What If – Alternative Pasts and Futures
“What if…” That little phrase opens a window on an almost limitless vista of alternative universes. We can model in seconds the effects of myriad changing variables on a single portfolio, corporate performance or the global economy. We can comfort ourselves that we know what the result of a series of events will be – at least theoretically. The simpler the parameters, of course, the more accurate the projection. Thus, the P&L effect on a copper option portfolio of a given price move is pretty straightforward; less so the effects on the UK economy of, say, the brexit vote. Or, indeed, on the US one of a Trump Presidency…
But it’s historic what ifs that really offer the possibilities to a powerful imagination. What if Henry VIII had not met Ann Boleyn? With England then remaining amongst the Catholic powers, could the Reformation have succeeded? Or suppose Franz Ferdinand had decided that June morning in 1914 that he didn’t fancy a drive through Sarajevo? Princip would have had no target; how long would it have taken for the next spark to ignite the cauldron of swirling alliances? Or would the Empires have survived?
I’ve just finished reading a book which begins from a what if. C J Sansom’s Dominion opens with a meeting that really happened and whose outcome is accepted as crucial to the direction taken by the world. On 9th May, 1940, in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street, the then Prime Minister of the UK, Neville Chamberlain, met with Lord Halifax (the Foreign Secretary), Viscount Margesson (the Chief Whip) and Winston Churchill (1930s enfant terrible of British politics). The meeting followed the Norway debate in the House of Commons, a no confidence debate actually won by the Government, but in the face of severe opposition in reaction to the fiasco that had hit the British forces in Norway. Now, what actually happened was that Chamberlain understood he could not continue as PM and Halifax – one of the supporters of appeasement – felt he would not have the support across the country to replace him; Churchill therefore found himself in the position to form the next government, with the results we all know. In Sansom’s book, however, Halifax does not cede the position to Churchill; instead, as the man with the greater following in Parliament, he agrees to succeed Chamberlain, with Churchill – realising he has the weaker hand for the moment – agreeing to serve under him. So instead of Churchill emerging from that meeting as putative next PM, it is Halifax who does so, with a mandate to stop the war.
But this book is not just another version of the Germans winning the Second World War and stamping the jackboot all over Britain, which becomes a vassal state of the Third Reich. This is a much subtler tale, and as such, perhaps more disturbing. After that 1940 prologue, the action moves to 1952. Britain is still an independent state, because at the end of May 1940, after Dunkirk, Halifax’s government, just like the French, sued for peace with Germany and concluded a treaty which did not involve occupation, but instead offered independence as an ally of Germany. So the war lasted a bit less than a year, and 1952 Britain is the product of twelve years of being shut out of European trade (reserved for German manufacturers) and relying on the Empire, the dominions of which are less than enamoured (except perhaps South Africa) by the mother country’s alliance with a fascist dictatorship. The US, where Roosevelt lost the 1940 election to an isolationist, is resolutely neutral, although with Adlai Stevenson anticipated to be the next president, moving towards a greater hostility to Germany. Germany itself is still at war with Russia, a seemingly endless killing machine churning on in the East.
The story against that political background revolves around the attempts of the resistance, led by a by then in-hiding Churchill, to smuggle out of the country to the US a scientist with knowledge likely to shorten the development time of the atom bomb. That part is a kind of conventional adventure story, well-written, exciting and in its way thought-provoking, but for me that’s not the major fascination of the book.
It’s the picture of how the population simply accepts its lot. Oswald Mosley is the Home Secretary, his Blackshirts roam the streets dispensing beatings; the Special Branch of the police is in thrall to the Gestapo; a decree comes out, instructing all Jews to come forward for resettlement – apparently, they will go to the Isle of Wight (the only occupied part of the UK), bur the truth is generally accepted that they will actually go further East, and not for resettlement. Yet against all this background, the English are (mostly) stolid, subservient and obedient to their government, with its alliance with a horrendous dictatorship. The point is not that they are English – they could actually be anything – it’s the way Sansom manages to portray the acceptance of hideous politics, legalised violence and the shabby, squalid run-down lives they have to lead. Post 1939-40 war, 1950s England – and London in particular – is not a nice place to be. There are shades of 1984, but the mixing of factual and fictional characters – as well as Mosley, there is Beaverbrook as a quasi-fascist Prime Minister, Enoch Powell as a rabid imperialist Secretary for India, Attlee and Bevin as Churchill’s sidekicks in the leadership of the resistance – adds a layer of gloomy realism to the portrayal of the poor lives led by the ordinary people.
I think Sansom has two major points he wants to make; first, that there may be such a thing as a ‘good’ war and secondly, that narrow nationalism is a dangerous road to follow. There’s probably a lesson in there for us. For me, though, the over-riding feature of the book is the way it demonstrates how easily people will slip into a downward spiral of acceptance, however alien that may at first appear.
In fact, the book finishes on a moderately hopeful note; but the real antidote to the oppressive atmosphere of ‘what if’ 1950s London, though, is to take a stroll round genuine 2016 London. I think that reflects the ‘good war’ thesis – compare what we have with what what the alternative in the book portrays. It’s a good book, thoughtfully written and with a subtle touch in bringing the ‘what if’ 1950s to life. Well worth a read.
Dominion, by C J Sansom, is published by Pan Books and also available as a Kindle e-book.