Some historians get a bit sniffy about the great ‘what if’ questions of history: What if JFK had lived? What if the Germans had won the war? What if Britain had joined the Eurozone?
‘Didn’t happen; doesn’t matter’ is their dusty response. And maybe they’re right for those scenarios that not only didn’t happen, but couldn’t have. In such cases, one might suspect an exercise in wish fulfilment rather than a serious historical thought-experiment.
For instance, in my idle moments I like to imagine an alternative Britain now nine years into the firm, though benevolent, rule of Ann Widdecombe. It’s a thought guaranteed to provoke horror in all the right people – but, of course, the scenario is utterly implausible.
Blogging for the Economist, ‘J.C.’ explores the liberal mirror-image of this fantasy, in which it is Ken Clarke who becomes Prime Minister.
One could argue that in certain circumstances he could have done.
In the summer of 2005, David Cameron’s leadership campaign was faltering. Serious consideration was given to giving up and joining forces with Ken Clarke. Such an alliance would have given Clarke a place on the ballot of party members – which he probably would have lost to David Davis, just as he’d lost to Iain Duncan Smith four years previously. But what if Michael Howard’s plan to disenfranchise party members had gone through (which it was all set to do until a certain website kicked up a fuss)?
Assuming that Clarke would have beaten Davis in an MPs-only ballot, could he also have won the general election? The J.C. scenario gives him a little extra help:
“As opposition leader [in 2009] Ken Clarke had led the Conservatives to a solid victory in the European election on a ‘pro-Europe, pro-growth’ platform. The governing Labour Party had come second, but so dramatic had been its collapse that the foreign secretary, David Miliband, had resigned only hours after his cabinet colleague, James Purnell. Gordon Brown had quashed the rebellion, but his authority had been permanently damaged. His attempts to portray the Tories as ‘posh boys’ had fallen apart when Mr Clarke—speaking with a proud Nottinghamshire lilt—had pointed out that Labour’s cabinet had more privately educated members than his shadow cabinet.”
So Ken defeats Labour and becomes PM. But how does he deal with eurosceptic opinion within the Conservative Party and beyond?
“When a group of backbenchers had risen up to demand a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, the prime minister’s passionately pro-European speech (delivered alongside Richard Branson in Birmingham) had been powerful enough to turn the media against them.”
But, of course.
Then comes Ken’s greatest triumph:
“When Russian agitation in Ukraine had given way to incursions into the Crimea, Mr Clarke had rapidly mobilised his colleagues in the European People’s Party (EPP)… the European powers stood together and issued eye-wateringly tough sanctions against Russian officials. Mr Clarke’s late-night cigar sessions with Angela Merkel—conducted in fluent German with the help of his Europe minister, Gisela Stuart—were later described as a decisive factor.”
Where does one even begin with this? Let’s leave the notion of Ken the Putin-slayer to one side and examine the smaller matter of Gisela Stuart as Europe Minister. Not only is Ms Stuart a Labour MP, she’s also a principled opponent of federalism. The idea that PM Ken would have reached across party lines to recruit her to the EU portfolio is therefore absurd.
Just how seriously J.C. takes his scenario, I’ve no idea. But it reaches a climax with the counterfactual outcome of the 2014 European and local elections (another win for Clarke, naturally):
“Perusing the results tables in his morning copy of The Independent, Mr Clarke stumbled across the leader of a minor party that had won a few council seats in Kent. ‘Is is pronounced like ‘carriage’?’, thought the prime minister, before flicking to the results of the Monaco Grand Prix”
So there it is. If only we’d had a “passionately pro-European” Conservative leader we’d never have heard of Nigel Farage. As unlikely as it may seem, you really can find intelligent, educated and otherwise sane individuals who truly believe that the rise of UKIP would not have happened had the Europhiles retained control of the Conservative Party.
Of course, if anyone could have made this fantasy real it would have been Ken Clarke – just about the only politician who can out-do the UKIP leader’s bloke-y schtick. But, perhaps voters would still have recalled Clarke sharing a platform with Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy in support of Britain’s membership of the single currency. If he’d become leader, how would he have explained such a monumental error of judgement?
Perhaps, in J.C.’s counterfactual, the Eurozone project worked like a dream. And maybe, in some alternate reality, the EU isn’t a corrupt, over-bearing, bureaucratic nightmare. But in this universe, the EU establishment only has itself to blame for the voters’ verdict.