E H Carr once dismissed "what if?" history as an "idle parlour game". Its defenders claim it contributes substantially to our understanding of the past. According to the historian Robert Cowley, "Counter-factual speculations can help to awaken and nourish our historical imaginations." But, with a couple of exceptions, the essays in this volume seem to suggest that Carr's assessment is the more accurate one.
Anne Somerset's spectacularly light-weight essay on that "what if?" perennial, the successful landing of the Spanish Armada in England, exhibits the primary problem of counter-factual history - the multiplication of possible outcomes. So not only does the Armada vanquish the English and anchor off Calais but, "by an amazing feat of logistics", the Spanish commander in the Netherlands, the Duke of Parma, is able to mobilise a 17,000-strong invasion army in 36 hours. Then James VI of Scotland, the Calvinist king, decides to throw in his lot with the Spanish Catholic force. And then Queen Elizabeth appoints the Earl of Leicester commander of the English troops only for him to die "of natural causes . . . three weeks after the Spaniards gained London". Apart from an intriguing discussion of how Shakespeare might have reinterpreted his history plays, we learn very little about the culture, fears or military readiness of Elizabethan England.
Antonia Fraser's imaginative account of a successful Gunpowder Plot is hardly more convincing. Although the writing is characteristically elegant and vivid, Fraser, like Somerset, introduces improbable scenarios. Following the success of the plot, we are asked to believe that James I's son, Charles, is "rescued by loyal Scottish servants . . . rushed to the safety of Scotland and there proclaimed king by the Scottish nobles". There ensue developments, none of which seems very credible, involving dynastic tension and diplomatic intrigue.
John Adamson's sophisticated understanding of Caroline England, his effortless knowledge of civil war intricacies, and his feel for that period's language and culture result in the most believable counter-factual essay in this collection. Displaying far more historical rigour than other contributors, he considers the possibility that Charles I defeated the Roundheads, but concludes that the concessions he would have been forced to make in order to earn victory would have crippled his kingship. Although he credits the naive Charles with rather more political cunning than usual, he comes to the fair conclusion that "the victor of the English civil war is likely to have proved a disappointing monarch".
By the time we get to Napoleon's vic-tory over the Russians, the essential pointlessness of the "what if" project is apparent. Following a succinct reappraisal of Napoleon's march from Moscow, Adam Zamoyski asks us to consider that perpetual nightmare of conservative counter-factual historians, "the Empire of Europe", complete with anthem by Beethoven. Zamoyski proceeds to describe Britain's Chartists falling under the influence of the Saint-Simonians, and then informs us that "vague doctrines of love combined with abundant consumptions of . . . hashish and opium produced a curious movement in the 1840s which had young people wandering around from one part of Europe to another with flowers in their hair". And all this because Napoleon pursued Kutuzov to Tarutino.
By the final chapters, the parlour game is in full swing. Andrew Roberts, styling himself "Andrei Simonovich Robertski", offers a bravura account of the assassination of Lenin at Finland Station by "Lev Harveivic Oswalt" and Stalin's subsequent success in "running a chain of abattoirs back in the Caucasus". David Frum, former speechwriter to George W Bush, rounds things off with an account of a conference call between President Al Gore and aides in the wake of 9/11. Gore's response to the attack is to instigate "the first environmentally sensitive war in history", asking Defence Secretary Wesley Clark to ensure his troops "watch out for migratory birds when they march. And no littering!"
Although many of the essays are amusing, the reader will search in vain for real ideas or a broader historical significance. If the authors are happy to accept their chapters not as contributions to knowledge but merely as turns in the drawing room, then we might all enjoy the joke.
Tristram Hunt's new book, Building Jerusalem, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in June