Books: Where Europhobia has novelty value

51st State

by Peter Preston Viking pounds 15.99

During the Nineties, the established genre of historical fiction has produced a bastard son: fictional history - "what if ..." books. Robert Harris's seminal Fatherland (What If Hitler Had Won The War) of 1992 was followed by Mark Lawson's Idlewild (What If Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe Had Survived) and now by Peter Preston's (What If Britain Left Europe And Joined The United States). The key to the genre is a high concept premise - it is perhaps not surprising that all three of these writers are journalists - and for this, one certainly can't fault Preston.

The stroke of genius in this book is that it is set 30 years in the future, with the Conservatives back in power (following a "Labour implosion") and beginning to run out of ideas. The Pound has long since vanished, and the European Union has unquestioned supremacy over British politics, with Euroscepticism all but silenced. In other words, in order to write a novel about the seemingly tired subject of Europhobia, Preston has chosen a setting in which Europhobia has novelty value.

The novel starts with Rupert Warner, a wet Tory MP and Leader of the House of Commons, at the deathbed of his father. Before finally expiring, the father rants to Rupert about how "there's nothing of England left but pots in the curiosity shop."

Depressed by the death, and in response to these last few words, Rupert resigns as Leader of the House. Out of personal acrimony towards the Prime Minister, Rupert makes an anti-European speech from the backbenches. The media whip this up into a major challenge to the government, and before long a minor referendum on a European issue has become a virtual vote of confidence in the government. Rupert, of course, wins the referendum, becomes Prime Minister, and takes Britain out of Europe. The results for the British economy are disastrous, until the nation's decline is halted by joining the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement.

At this point, the novel divides in two, following the events in both British and American politics which build up to the entry of Britain into the United States. Preston does a brilliant and surprising job of rendering plausible this seemingly preposterous premise, but his problem is that so much work is required for him to achieve this that he is left with no room for anything else. The exposition of the novel is its strongest point, with a bracingly swift pace, but as the book progresses, the pacing never quite relaxes. There is simply no breathing space. Right through to the closing chapters, new characters are introduced at a confusing pace, and one is left feeling that the novel never quite moves from a beginning to a middle.

A comparison with Robert Harris perhaps reveals the reason for this. In writing fictional history, Harris focuses on the former, Preston on the latter. Harris wrote a novel set in an imagined historical era; Preston has written the fiction of an imagined history. In other words, reads more like a history than a novel. The structure is that of an ongoing sequence of historical events, driven by coincidences, accidents and civil servants. Preston has genuine felicity with the thumbnail sketch, which helps him to press these events forward at a blistering pace, but this talent comes at the expense of genuine characterisation. The central figures in the novel never really fill themselves out as human beings.

To criticise Preston's pacing is, however, disingenuous. This novel could have been twice as long and half as readable. Although Preston's satirical intent is both sharp and weighty, he steers clear of pomposity and gravitas. Like all good satirists, he wants us to laugh first, think second - and through this he has sacrificed a more leisurely, fully-realised novel.

Preston's biggest stumbling block is that the book's achievement is in setting up the premise - turning England into the eponymous (Scotland, Wales, Ulster and Ireland become States in their own right). Once this has been done - impressively so - there is little Preston can come up with for the second half to top the plot of the opening. During the final 100 pages, the story meanders away from our protagonist and into the complexities of the novel's second American election campaign, accompanied by a tangled sub-plot of media manipulation. This flaw, however, is in some degree compensated for by an admirably climactic sting in the tail.

For a man who edited The Guardian for 20 years, Preston's thesis is a surprising one. His novel confronts the fact that in the long term Britain is too weak to survive on its own, but too nationalistic to tolerate cultural dilution. As we come to deal with an inevitable demotion in our international status in the near future, Preston suggests that we would rather be dominated by Anglophones than compromised by Europeans. The frightening thing is, he's probably right.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?