The death last week of Margaret Thatcher was, naturally enough, the occasion of a plethora of reflections on her place in history. Equally naturally, the value of these reflections varies (and no doubt depends partly on the politics of both the writer and the reader). One of the less valuable ones was written by Dominic Sandbrook, a historian who is best known for his well-received series of books on Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. His next book will cover the early 1980s and so his is an obvious shoulder to tap for some historical perspective on Thatcher's Britain. Which makes what he did choose to write, a piece for the Daily Mail called 'Cuba without the sunshine', all the more disappointing.
Part of the problem lies in the unusual form chosen for his article: it's a counterfactual history of Britain since 1978, assuming that the Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, called and won an early election in October of that year, instead of waiting until May 1979 and going down to Thatcher's Conservatives, as actually happened. In principle there's nothing wrong with this. We implicitly admit the importance of counterfactual histories when we label some trend or event as being historically important, because we're really saying is that if that trend or event didn't happen then the subsequent course of history would have been different in some significant way (at least for the particular domain of history involved). So we should be able to use counterfactuals to think about Thatcher's importance.
But not the way Sandbrook uses counterfactuals. He doesn't appear to have put much thought into them, which is surprising since he used to write a regular 'What if' column for the New Statesman. What he does in his Daily Mail article is to imagine that at every stage after 1978, everything that Labour would have chosen to do would have turned out for the worse, or indeed would have chosen to do incredibly unlikely and stupid things. For example, introducing a home computer license costing £250, which stifled the spread of the Internet. Yes, Britain has television licenses, which seem weird to those of us in countries like Australia which don't have them; but they are in fact quite common around the world (and Australia used to have them, until 1974), whereas nobody seems to tax home computers. So it's a bit unfair to predict that Labour would have done this. Unsurprisingly, then, thirty-five years later Britain is a basket-case in every way:
Britain never returned to either Nato or the EEC, and 25 years later we are still something of a pariah in Europe.
The Cold War continues, but we remain officially neutral — not least because our military weakness means that no potential ally would really want us.
Thanks to their control of the People’s Convention, public life is still dominated by the trade unions, marshalled by the 75-year-old TUC president Arthur Scargill.
Meanwhile, most of the country’s supermarkets, pubs and even removal firms are still owned by the State.
When President Obama called Britain 'Cuba without the sunshine — and with older cars', we pretended to laugh. But for most of us, Britain’s condition is long past a joke.
'The Cold War continues', so British domestic politics is apparently so influential that it can prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet Obama is still President in 2013, so the radical transformation of geopolitics this implies seems not to have had any appreciable effect on American domestic politics.
There's quite a bit to criticise in this article (and it's outside my period so I'm not the best person to do so) but let's take the Falklands. Michael Foot becomes Prime Minister in 1979, after Callaghan's resignation after the Army opened fire on protestors near Hull, killing five. His Chancellor of the Exchequer is Tony Benn, who 'presided over 'the most sweeping socialist measures any Western country had seen in living memory'. The economy collapses and inflation and unemployment soar.
There were rumours that Foot was planning to move his turbulent Chancellor, but they were blown away when, in April 1982, Argentine forces landed in the Falklands.
As a veteran crusader against fascism, Foot was desperate to confront the invaders, even though most of his own party opposed him. But the operation to recapture the islands was a disaster from start to finish.
The sinking of HMS Sheffield marked the beginning of the end, and after the disastrous failure of the San Carlos landings, the game was up.
My problem here is that Sandbrook doesn't explain why the Falklands would have been such a 'disaster' under Foot, when it was a victory under Thatcher. Perhaps we are meant to assume that the Conservatives do war better than Labour. But presumably the British armed forces would have been just as competent in the alternate timeline as in our reality; and even in Sandbrook's alternate history Foot, as befits one of the authors of Guilty Men, is determined to defeat the Argentinian dictatorship (though he make it sound like weakness by calling him 'desperate'). Sandbrook certainly doesn't offer any argument to suggest that they would be any weaker. Anyway, it was Thatcher's government which was running down the Royal Navy, in response to a recession, including deciding to get rid of its aircraft carriers -- the sale of the brand new Invincible to Australia had been announced in February -- and if Argentina had waited six or twelve months there was probably little the British could have done to retake the Falklands. To be fair to Sandbrook, it doesn't look like his reasoning has anything to do with politics. One of his New Statesman counterfactuals is actually entitled 'What if... Britain had lost the Falklands war' (he even recycled some of the opening paragraph for the Thatcher article), but it's about Thatcher losing the war. Unfortunately it's of no help in explaining why Britain might have lost the war; again, that part is glossed over. In that case I can let him get away with it, because it's the premise of the counterfactual. But he's a repeat offender here.
Then there are all the knowing winks to the audience which take the form of lifting famous but ultimately trivial incidents from our own timeline and inserting them, with slight modifications, into the fictional one. Perhaps So instead of Thatcher telling the 1980 Conservative Party conference that 'The lady's not for turning', Sandbrook has Benn tell the 1980 Labour Party conference in 1980, 'Labour’s not for turning'. Instead of Foot's manifesto for the 1983 General Election being termed 'The longest suicide note in history', it's Benn's. And instead of Neil Kinnock shouting 'We're alright!' as Labour's leader in the 1992 election campaign, Neil Kinnock shouts 'We're all right!' [sic] as Chancellor after Labour wins the 1983 election -- as though it is somehow inherent in the nature of Neil Kinnock across all parallel universes to shout 'We're alright!' during elections. Nobody who has thought about the role played in history by chance and contingency for longer than about five minutes can possibly think like this. At best, these are inside jokes; at worst, they're almost the opposite of counterfactual thinking. Either way, they're no part of any sober attempt at writing a counterfactual history.
It's more than likely that I am treating Sandbrook's what ifs more seriously than he does: on his own website he describes his New Statesman columns as 'whimsical'. So maybe it's a bit unfair for me to take him to task for insufficient academic rigour in what is essentially intended as a jeu d'esprit. That might have worked if there had been any sort of explanation of this for the Daily Mail's audience. And if he hadn't written something completely different about Thatcher's legacy (straightforward, and perceptive, commentary this time, not a counterfactual) for the BBC's audience just three days earlier:
Even if she had never been prime minister, many of the changes she came to represent, from privatisation and deregulation to the death of heavy industry and the rise in unemployment, would almost certainly have happened anyway, only more slowly.
With her characteristic blend of high principle, tactical opportunism and populist rhetoric, Thatcher came to embody the trends that transformed British life. Yet the old working-class world of busy factories, crowded pubs and cobbled streets was already dying, while a new Britain, more ambitious, more materialistic and more individualistic, was already emerging.
If she had fallen under a bus in 1978, would Britain today be so different? Her champions and her critics would answer with a firm yes. But I doubt it.
Did he change his mind in the interim? Did he forget what he'd already written? Or what? Well, here's another counterfactual: if Sandbrook had only written the Daily Mail article, as bad as it is, I wouldn't have written this post.
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at airminded.org.