Counterfactual history is a very useful, yet undervalued tool of historical analysis. When taken seriously, it offers a unique instrument for measuring the impact of particular events, decisions or personalities, by enabling historians to construct realities in which they did not exist or occur. Aside from the insights this offers, counterfactuals also have an emotional appeal unlike any other branch of history, inspiring a peculiar combination of fascination, temptation and poignant frustration. Perhaps because of this emotive quality, the field is becoming increasingly popular with the public, but is still struggling to gain academic respectability. In this context, Duncan Brack’s and Iain Dale’s Prime Minister Corbyn is an laudable step forward, offering rigorous, thoughtful argument alongside popular appeal.
The best leaders we never had?
As might be gleaned from the title, the collection is concerned primarily with British political history. Its essays explore such topics as the Liberal Unionist split in 1886 (and whether it could have been avoided); a possible union of the UK and France in 1940; an early Brexit following the referendum of 1975; a split in the Labour Party in the wake of the Iraq War; and a nationalist victory in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Naturally, and perhaps most tantalizingly, it also presents a host of alternative prime ministers, from the obvious candidates, such as Boris Johnson or David Miliband, to more novel possibilities such as Roy Jenkins, Hilary Benn, Tessa Jowell, Ed Balls, or the titular Jeremy Corbyn – though this last scenario is something of a cheat, as will be seen.
In addition, there are three essays that break up the UK-centric material, introducing the reader to versions of the USA and Russia governed by Hubert Humphrey and Evgeniy Primakov, respectively, and to a Germany that never experienced reunification in 1990. Even without these international entries, however, the book offers an admirably diverse selection of alternate realities, which combine to make it a very entertaining read, quite aside from the strengths of the individual scenarios.
Finger on the pulse
As the editors mention in their introduction, this book is in fact the fourth in a series of political counterfactual volumes that has been running since 2003. The fact that so many texts have been published in this field in such a short period is impressive – all the more so since this volume, at least, is of such high quality. Another upshot is that the collection is remarkably current: of its twenty-three essays, thirteen focus on events from 2000 or later, with eleven of those centred on the major upheavals of the last decade.
It is clear from the topics of these essays that this is a book compiled in a post-crash, post-Brexit, increasingly polarized political climate. Chapters by Andrew Stone, Paul Richards, Mark Pack, Alexander Larman and Julian Huppert and John King, for instance, all look at various means by which the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010–2015 could have been more successful, or avoided altogether. A further set, by Stuart Thompson, Tony McNulty and Adrian Moss, present realities in which the Labour Party could have become a more enticing prospect in time for the 2015 election, and where Britain has therefore been spared both Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.
Even several essays whose points of divergence are further back, such as Tim Oliver’s scenario of a 1975-Brexit, or Peter Cuthbertson’s piece on Britain’s losing the Falklands War of 1982, also shed light on these contemporary events, by presenting worlds in which their causes never arose. The use of such up-to-the-minute subject matter makes it easier for the reader to appreciate the value of the counterfactual analysis, which feels more relevant, and emotionally resonant, in a contemporary setting.
The finer points of politics
The choice of material also allows for a subtlety of approach that is immensely refreshing in this field. With considerable overlap between many of the essays, the authors are obliged to draw precise and often creative distinctions between their counterfactuals, which in turn makes them much more intellectually compelling. Most of the scenarios are appropriately small-scale, spanning only a few years and exploring in some detail the impact of often minor deviations from our established history.
Most chapters also employ quite a finely-shaded morality. While a few show realities that are unambiguously better or worse than our own, the majority deal with worlds that are simply different, inviting the reader to consider the role that inertia, vested interest and other countervailing factors might play in history. In Oliver’s chapter, for example, Britain’s relationship with the European Union remains similarly complex, and equally fraught, after its departure in 1975, and by the present day Euroscepticism has become as influential a political force as in our world, though for different reasons.
