Magazine article The Spectator

Yesterday's Nearly-Men

Magazine article The Spectator

Yesterday's Nearly-Men

Article excerpt

The Prime Ministers Who Never Were: A Collection of Political Counterfactuals edited by Francis Beckett Biteback, £8.99, pp. 243, ISBN 9781849543217 Francis Beckett has come up with an intriguing new brand of political history. The Prime Ministers Who Never Were selects 14 of Britain's nearly-men and imagines how they'd have fared in the top job. The big beasts are reduced to footnotes and the prat-fallers occupy centre stage. Beckett himself writes the story of Labour in the 1990s without the modernisers, and 13 other contributors cover the rest.

John Smith survives his heart attack in 1994 and wins a 99-seat majority in 1997.

His first act is to scrap the Millennium Dome, which Beckett describes as 'a now longforgotten proposal to build a vast round shed in Greenwich . . . which no one could find a use for'. The Tories re-group under Michael Portillo who tacks to the centre and invents something called 'The Third Way'.

Labour's new Home Secretary, Tony Blair, denounces it as 'vacuous'.

Smith fails to bond with George W. Bush, who regards him as a 'louche, lazy, pinkish European'. Their mutual antipathy keeps Britain on the side of the French during the build-up to the Iraq War. In 2002, Smith resigns suddenly, and gives his chosen successor, Gordon Brown, a week to prepare his bid for power. Despite the leg-up, Brown is outmanouevred by his main rival:

not Blair but Ken Livingstone. This coup, as the author sweepingly asserts, leads to 'ten years of municipal socialism'.

The temptation to indulge in mischievous gags like that undermines Beckett's claim that 'counterfactual history matters'.

The book works better, oddly enough, when it sticks to established truths. Anne Perkins, describing the premiership of Michael Foot, lays out his inadequacies bluntly:

He disliked telling people what to do and he hated restricting the liberty of others. He also had a dangerous tendency always to see the best even in the most awkward of colleagues.

Absolutely right. The wild-haired, stickwaving wizard of Hampstead was scarcely fit to lead a Neighbourhood Watch scheme, let alone a government.

Hugh Purcell offers an admirably balanced view of a Halifax premiership in 1940. The arch-appeaser would have lasted no more than two months, Purcell argues, after trying and failing to make peace with Hitler.

The gravitational tug of Churchill is irresistible and Purcell devotes at least half his essay to the leader-in-waiting. He reminds us how unfit for office Churchill seemed in 1940. …

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