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