Music of chance

Finest and Darkest Hours: the decisive events in British politics from Churchill to Blair

Kevin Je

In the great historiographical debate, left-wing scholarship has tended to favour the idea of inevitability and the notion of the long, irresistible trend - Braudel's longue duree - over the old-fashioned belief that events, personalities and great accidents account for the shape of history. The left's collective nose tends to go up in the air when historians focus on the music of chance and the achievements of great men.

My own instinctive (and pragmatic) position on this one was decided by living through the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a native of that city, in 1989. Yes, a series of tectonic shifts - the collapse of the Soviet economy, most notably - made this momentous change more or less inevitable. But to explain the precise form the event took, its timing, and, above all, the fact that it led so quickly to the reunification of Germany, one must look elsewhere. The intimacy of Kohl and Mitterrand was essential, as was the position of Margaret Thatcher, a vociferous opponent of reunification, who was then at the end of her reign. George Bush Sr was a calm and diplomatic chairman of proceedings, magnanimous in victory: he did not listen to the White House hawks who wanted him to rub Gorbachev's nose in it. Would Ronald Reagan have exercised such restraint? Surely not. In this instance, structural forces conspired with personality and accident to create an astonishing event.

It is this subtle conspiracy of factors that Kevin Jefferys examines in his new book on 12 "turning points" in postwar British history. Events, he argues, "studied in their appropriate context, are a mainspring of history, not only providing colour and drama, but also having lasting and profound consequences". One such was the case of Winston Churchill's emergence as war leader in 1940. Chamberlain, Jefferys reminds us, was not always the weak man holding aloft a piece of paper after Munich: he was a man with strong roots in his party, with public opinion solidly behind him well into 1939. Yet by May of the following year, he had lost the support of the Commons and was a devastated force. Churchill, who had been without an apparent constituency, regarded as a buffoon by many, was suddenly at the helm of the war effort. Inevitable? No. The brew of heroism, personal failure and deeper historical forces was more complex than that.

Fast-forward to 1978-79, and Jefferys overthrows persuasively the myth - popularised by Jim Callaghan himself - that the rise of Thatcherism and the victory of the "new right" were irresistible. In fact, he makes clear that if Callaghan had called the election in late 1978 (as everyone apart from MORI's Bob Worcester advised him to), he would probably have secured a working majority and might even have smoothed over relations with the unions. We have come to remember the Winter of Discontent as a period of unbridled national anarchy, but it was no such thing. Instead, it provided just enough ammunition for the incoming government to forge ahead with its radical agenda. As Jefferys argues: "Without the lorry drivers, without Nupe, without the Liverpool gravediggers, Margaret Thatcher's introduction of restrictive trade union laws would have been far more difficult to implement."

His touch is not always so sure. He calls Thatcher's fall in 1990 "death by misadventure", a mighty drama played out by envenomed protagonists. This is true, but, in this case, I think, he underestimates the deeper, subterranean forces at work beneath the floodlit stage. The poll tax, deindustrialisation and the grievous impact of boom and bust had created a landscape that would sooner or later have become Thatcher's political grave. If it had not been Geoffrey Howe's spectacular resignation speech, it would have been something else. This was, indeed, a Conservative plot of Jacobean bloodiness. But Thatcher fell because she had lost her moorings in the wider British electorate, and it was this that her self-serving assassins sensed.

One might also take issue with Jefferys's somewhat confused account of John Smith's death. He overstates Smith's achievement, seems to assume that the catastrophe of Black Wednesday would have propelled him into Downing Street and deals in an unresolved fashion with the central partnership of Blair and Brown. This is a considerable disappointment, given that the birth of new Labour and its legacy is the example that will be freshest in his readers' minds, and one that ought to have provided rich material for his thesis.

That said, this is a well-written romp through the juiciest moments in postwar history. It is by its very form a potboiler; but that is no reason to sneer at it. The potboiler used to be a noble genre, a means of guiding people back into subjects with which they imagined themselves to be familiar but about which there was always more to learn. Jefferys, author of a fine biography of Anthony Crosland, deserves praise for trying to revive it.

Sarah Schaefer is director of communications at the Social Market Foundation

This article first appeared in the 18 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, NS Interview - Jack Straw