This subtlety extends even to the style in which almost all the chapters are written, with most authors committing fully to the counterfactual scenario. Most essays present themselves as a historical work hailing from the alternate reality in question, with only a small editorial passage at the beginning or the end commenting on the analysis and comparing it with what really took place. This is largely a stylistic affectation, and certainly makes the book more entertaining, but this does not impair the quality of the essays. On the contrary, it marks this book as a more mature, developed work of counterfactual history, from people clearly comfortable in the field.
The importance of this nuanced approach cannot be overstated. As I have outlined before, scholars working to tighten up the methodology of counterfactual history, such as Martin Bunzl, have stressed the need for a usable counterfactual proposition to have a plausible turning-point and plausible consequences. Without both of these elements, the acceptability and the usefulness of the scenario are compromised. This is a trap into which a large number of counterfactual works have fallen, with authors often tempted to sacrifice plausibility for a more striking or elaborate alternate world. For the most part, Prime Minister Corbyn confidently avoids this pitfall.
No country for straw men
There are one or two exceptions, however – including, sadly, the final two essays dealing with the Jeremy Corbyn premiership of the title. The more eyebrow-raising of the two is easily Tom Harris’ chapter, in which Corbyn proves to be an unparalleled disaster as prime minister. After winning the 2020 general election, he attempts to force through an ill-conceived and thoroughly unpopular hard-left legislative agenda, alienating his citizens and much of the rest of the world and inflicting immense damage on Britain’s infrastructure and its international standing, before his government is ousted by a heroic alliance of the Queen, the Conservative Party and the upstanding British populace.
To say that this apocalyptic narrative is unconvincing is putting it mildly. The extremity of Corbyn’s left-wing programme, and the chaos of his premiership in general, seem unlikely. Given the extent to which his politics have softened, in presentation at the very least, since his appointment as Labour leader, there seems litle chance that he would attempt half this programme even if he were elected. This characterization of Corbyn and his government reads as a slightly crass caricature, one constructed by the author purely so that it can then be discredited. The version of the Labour leader presented here seems grounded in popular media depictions, especially those that appeared at the start of his leadership in 2015, and there is little attempt to convince the reader of any deeper plausibility to the scenario.
Indeed, the chapter has more in common with several fictional representations of corrupt or dysfunctional government than with real political life. To a large extent, it can be viewed as a lightly-sketched fusion of the original House of Cards serial and the 1988 television series A Very British Coup, which proposed a counterfactual based on a Labour victory in the 1983 election. In fact, this chapter, and the prime minister it describes, would have worked far better as an exploration of a 1983 Labour government; the party’s manifesto for that year advocated many of the policies pursued by Corbyn here. Instead, the essay attempts to shorehorn Corbyn into the fictional Harry Perkins’ shoes, as though the past two years had not happened, and fails to justify the exaggeration.
The other essays at the back of the book fare little better. Francis Beckett’s vision of a Corbyn premiership is more novel and interesting than Harris’, but scarcely more convincing as a counterfactual analysis. Andy Mayer’s depiction of Boris Johnson as prime minister, meanwhile, feels more cartoonish than the others combined, with its screenplay format, inclusion of fictional characters (notably Martin Tucker, a communications director with an infamous father) and extensive use of future, rather than counterfactual, history.
Back, not forward
This last may be the root of most of the weaknesses of these entries. A focus on the future sits uneasily in a collection of counterfactual history, leading to conclusions that tend to be both more speculative and more controversial. It also seems to encourage a preoccupation with the style of the proposition over its substance, to the point that the reader almost loses sight of the argument. As such, these essays largely fail to meet the standards expected from a decent counterfactual scenario, as set out by Bunzl and other more reflective practitioners in the field.
These slight missteps attract attention only because they are in such a minority, however. Almost all the essays in this volume prove to be stellar examples of counterfactual history done right, marrying plausible argument and presentational flair in a way that is still far too rare in this discipline. As a whole, therefore, Prime Minister Corbyn is an insightful, entertaining and acutely relevant book, and is enthusiastically recommended.
This is a (slightly revised) version of a review I wrote for History to the Public in 2017. The completionists among you can give the original a read here.