The uses and abuses of counterfactual history

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.

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9 thoughts on “The uses and abuses of counterfactual history

  1. Neil Datson

    For this historically minded Briton the Thatcher legacy 'debate' has been dire. It seems to have been dominated by two camps. There are the Tory triumphalists: 'she saved the country'. From what? Being melted down and flowing out into the oceans? Then we have the left-whingers: 'she invented consumerism and greed, and militarism, and merchant bankers, and she took away my Spangles'.

    Of course there have been more nuanced and balanced views expressed, but as so often on such occasions they struggle to be noticed. It'll be too many years (as far as I'm concerned) for them to produce any kind of worthwhile consensus. After all, we're still struggling with Munich.

    Counterfactuals? The problem is that there are far too many factuals to counter. Had Sir Keith Joseph not made his 'eugenics' speech in Oct 74 she wouldn't have been Conservative leader. But then, he might not have been either. And I can't see Joseph winning an election at any time. His image was too like that of John Redwood, intellectually able but somehow not quite human. And had Enoch Powell not made his 'rivers of blood' speech in Apr 68 he would have womped over both of them; only excepting that he couldn't have stayed in a Cabinet that was taking the UK into the Common Market. Which brings us to the counterfactual possibility of the Heath government collapsing in disarray.

    Sandbrook actually poses two counterfactuals here: Thatcher falling under a bus in 1978, and Callaghan going to the country, and winning, in 1978, then having to resign. In the first instance Willie Whitelaw would surely have won the Conservative leadership, and become Prime Minister (probably with a bigger majority) in 1979. In the second Denis Healey was surely more likely to have been elevated to the leadership than Michael Foot. Foot could hardly have been chosen by a party actually in government, the idea is just too ridiculous.

    As to the Falklands War - Callaghan, Whitelaw, Healey or Foot - all would have received the same advice from Sir Henry Leach, which was the critical first step. But I think the outcome would have been different had Foot been PM, he would have dithered too long. With any of the others I think the outcome would have been much the same.

    The above may imply that I've a low opinion of Michael Foot. Well yes - as a potential PM. But that's really a back-handed compliment. Some clown (Billy Connolly?) once suggested that you should only vote for a man or woman you'd enjoy an evening in the pub with. Of all the major British party leaders of my politically aware lifetime Michael Foot is the only one I can possibly imagine sharing a drink with. In fact, I'd positively relish it. I'd have loved to have heard him ramble on about Jonathan Swift, John Wilkes, Edmund Burke, James Gillray and scores and scores of other historical figures. But the thought of Margaret Thatcher in a lounge bar - The Horror!

  2. Who would be the three most interesting party leaders of the 20th Century to summon from the Elysian Fields for dinner? I'd take Balfour, Macmillan, and Foot. Churchill I'd pass on because he'd hog the conversation.

  3. Neil Datson

    I agree about Balfour, though I suspect that he'd have an air of languid brilliance which I would personally find rather intimidating. I see him as the sort of individual who'd idly and indifferently demolish your best argument even as you made it - if he could be bothered to. Macmillan has less appeal, but I'm with you about not wanting Churchill, and for much the same reasons.

  4. Post author


    Counterfactuals? The problem is that there are far too many factuals to counter.

    Well, there are always other counterfactuals that can be posed; I don't see that as a problem. The trick is to take whatever one you've picked and follow it as far as you can without simply making things up to end up at a preconceived outcome. Teleology should be as out of bounds in counterfactual history as it is in, er, factual history.

    Sandbrook actually poses two counterfactuals here: Thatcher falling under a bus in 1978, and Callaghan going to the country, and winning, in 1978, then having to resign.

    Not sure what you mean here. Sandbrook's counterfactual has Callaghan going to the polls against Thatcher in 1978 rather than 1979, and beating her, with her resigning leadership of the Conservatives as a consequence. It's not unusual for a defeated leader to step aside, so I don't see that as counting as a separate counterfactual.

    Foot could hardly have been chosen by a party actually in government, the idea is just too ridiculous.

    Yes, you're probably right about that. Similarly, I doubt Labour would have come up with anything like the 1983 manifesto (and Sandbrook makes it even more radical as he has it calling for 'the abolition of the monarchy') while in government. That's the sort of thing that irritates me about his counterfactuals, the air of essentialism, the lack of actual contingency.

