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.