Biteback, £14.99, 239pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Prime Ministers Who Never Were, Edited by Francis Beckett

When I was taught history we were told by our headmaster, no less, not to waste time on what he called "the what ifs of history". He reckoned that it was no good asking what would have happened if Anne Boleyn had agreed to sleep with Henry VIII out of wedlock, or if the plot to kill Hitler had succeeded, because no one knows and it is all idle speculation.

Counterfactual history has gained in academic respectability since those days. People do not now generally believe that history is determined by iron laws. Choice and chance play a part. The latest contribution to the parlour game of "what if" is an entertaining collection of 14 short, virtual biographies by 14 authors of politicians who might have been Prime Minister but never were. They range in time from JR Clynes to David Miliband, and politically from Michael Foot to Oswald Mosley.

The skill is to start with the known facts up to a seminal moment in the subject's life, and then set off on a new direction to construct a story as believable as the truth. Done well, this exercise can be illuminating. Overdone, it gets silly. Hugh Purcell, producer of the BBC series Roads to War, carefully avoids making heavy demands on credulity as he tackles one of the truly decisive moments in recent British history, when Neville Chamberlain resigned in 1940.

In this counterfactual version of events, the King and the Conservative establishment got their way, and Lord Halifax, not the wayward Winston Churchill, was appointed PM, with the intention of trying one more time to come to an accommodation with Hitler. Purcell's hypothesis is that even if this plausible scenario had come to pass, its impact on history would have been minimal, because the patriotic fervour that swept the country after the evacuation of Dunkirk would have driven Halifax out of office.

By contrast, the former Labour MP, Phil Woolas, has penned a virtual biography of JR Clynes which begins with the not improbable idea that he beat Ramsay MacDonald to the leadership of the Labour Party in 1922. It soars from there into a fantasy in which Clynes's understated political skills steered the Labour Party to outright victory in the general elections of 1924 and 1929, introduced AV into the voting system and averted the rise of the Nazis. Wow!

Some of these essays are simply written for fun, others have a political message; an account of how Sir Oswald Mosley became the Labour PM in 1945 has him resigning in a sulk because he is prevented from introducing AV.

The editor, Francis Beckett, has composed a story with the deliberate intent of winding up the Blairite wing by imagining that John Smith did not die of heart attack in 1994, but went on to be a better PM than Tony Blair would have been. As Smith's biographer, I broadly agree. The final essay by his son, Peter Beckett, is written with similar intent. It assumes that David Miliband ran against and beat Gordon Brown to the Labour leadership in 2007, called the snap election that many think Brown should have called, and governed in unhappy coalition with the LibDems until it all fell apart and he was forced to hold a 2010 election.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future