    But I think the outcome would have been different had Foot been PM, he would have dithered too long. With any of the others I think the outcome would have been much the same.

    You see, that's an actual argument, of the kind that Sandbrook doesn't deign to make. You'll never get a gig writing counterfactuals for the Daily Mail/New Statesman with that sort of approach!


    I don't mind which dead PM was there -- I'd be more interested in quizzing them about the afterlife, as that would be far more likely to lead me to radically revise my worldview :) Though having Baldwin, Chamberlain, Churchill and maybe Eden might lead to the most amusingly awkward conversation (or lack thereof).

  5. Very interesting post.

    A number of thoughts occur - both facetiously and seriously - if historians (and everyone else) can't agree on why things that really happened, happened (viz Munich, above) then presumably the variety of diversity increases when you consider what might've happened. It all gets very Schrodinger's cat.

    No wonder just one historian contradicts himself in this arena!

    [Inappropriate plural and singular intended.]

  6. Neil Datson

    You see, that's an actual argument, of the kind that Sandbrook doesn't deign to make. You'll never get a gig writing counterfactuals for the Daily Mail/New Statesman with that sort of approach!

    I knew there had to be a reason!

    But as to there being two counterfactuals postulated by Sandbrook, well the second one wasn't for real, I was picking up on the throwaway comment in his BBC piece: 'If she had fallen under a bus in 1978 . . .'

    I am of the view that in that case Whitelaw would have been quickly shoe-horned into the Conservative leadership as the compromise candidate / safe pair of hands. Had Thatcher been defeated in 1978 then she'd doubtless have been ousted, as the Tories are notoriously keen to plunge a knife between the shoulderblades of their vanquished leaders. The question as to who might have taken over from her in those circumstances is far more open. Heseltine? Probably Heath would have tried to stage a comeback . . .

    But had Labour won an election in 1978 they wouldn't have elected Foot to the leadership, and they wouldn't have come up with the 1983 manifesto either. Even if they had they wouldn't have put it into effect. Radicals, of whatever persuasion, tend to be moderated by the experience of trying to govern and force through change at the same time. A great deal of the more sensible commentary on Thatcher has focused on how little change she wrought in the public sector.

    History throws up massive ironies. Who was the responsible minister when the largest number of Grammar Schools became Comprehensives? Margaret Thatcher. Who was the responsible minister when the largest number of collieries shut down? Anthony Wedgewood Benn, later known as Tony Benn. (I haven't checked either of those 'facts'. They're just a couple of points I picked up out of the general brouhaha, so the're open to correction. But - truth must out - I do really want to believe them.)

  7. Enoch Powell presided over a massive campaign to recruit West Indian immigrants to work in the NHS...

    As for Sandbrook, there is of course a direct equivalent to a BBC licence fee for the Internet, it's called "paying for Internet service" and it does actually cost about £250 a year in the UK. He also selectively-forgets that the UK of Jim Callaghan actually did mount a massive campaign to develop a public sector home computer and spread them all over, and it was awesome!

  8. Post author


    Yes, there's no doubt history gets a lot more complicated when you start talking about things that never happened! Many, probably most historians would argue that this isn't history at all and is a pointless activity. Which is a wholly respectable position, though it perhaps overestimates the objectivity attainable in the practice of regular history. But given that Sandbrook chose to take on the task of writing counterfactual, and indeed has done so many times before, he ought to have done so in a non-silly way. He might want to have a look at Peter Bowler's new book, Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World Without Darwin, before his next outing.


    Fair enough, sorry! I agree that Whitelaw would have been an unlikely choice for a post-defeat leader, just as Foot and Benn would have been unlikely choices for a party in power. Sandbrook chose them to make the Tories as ineffectual as possible and Labour as radical as possible, just so he could end up with his 'Cuba without the sunshine', not because he wanted make his readers think about the real consequences of Thatcher.


    Ah, yes! My school had a classroom full of BBC Micro Bs, and yes, they were awesome! They were quite popular in Australian schools; it seems networking was a big reason for this. To be fair to Sandbrook, though, he was talking about a license for personal computers, not the Internet itself, and presumably this would be on top of the ISP costs. I suppose the other aspect to this is that in his scenario Britons are far poorer than in our timeline, so the extra cost would be prohibitive. (It is clear that we urgently need, not just a new grammar for time travellers, but one for counterfactual historians as well.)

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