cost anything.

In exchange for a few warm words, Cameron will get the breathing space to implement a true-blue Conservative agenda, with an ever-shrinking state for most of Britain, accompanied by largesse for well-heeled pensioners, yuppie couples, and small traders.

But in doing so, he gave Labour a lesson in what they must do to win again. Policy-wise,it is Labour – with their plans to put rocketboosters under the number of new housing units built – who have the better plan to spread home ownership than Cameron’s marginal solutions. But last week, John McDonnelll focussed on the 100,000 children in temporary accomodation. They are undoubtedly the biggest and most deserving victims of Britain’s increasingly dysfunctional housing market. But Labour can’t get a Commons majority – or even win enough seats to form a minority government – if they only talk about why their policies are right for the poor. They can’t even get a majority of votes from the poor that way.

What’s the answer to Britain’s housing crisis? It’s more housebuilding, including more social housing. Labour can do what Cameron did today in Manchester – and deliver radical policy with moderate rhetoric, or they can lose.

But perhaps, if Cameron feels like the wrong role model, they could learn from a poster at the People’s History Museum, taken not from Labour’s Blairite triumphs or even the 1960s, but from 1945: “Everyone – yes, everyone – will be better off under a Labour government”.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.