Nigel Jones is a historian, biographer and journalist who has contributed to The Prime Ministers Who Never Were, released by Biteback today (RRP £15). The book is available for ConservativeHome readers for the special price of £12 plus free UK P&P. Please contact email@example.com to take advantage of this offer.
The Prime Minister, David Davis, answering Labour leader David Miliband, said that holding an In/Out referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, far from being a reckless gamble at a time of economic crisis was essential to safeguarding our historic freedoms and democracy.
If you can easily imagine the above exchange taking place in today's House of Commons, you can well envisage how often history turns on the great might-have-beens or almost-wases. A new collection of counter-factual political essays, The Prime Ministers Who Never Were imagines fourteen such scenarios in 20th and 21st Century Britain, presenting the potted and partly fictionalised biographies of the wannabe Premiers whom only accidents, bad judgement or a few votes prevented from crossing the threshold of 10 Downing Street.
In making his selection, the book's editor, Francis Beckett, had one golden rule: that although the candidate in question never attained the supreme prize in British politics, there was a particular moment (or in Rab Butler's case, two particular moments) when he might easily have done so had the chips fallen differently (sadly, the potential PMs are all male).
There is, it must be admitted, a Labour bias to the book. Beckett is a declared Labour stalwart, and only four Tories and no Liberals make his final cut. The nine Labour virtual reality PMs he picks are: J.R. Clynes, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Gaitskell, George Brown, Michael Foot, Denis Healey (who writes the book's foreword) Neil Kinnock, John Smith and David Miliband. (There is also Oswald Mosley who was both Labour and Tory – and much else besides). But more of him later. So, to even things out a little, let me profile the outnumbered non-Labourites.
Of the quartet of Tories – Austen Chamberlain, Lord Halifax Rab Butler and Norman Tebbit – Chamberlain was by far the most ineffectual. Upright, decent, dull, a physical clone of his dynamic father Joe, down to the monocle in the eye and the orchid in the buttonhole, he entirely lacked old Joe's charisma and drive. In Churchill's damning, though accurate phrase: "Poor old Austen – always played the game and always lost it."
Guardian writer Stephen Bates does his best for Chamberlain, supposing that he became Prime Minister at the famous October 1922 meeting at the Carlton Club which overthrew Lloyd George's Con-Lib Coalition. In reality, of course, Chamberlain loyally went down with the Coaliton ship and never got further than Foreign Secretary. Whether he would have been an even worse Premier than his younger half brother Neville turned out to be in reality must remain an open question.
If Chamberlain was futile, then Rab Butler – despite his 'progressive' image as architect of the 1944 Educaton Act – was positively dangerous. Rightly characterised by 'Private Eye' as a 'Flabby-faced old coward', his whole political life was dedicated to sounding Britain's retreat and running up the white flag of surrender. A weakling by temperament, rather than fighting for any principles, Butler's first and last instinct was to speed his country's stately decline: a craven default mode he elegantly misrepresented as 'the art of the possible'.
An arch-appeaser, Butler wanted to surrender to Hitler in 1940 (he would have deemed resistance as not being within the art of the possible) – and as a junior Foreign Office Minister he initiated treasonable contacts with Germany via Sweden. He was very lucky not to be interned in jail for the duration. Churchill never trusted him again and shifted him to domestic affairs where he could do less harm.
Butler's post-war attitude to Labour was equally defeatist, and the term 'Butskellism' was coined to illustrate Butler's convergence of Conservatism with Hugh Gaitskell's 'socialism with a white collar' – the sort of debilitating slow surrender to strikes and socialism that was only reversed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Chrs Proctor, Butler's biographer here, enthusiatically cheers his flabby hero on, hailing him as the creator of the unattractively named Democratic Centralist Party. (Chris seems unaware that 'Democratic Centralism' was Lenin's euphemism for Communist control). Butler's DCP, we are asked to believe, split the Tory party between a Butskellite majority and a reactionary rump, and ruled Britain for half a century after Butler became PM in 1957 – its latest leader being none other than… David Miliband! The DCP introduced what reads alarmingly in Proctor's description like state corporatist, one party 1984-style rule. It sounds horrible – and if Butler's reign would have been remotely like this we can only heave a mighty sigh of relief that in reality he was too useless to seize the Premiership when he actually had the chance in 1957 after Eden went and again in 1963 after MacMillan's departure.
Butler's boss at the Foreign Office when he was plotting surrender to the Nazis in 1940 is another Tory 'nearly man' featured here. Uniquely among the Tory quartet, Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, was actually offered the Premiership on a plate by his predecessor, friend and fellow appeaser, Neville Chamberlain. That moment came in May 1940 in the war's supreme crisis when Chamberlain had lost the confidence of the Commons at exactly the same time that Hitler had launched his invasion of the West.
According to Hugh Purcell, writing here, had Halifax – nicknamed 'The Holy Fox' by Churchill as a punning triple tribute to his title, and his love of Anglicanism and Hunting – accepted Chamberlain's offer, his first move in office would have been to seek peace with Hitler via contacts in Mussoilini's Italy. When this was rebuffed, Halifax resigned after the shortest Premiership on record, giving way to the bellicose Churchill. In Purcell's words: 'The time of the conciliator was over – that of the warrior was about to begin'.
Norman Tebbit was and is definitely more of a warrior than a conciliator, and his tenure at No.10 – admiringly described in the book by Conservative Home contributor Peter Cuthbertson (and on ConHome today here) – would surely have seen fireworks a-plenty. Cuthbertson has Tebbit taking over from his soulmate Mrs Thatcher in 1989 after the Iron Lady voluntarily quits just after celebrating ten years in office (admittedly an unlikely scenario).
After beating Heseltine and Howe in a leadership ballot, (the Europhile two subsequently refuse to serve in his Cabinet after he rejects their bid to join ERM, the predecessor to the Euro) Tebbit, it is implied, hoists the IRA with their own petard and paves the way for peace in Northern Ireland by decapitating the terrorist leadership via an SAS hit in which the enire IRA Army Council is summarily shot.
Surmounting the crisis caused by this radical action, the Tebbit administration, with Michael Howard, John Redwood, Ken Clarke, and even Chris Patten in key posts, wins a General Election in 1991, and goes on to cut crime by putting more people in prison for longer; introduces tuition fees for students, and throws open state educaton to private enterprise. Like Thatcher, Tebbit retires peacefully in 1995 while still in harness (Discreetly, we are not told who succeeded him).
Lord Tebbit is the only featured Tory who is still happily with us (as are Healey, Kinnock, and David Miliband from Labour); and, since the peer has endorsed the book ('These speculations are more than just fun. They give us food for thought') we must assume that he approves Cuthbertson's vison of his time in Downing Street.
And now, dear reader, honesty compels me to disclose my own contribution to the book – a one time Tory MP and a one time Labour Minister (and a lot else besides). Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Sir Oswald Mosley, Bart, PM 1945-1955. Now, close your eyes and let the nasty words 'fascist' and 'blackshirt' pass from your minds. I don't mention either in my piece, for the stark truth is that, had Mosley not thrown a gigantic wobbly and exited mainstream politics in 1932 for the failed and wilder shores of Fascism, there is every chance that he, rather than Clem Atttlee, would have become Prime Minister in 1945 leading, in his friend the Tory MP Bob Boothby's words ' A moderate Government of the Left'. Even Michael Foot once opined that Mosley was the only man who could have become either a Tory or Labour Prime Minister.
Here's how: Mosley, scion of a traditonal family of Tory squires, after brave World War One service, became Britain's youngest MP at 22 in the 'Coupon Election of 1918. Elected as a Tory, he spurned party labels and advocated a progressive platform: independence for India and Ireland; state help for industry; strong support for the League of Nations. Quitting Lloyd George's coaliton in protest at its repression in Ireland, he toys with the Liberals before joining Labour.
In 1930, after embracing Keynesian economics he becomes a Minister in Ramsay MacDonald's Labour Government tasked with bringing down unemployment. But the radical Keynesian solutions he proposed found no favour with the orthodox and timid Labour leadership and he resigned.
In my scenario, instead of flouncing off down a blind alley to found the 'New Party' which morphed into the British Union of Fascists, Mosely battled on within Labour, beat Attlee for the leadership, served loyally as Chuchill's deputy in World War Two, and led Labour to a landslide victory in 1945. Much stranger things have happened. It might embarass Labour to remember that Mosley was a leading light in their ranks, cheered on by such Socialist heroes as Nye Bevan, Ernie Bevin and Jimmy Maxton – but it is nevertheless the truth.
So who have we left out of the reckoning? Who would be your favourite PM who might have been? The floor is yours…
> Also on ConHome this morning: Peter Cuthbertson: How would the 1990s have been different if Thatcherism had continued under a Tebbit premiership?